what does achievement really mean?

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about achievement gaps lately. Thinking critically and wondering, is it really correct to refer to the differential performance between certain groups (i.e. ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, etc.) of students as “achievement gaps”?

  • achievement: the act of achieving or performing; accomplishment; an obtaining by exertion; successful performance.
  • achieve: 1. to carry out successfully: accomplish. 2. to get or attain as a result of exertion. (combination of Merriam-Webster and Wiktionary definitions).

The definition of achievement requires an individual or individuals to commit the act of achieving, to attain as a result of exertion, to accomplish something, to be successful. If one does not achieve, by definition, it would mean that they did not accomplish something, presumably due to a lack of carrying out that pursuit to the fullest or a lack of exertion, resulting in a lack of success. It could alternatively be argued that if an individual/individuals does not achieve, it may be due to some obstacle, some unseen force that prevents them from succeeding. However, I think even then, that lack of achievement could still be seen as a lack of performance or a lack in an adequate amount of exertion getting around that unseen force, that results in not succeeding.

In terms of education, then, it is solely the responsibility of the students to perform, to obtain by mental and intellectual exertion and succeed, obstacles or no obstacles. It follows then, that if there is a gap, the students at the bottom of the gap, for whatever reason, are not succeeding due to some lack of exertion or sub-par performance.

Upon reflection, this language can be problematic. While students should be responsible for trying to do well and succeeding in school, the language places the onus of succeeding (and admonition of failure) solely on the students, while simultaneously drawing attention away from the structures in which the students must operate. In attempting to “fix” these gaps, all focus is directed at the students, as they are the perceived source of the “achievement” gap. Instead of looking at the situation as a whole (i.e. students and teachers, school, neighborhood, resources, district, politics, etc.), students are viewed largely in isolation. Now, it is erroneous to imply that when achievement gaps are discussed, no one mentions the possible factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, parent involvement, teacher quality; these, and many other gap indicators are implicated as influencing the gap. However, when trying to figure out how to deal with these gaps most efforts are directed at the students (e.g. more activities, longer content blocks, after school programs, tutoring, etc.) to improve their success and student’s achievement is thought of in isolation from these various gap factors.

But how can one realistically rank “achievement” when structural conditions are not equal and/or have not been equal throughout the student’s life? How does one measure achievement when, for example, students of color have been historically disadvantaged in education, when low-income students have been historically disadvantaged, when rural and urban students have been historically disadvantaged… How do you hold all these kids up to the achievement yardstick, discover that they are, on average, lower-achieving and direct all your efforts to the kids without addressing the structural inequalities that put them there in the first place? (There are exceptions, many many exceptionsof exceptional students, hence the key words “on average.”) Yes, attention should definitely be paid to the kids, no doubt, but for gaps that have persisted for decades, how do you continue to ignore the larger circumstances? The students are the results. Eventually you have to turn around and start looking at the causes.

When people are measuring “achievement,” they are not measuring educational success; they are measuring inequality, oppression, and privilege. Students of color, low-income, english language learners, urban, rural, special needs students, etc. are measured against a white, middle-class yardstick and are, on average, found to be wanting. Or at least, that’s what test scores say. Is it really a surprise that students who attend lower funded schools with less resources don’t score as high as those with a plethora of resources? Is it really a surprise that students who are in schools that use tracking and are placed on the lower track don’t score as high as those in schools that don’t use tracking or who are on the higher track? Is it really any surprise when the kids on the lower track who get fewer educational/curricular opportunities score lower than those given more opportunities? (And is it really a surprise that the kids on the lower track are disproportionately low-income/students of color/English-language learners?). Is it really a surprise that students who don’t score as high are more likely to have teachers who are less experienced or who are out-of-field teachers (teachers who don’t teach in the subject they were certified in or got degrees in)? The list goes on.

This is why the language of “achievement” is so interesting and potentially problematic. The word achievement detracts from the structural confines the students are operating within. The word achieve implies that the students have a greater amount of agency than they really do. Call it an achievement gap and you look to the students to find out what’s the matter. Call it an achievement gap and you look only in the space immediately outside the students to the teachers, the school, the parents, the neighborhood. Call it an achievement gap and maybe start thinking about the funding the student’s school receives, the district, maybe the state. Maybe, but one shouldn’t look deeper than that because that is obviously a waste of time, when time and focus should be on the students. But call it inequality and it puts the whole situation into perspective. Call it racism, classism, elitism, capitalism, ___ism and it puts student success into a social and historical context. Call it what it is and the issue gets viewed in its entirety, truthfully and completely.

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