Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 05 2013

calling it like it is: “opportunity” vs. “achievement”

In my pre-reading for TFA institute (and, actually, in the pre-interview readings as well) the gap of “achievement” (using data like test scores and graduation rate) between affluent kids and kids in poverty was always called the…wait for it…”achievement gap.” (Whether or not test scores and graduation rate actually denote achievement is a whole other issue, which I hope to write about soon.) This made sense,  I thought, given their definition of “achievement.”

We were led to believe, through these readings and following presentations at institute and professional development sessions throughout my time in the corps, that this gap could, of course, be eradicated. All we needed to do was be really, really effective teachers. Poverty was a challenge, sure, but “studies show that it can be overcome with great schools and great teachers.” “What studies?”… “Eh, ask me later. Something about magnet schools or something.”

I distinctly remember a presenter at Institute talking about the achievement gap (as everyone did all the time) and then saying, “…which really, if you think about it, is an OPPORTUNITY gap…”

“Opportunity gap” has become a “nicer,” more PC way of saying “achievement gap.” This disparity has nothing to do with poverty, right? It’s all about opportunities. Wrong.

Let’s think about what OPPORTUNITY looks like in poverty.

Sure, kids in poverty don’t have the OPPORTUNITY to be born into more affluent homes, where (as numerous studies show) they will be more literate and ready for preschool than their peers in poverty.

Kids in poverty don’t have the OPPORTUNITY to be exposed to early childhood experiences that come with more money and can positively impact brain development and cognition.

Many (but certainly not all) kids in poverty don’t have the OPPORTUNITY to NOT be exposed to violent culture, which has been shown to impede social skills and cause emotional difficulties.

Hmmm…so far, all of these opportunities have very little to do with teaching, and everything to do with a circumstance and the culture of poverty.

We can call this an opportunity gap if we want, as long as we also realize it will not be eradicated in the classroom.

When TFA recruits say they want to fix the “opportunity gap,” as so many (well-intentioned) recruits (and CM’s) do, they are actually saying they want to give kids the OPPORTUNITY to have a teacher like them, which, I think, is a pretentious (and insulting, especially to the teachers they are most likely replacing) statement.

Want to fix the “opportunity gap?”

Found or join a non-profit literacy intervention program in the community. OPPORTUNITY is found in community literacy programs that train parents and caregivers in literacy education so that they may nurture and monitor their children’s skills.

Become a drug rehabilitation specialist or social worker. OPPORTUNITY is found in counseling and rehabilitation for struggling families, especially those who are victims of neurobiological poverty-related stress.

Found or join a non-profit career academy that teaches older children and adults specific job-related skills. OPPORTUNITY is found in possessing job-specific, marketable skills that can raise income over time.

If we indeed decide to call this gap an “opportunity gap,” we must realize that it will not be substantially fixed in the classroom.

Good teachers can inspire kids. They can motivate them to work hard and do their best. Good teachers cannot make all children overcome many of the severe neurobiological and sociological difficulties associated with poverty. (They can, perhaps, help some access counseling services and necessary resources to alleviate the affects of poverty. My point is that these things should already be in place, allowing the teacher to inspire thinking, creativity, and writing, while other agencies work to alleviate the stress of poverty.)

When you think about this, you start to see how illogical it is to punish schools for failing to improve year after year, with the same subset of kids, without providing any community-based intervention, counseling or training.

I would love to hear disagreements with this statement.

*The only one I can think of now is the opportunity to go to a high-performing school, which in turn has more money to spend on field trips and other unique learning experiences. While this is certainly a good opportunity, we have to understand that it is a rare one. To get in to many high-performing schools is tough; thousands of kids are “phased out” of such schools each year due to learning disabilities and emotional difficulties brought on by the culture of poverty.

*Also, we can attempt to broaden the opportunities of our students by giving them  access to high-quality and authentic literature. We can expose them to moral arguments, try to sharpen their critical thinking skills and attempt to guide them to conceptual understanding through writing and discussion. This is, I think, one way that we can broaden opportunity in the classroom. But this is still in the face of several challenges: the drive to (knowingly or not) shallow learning experiences in order to pass a standardized test.

What do you think? Is calling this an “opportunity gap” a misnomer? How can we give our students opportunities to escape poverty in the classroom?


10 Responses

  1. elyse yarmosky

    well, obviously as a social worker i love this. every teenager i work with (each of whom is living below the poverty line here in nyc) is struggling, to one degree or another, in education-related realms (several of my kids are not even enrolled in school, having dropped out or been expelled). i have never once thought to blame the teachers for not “being good enough”–because guess what? in 99% of my cases, the teachers are (for better or for worse) just blips on the radar of most of these kids’ overwhelmingly vast experiences. all of my kids have been in foster care for over 5 years. all of them are involved, every single day, in a child welfare system that is probably about as flawed as the public education system (read: very flawed). several of my kids have deceased parents. several have chronic illnesses. several are dealing with addiction. these are some of the most underprivileged, oppressed, and–yes–impoverished people in the city. and guess what? a teacher CANNOT override the issues associated with this inequality–just like i can’t as a social worker. yes, teachers can help to inspire, and perhaps act a resource outside of school. i, too, can do all of that as a social worker. i have the ability to reach out and learn what i can and act as support. however, for me to believe i have the power to alleviate inequality–inequality that is CREATED BY and PERPETUATED BY a racist, classist society–simply because i have a positive attitude and am very eager to do so is short-sighted, dangerous, and frankly impossible.

    TFA is missing the bigger picture here. by throwing around ideas such as the achievement gap WITHOUT RECOGNIZING THE FACTORS THAT ARE IN PLAY TO CAUSE IT (and here’s a hint, TFA–it’s not a lack of eager, young, positive teachers that is the problem–look at your data from failing public schools saturated with CMs for proof.)

    maybe TFA higher-ups should step out of their corporate offices for a second and try to consider (as best as possible) an approach that’s less focused on deluding young teachers into thinking they can fix the system on their own and more focused on the problems of inequality that are perpetuated by the system as a whole.

    which you have explained perfectly, jess. so proud of you.

    • jyarmosky11

      I know you are biased, but I think your words here are important. TFA doesn’t seem to feel, at this point, that it is their place to explore the factors that cause inequality. They are, after all, a teacher training organization. Now I wish that they would actually communicate this, rather than publishing and marketing “data” and screening propoganda-laced films (“Waiting for Superman,” anyone?) “proving” that poverty doesn’t matter.
      TFA would have a lot more friends in the movement if they finally admitted this and worked cooperatively with organizations to help alleviate it.

  2. Travis Foster

    Love this, Jess.

    • jyarmosky11

      Thanks, Travis, for your massive inspiration (whether you know it or not)! If you would be willing to share any of your views or experiences I would be interested in hearing them, especially because you have lived both in Wisconsin and Philadelphia (both undergoing massive school “reform” efforts, as you probably know). Take care and I hope you are enjoying Villanova.

  3. Karen W. Smith

    JY, when you are back in the Berks email me. After a year in rural Kenya your words rang loud and clear. We should talk. Good job. I home 9/10

    • jyarmosky11

      Karen, I would love to get in touch! I’m currently teaching in the Berkshires but I leave for Boston for grad school 8/22. If you want to email you can reach me at jyarmosky11@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!

  4. Community schools are actually very well-placed to address many of the issues you bring up, but, as you say, not just through bellowing about high expectations and making graphs of test scores and whatnot. There are numerous schools that have attempted “wraparound services” to positive result (i.e. using the school as a hub for health care, nutrition, job training of adult family members, community gardens, enriching recreation, early childhood services, etc.) but this requires a real investment in both the school and the neighborhood in terms of both money and interest that many municipalities find very difficult to muster up, I suspect due to a PULL YOURSELF UP BY YOUR BOOTSTRAPS ALREADY mentality toward impoverished populations.

    • jyarmosky11

      I couldn’t agree more, Parus. I have actually been doing some research on wraparound schools, particularly in Boston. I suspect, actually, that wraparound services are one of the reasons “achievement” (as measured by test scores, thus the quotes) is increasing at Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools in New York, which provide a multitude of early learning intervention, counseling and training services for parents. Unfortunately, many “researchers” choose to focus solely on the Zone schools, seemingly forgetting that the outside services are most likely having the most impact.
      In a perfect world, i think all schools would encompass a health clinic, high-quality counseling services, job training, parenting groups, and 0-3 intervention services. I wonder how long it will take for more and more people to realize the value of these services.

      • Unfortunately, I suspect the school privatization movement and certain “school choice” initiatives make it more difficult to implement wraparound services that will actually reach the neighborhood, as, in many regions, community schools are becoming a thing of the past.

  5. Emmanuel Parello

    Jess, excellent piece. Sounds like we went through similar trajectories in our thinking during our time in TFA. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future.

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