You can’t see what you don’t look at.
The structural blind spots, caused by our nation’s unresolved historical legacies, have created a myopic and misguided understanding of the achievement gap which unjustly holds Black, Brown, and low-income students accountable and not the systems that directly & indirectly impede their progress.
Most popular conceptualizations of the academic performance gap are deficit-based, race neutral arguments that have led to misaligned and unthoughtful interventions focused on fixing students, as if they we’re broken, and further disconnecting them from their communities and families (e.g., longer school hours, behavior correction, “no excuses” charters, restrictive learning environments, zero tolerance, law enforcement, and arming teachers with guns).
Achievement gap framings and interventions are misguided, as they have been shaped by a non-systemic and ahistorical understanding of inequity. As a result, policies and reforms have been made to fix fish (e.g., students of color) and not clean the toxic lake (e.g., a broken school system) that is making the fish sick.
This myopic understanding of inequity in school systems has led to and been reinforced by data collection, assessment, and storage practices that mirror this limited view of educational disparities.
Indeed, to extend the aforementioned metaphor we have been measuring the fish and not the quality of the water. This has forced education advocates to use problematic measures of individual students, and not rely on measures that assess the system and its oppressive policies and practices. This approach to data collection has been obscuring our view of the real problem: systemic and historic racial oppression.
The following components clarify how our current data collection practices hamper advocacy efforts to dismantle our current system:
Racially Insensitive Measures: The measures currently used to assess racial equity in schools are largely summative, in that they are only sensitive to actions that have terminal impact (i.e., out of school suspension, final test scores, special education placement). Summative measures alone are both insufficient in capturing racially inequitable student experiences, and do not provide the diagnostic value to elucidate changes that could be made to the school environment and culture, prior to terminal impacts.
Non-Democratic Data Capture and Storing Practices: Often times the data that might be most illustrative of the way racial inequality is impacting student performance is owned and collected by school systems. This practice most often results in data that is not only inaccessible to the parents, advocates, and students most capable of holding those schools accountable, but also these stakeholders have no control over what data is collected in the first place.
Non-Systemic Measures of Systemic Issues: There is a lack of differentiation between measures that assess a school’s institutional commitment to racial equity and those that assess the ability of individual teachers to offer a culturally responsive education to the students they serve. We have found that progressive school leaders are often willing to commit to training teachers in more equitable instructional practices. However, these same leaders are frequently unaware of the institutional commitments necessary to establish the conditions that would encourage and hold educators accountable to use those instructional practices across a school or a school system.
Unattractive, Outdated, and Decontextualized Data Visualization: The data that is available to demonstrate the inequities in the American school system are often buried in hard to access reports, are regionally focused, and unattractive to look at. Even more, for the average lay person the data is often presented in such raw form that although disparities are clear the impact of those disparities may be difficult to frame. For example, suspension data is perhaps better framed as instructional time loss.
Due to the aforementioned challenges, communities and advocacy organizations have been handcuffed in their ability to be fully effective in their goal to dismantle inequitable issues at a systems level and ensure all schools are able to both provide every student with the resources and educational rigor they need at the right moment in their education and create compassionate learning environments that are affirming of students’ cultural and linguistic heritage.