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?