Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Falling into the Gap Trap. Race to the Top and the Proverbial Achievement Gap Discourse

By: Anjalé D. Welton (and Christopher Thomas)

Race to The Top (RTTT) serves as the Obama Administration’s declaration for states to rapidly design school reforms that support the needs of persistently low performing schools with the assumption that competition for federal funding will promote the design of innovative state level policies aimed at bolstering student achievement and equitable outcomes (U.S. DOE, 2009).  Incentivized reforms such as RTTT have far-reaching aims to address the achievement gap.  Predictably not unlike any previous reforms that are hurriedly placed on the national policy agenda, RTTT outlines the solutions to the achievement gap without a sophisticated recall of how we arrived at the so-called gaps in student achievement in the first place. There are serious implications for student equity given RTTT has made such an impact on the policy agenda for state grant recipients in such a short period of time.
In the summit of its implementation scholarly debates emerged (and still continue) as to whether No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) emphasis on disaggregating data to reveal gaps in achievement among certain student groups either provides the visible evidence to force educational leaders to face inequities or further reifies deficit perspectives about certain students groups’ academic abilities (Gutiérrez, 2008; Leonardo, 2007; Milner, 2012). McKenzie and Scheurich (2004) coined the term equity trap to describe deficit oriented thinking and practices in education. Similarly, school reforms should be mindful of falling in a deficit-based “gap trap” as focusing on gaps in achievement suggests that certain subgroups of students—typically racially minoritized groups, students with disabilities, children living in poverty, and English Language Learners—are the root cause of these gaps, versus exploring systemic and structural as well as policy-based explanations for disparities in achievement (Guiterrez, 2008; Leonardo, 2007; Milner, 2012). Simply put, school reform initiatives that function within an achievement gap framework acknowledge “the symptoms, but not the causes of the achievement problem affecting” these surveilled student groups (Leonardo, 2007, p. 269).
Particularly, current reforms, like RTTT, fail to provide a critical analysis of the underlying causes of disparities in achievement among student groups. Rather, RTTT is undergirded by deficit-based understandings of the root causes of educational inequities that may generate structures and practices that could be harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds (see Milner, 2012). For example, the RTTT application criteria sends a federally backed deficit-based message about students’ academic capacities by compelling states to use prescriptive definitions for terms such as “high-need LEA,” “high-minority school,” “high-poverty school,” and “high needs students” (U.S. DOE, 2009, p. 12-14). In addition to the above deficit-based categories for certain institutional types and student groups, the federal criteria is also definitive about how states should approach closing the achievement gap awarding up to 30 points to state applications that demonstrated “significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps” (U.S. DOE, 2009, p. 7)
Ultimately, despite the federal policy’s effort to “encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform,” the way in which RTTT delineates specific approaches for targeted subgroups and institutions and its narrow articulation of the achievement gap causes one to question whether state recipients will have the flexibility to consider equity and develop truly equitable learning conditions for students upon implementation (U.S. DOE, 2009, p. 2). Because of the stealthy achievement gap language in the policy text, leaders tasked with implementing RTTT could misleadingly interpret that they will be “awarded” for instituting simplistic deficit based student categories when measuring student performance. For example, Illinois a round three Race to the Top recipient included the following language in its state grant application:
The systems and resources developed by this Plan are particularly critical to closing the achievement gap and dramatically improving performance in Illinois' lowest performing schools. As a result, for the Black, Hispanic, and Low-Income subgroups, the State's goals are more aggressive, both in the timing and trajectory of student outcomes. (State of Illinois, 2011, p. 7)
Unfortunately, Illinois’ RTTT application provided only limited snapshots of student performance data to substantiate why the above highlighted subgroups would require an aggressive approach for improving student outcomes. As research has shown technical, outcomes based solutions such as the one articulated in the example from Illinois are mere quick fixes that only in the end reproduce inequities and even exacerbate gaps in student achievement (Holme, Diem, & Welton, 2013; Welton, Diem, & Holme, in press). It is problematic for incentivized school reforms such as RTTT to declare equity as a goal when its use of an achievement gap framework only searches for students’ shortcomings and never the assets they may offer to school and their own learning (Milner, 2012).  
While data-informed decision-making using standardized measures does give a glimpse into educational disparities, data presented in this manner provides only a narrow, simplistic version of the story. Ultimately, complex counternarratives to the achievement gap framework are needed that acknowledge systemic and structural explanations for the proverbial gap in achievement.

Note: This blog entry is adapted from research on the implementation of Race to the Top and evaluation systems in collaboration with Christopher N. Thomas from the University of San Francisco.
Gutiérrez, R. (2008). A "gap gazing" fetish in mathematics education? Problematizing research on the achievement gap. Journal for Research in Mathematics    Education, 39(4), 357-364.
Holme, J. J., Diem, S. D., & Welton, A. D. (in press). Suburban school districts and          demographic change: The technical, normative, and political dimensions of  response. Educational Administration Quarterly.
Leonardo, Z. (2007). The war on schools: NCLB, nation creation and the educational        construction of whiteness. Race Ethnicity and Education, 10, 261-278.
McKenzie, K. B. & Scheurich, J. J. (2004). Equity traps: A useful construct for preparing            principals to lead schools that are successful with racially diverse students. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(5), 601-632.

Milner, H.R. (2012). Beyond a test score: Explaining opportunity gaps in educational practice. Journal of Black Studies, 43(6), 693-718.

State of Illinois (2011). Race to the Top application for Phase 3 funding CFDA Number:  84.395A. Retrieved October 22, 2013 from http://www.isbe.net/racetothetop/PDF/phase3_app.pdf
U.S. Department of Education (2009). Race to the Top Program Executive Summary. Retrieved October 22, 2013 from  http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf
Welton, A.D., Diem, S.L., & Holme, J.J. (in press). Color conscious, cultural blindness: Suburban school districts and demographic change. Education and Urban Society.

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