An opportunity gap – not an achievement gap

OISE’s Centre for Urban Schooling packed them in for a lecture tonight by Linda Nathan called Grappling with the Hardest Questions: Why Must Schools Talk Openly About Race and Achievement and What Happens When They Do.

Nathan is co-headmaster of Boston’s Arts Academy (BAA), a small public high school located across from Fenway Park, where kids from all economic and racial backgrounds can take advantage of the kind of specialized education institution to which upper and middle class parents often send their children.

In a school with such diversity, BAA has worked to ensure all students achieve. In the No Child Left Behind ethos, this means making sure students achieve. As Nathan writes in her new book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test:

For the majority of educators of good will who are teaching in urban schools—many of them, though obviously not all, white women—the achievement gap is a hugely personal issue. The notion that today’s schools are not helping to equalize opportunity in the way American schools are supposed to do is not just a frustration. It haunts us.

If schools are going to ensure the achievement gap is closed, she writes, it will take more than the piles binders of disaggregated data which simply reiterate the problem.

Instead, Nathan argues schools need to

  • frame the problem as an opportunity gap, recognizing the challenged and unequal backgrounds some students come from. Address inequality. So, for instance, admission to BAA is not based on skill, developed through years of private lessons, but on a student’s passion for the opportunity before them.
  • address how race affects learning, rather than test scores. This means, for example, instead trying to close the gap by teaching testing skills, that teachers have the training and time to think through complex learning issues as a school team.
  • plan explicitly to raise the performance of African American boys. For instance, when honour roll assemblies are held, she underlines the importance of Black male achievement, not to the detriment of other students, but to emphasize what they can all do.
  • Find a common vision – BAA developed an ethos called R.I.C.O., which stands for Refine, Invent, Connect, and Own. These are values applied to all of school life.

Teachers and students became involved in the difficult conversation about race and opportunity at BAA.

“If we don’t speak the truth we all see,” she explained to the audience, “we won’t make sustainable change.”

Nathan urges us to think about the structures that create opportunity.

More than artistry, BAA teaches citizenry.

Schools, she said, must be places where we want to belong. The stories she told (and others) emphasized the participatory and democratic natures of the schools where Nathan has worked. (She felt odd, she explained, telling these stories without the students with her now, but cross-border travel does present complications.)

94% of BAA’s students go on to post-secondary studies—and Nathan says there is still room for improvement.

The lesson, unnerving as it may be for Canadians, is that when race is explicitly addressed, when students are fully engaged, and when opportunity is created, there is no achievement gap.

Recommended reading from Linda Nathan:

The Threat of Stereotype, Joshua Aronson, Educational Leadership, 2004.

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