The Opportunity and Educational Debt

An important note about the concept of achievement gap. Many educators point to the fact that this term describes the discrepancy in the scores of minorities to those of the norm, who are middle- class white students, and as such is a misrepresentation of the problem (Ladson-Billings, 2006; Noguera, 2015; Patrick, 2015; Ravitch, 2015). Patrick (2015) explains:

By using the term “achievement gap” we perpetuate the racist idea that students from minority cultures or low-income backgrounds come from the wrong cultures; they lack the exposure to white middle-class cultural references needed to excel in school, are seen as oppositional in nature, or have parents who are not invested or interested in their education or their futures.

Indeed, in an insightful conversation with six colleagues addressing racism in an article by D’Ambrosio et al. (2013), Danny Bernard Martin’s rhetorical questions depict the derogatory impact of the term to minority students’ identity:

How do you teach black children in a school or district setting when the district and the country and the principal are telling black children that they’re inferior to white children, because all that your teachers hear about is the racial achievement gap? How do you teach children when they’re being assaulted in that way, when their identities are being assaulted and crushed and subjugated and subordinated in that way?


As an alternative, some educators recommend using the term opportunity gap which, according to Patrick (2015), “addresses the real differences between middle class and low-income schools and the students who attend them. It accounts for the difference in exposure and resources in the form of classroom materials, books, field trips, technology and experienced teachers” (1). Ladson-Billings (2006) proposes a name for the gap that focuses on its structural origins: “We do not have an achievement gap; we have an education debt” (5). Briefly, she describes the debt as arising from inequities in education, housing, health care, racial profiling, and government services (10). She writes, “Taken together, the historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral debt that we have amassed toward Black, Brown, Yellow and Red children seems insurmountable and attempts at addressing them seem futile” (9). But she concludes, “We must address it because it is the equitable and just thing to do . . . As Americans, we pride ourselves on maintaining those ideal qualities as hallmarks of our democracy” (9).

Leonard and Martin’s (2013) edited book, The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics: Beyond the Numbers and Toward New Discourse, addresses the gap by delineating those societal issues that have discriminated against blacks. They then review the history of some brilliant black men and trace the inequities that have hampered the success of black children. To help black students navigate the academic environment so that they can indeed reveal their brilliance in mathematics, they identify actions to be taken, with the most prevalent being to include black culture in the areas of curricula, educational policies, and teaching practices.

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