From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality
The “achievement gap” as a symptom of persistent social inequity has plagued American education and society for decades. The vast chasm in academic achievement has long existed along racial and poverty lines. Children of color and from low-income families have, on average, performed worse on virtually all indicators of academic success: standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and college matriculation rates. This gap perpetuates the existing inequalities in society. Efforts to close the achievement gap have had little effect. The gap remains and has actually widened. This article argues the gap is symptomatic of the deficit-driven education paradigm. Fixing the traditional paradigm is unlikely to close the gap because the paradigm reinforce and reproduces educational and social inequity by design. To work toward more educational and social equity, we need to adopt a different paradigm of education. The new paradigm should work on cultivating strengths of individual students instead of fixing their deficits.
From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality
The “achievement gap” has plagued American education and society for decades (Coleman & al., 1966; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Valencia, 2015) (Carter & Welner, 2013; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Valencia, 2010). The vast chasm in academic achievement has long existed along racial and poverty lines. Children of color and from low-income families have, on average, performed worse on virtually all indicators of academic success: standardized test scores, high school graduation rates, and college matriculation rates (Duncan & J.Murnane, 2011) (Bailey & Dynaski, 2011; Ford & Grantham, 2003; Fryer & Levitt, 2004; Reardon, 2011; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010, 2013) (J. A. Plucker, Burroughs, N. A., & Song, R., 2010) (J. A. Plucker, Hardesty, & Burroughs, 2013).
The “achievement gap” has become synonymous with educational inequality. It not only is morally unacceptable and antithetical to the American ideal of equal opportunities for all (Arrow, Bowles, & Durlauf, 2000; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2006), but also has serious social and economic consequences (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010) (J. A. Plucker, Burroughs, N. A., & Song, R., 2010; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013) (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; J. A. Plucker et al., 2013). Closing the achievement gap has thus become synonymous with removing inequality in education. Supposedly if the achievement gap is closed, education equity will be achieved, which in turn will bring more upward mobility for the poor and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and inequality (Jencks & Phillips, 1998; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010, 2013).
However, closing the achievement gap has proven to be an extremely difficult task. Despite decades of efforts, the gap between the poor and the rich has not narrowed significantly; neither has the gap between children of color and their White counterparts (J. A. Plucker et al., 2013; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013). It actually has widened (Reardon, 2011). The drastic policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the many pedagogical innovations, and the tireless efforts of educators did not seem to have turned schools into an effective mechanism to alter the trajectory set by children’s family background before they arrive at school. Today, factors associated with a child’s home remain a much more powerful predictors of their future than schools (Bailey & Dynaski, 2011; Duncan & J.Murnane, 2011; Fryer & Levitt, 2004; Reardon, 2011; The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010).
There are many and complex reasons for the lack of progress in closing the achievement gap or improving the education of the poor. The efforts and investment may have been too little and too late to chip away the education debt (Ladson-Billings, 2006) owed to the poor. Many of them are also ethnic minorities. The schools they attend, the neighborhoods they live in, and their home environments are much worse resourced and more challenging than their wealthier suburban fellow citizens (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Valencia, 2015). We need effective policies and actions to counter racism, improve communities, upgrade schools facilities, enhance the quality of teachers, and provide early learning programs for disadvantaged children.
However, these macro-level changes (Valencia, 2015) are difficult to effect, to say the least. They require tremendous political will, massive financial investment, breaking deeply rooted stereotypes, and changing time honored institutions and practices (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Valencia, 2015). None of these tasks is easy and all of them take time, time that we do not have if we are to help the millions of children already in born into disadvantaged schools and communities.
The place where more immediate changes can occur is schools. While it takes time and resources to improve the material conditions of poor schools and the quality of teachers, what happens in a school can be changed more quickly. The sweeping changes in curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment that happened in American schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are good evidence, although the changes were misguided and did not significantly benefit students, poor and wealthy. The Common Core and related standards-based, test-driven accountability reforms have also had quick impact on schools, although for the worse (Tienken & Orlich, 2013; Tienken & Zhao, 2013; Valencia, 2010).
One primary reason that the rapid and widespread changes under No Child Left Behind did not and cannot improve the education for disadvantaged students is that they were aimed to improve the existing education paradigm, which was designed to reproduce the existing social stratification and perpetuate social inequality (Au, 2008; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Brown, 1995, 2003; Collins, 1979; Veselý, 2012; Zanten, 2005). In other words, the achievement gap is a logical, and to some degree intended, outcome of the existing paradigm. The gap is used as justification for sorting people into different social and economic strata so as to ensure the existing social order continues. Improvement of such a paradigm can do little to alter the fate of the already disadvantaged at the best and at the worst exacerbates their conditions.
What we need are policies and practices that transform, rather than improve, the existing education paradigm. Efforts to improve the existing paradigm are not only unable to close the achievement gap and lift people out of poverty, but also threaten the future of all children because the paradigm has become outdated in the face of recent societal changes brought about by technology (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2014; Goldin & Katz, 2008; Keeley, 2015) (World Economic Forum, 2016). Thus for the betterment of all children, the prevalent education paradigm must be abandoned and a new one be invented.
This article brings together the literature on educational inequity and points out the fundamental flaws of the conceptualization of the achievement gap as well as problems with attempts to close the achievement gap. It further brings evidence to suggest an alternative paradigm of education. It concludes with recommendations for policy makers, education leaders, and researchers.
The education paradigm that determines what happens in schools today can be best characterized as a deficit-driven meritocracy. It operates like a meritocracy and is designed to serve a meritocracy. At the same time, it practices the deficit mindset and focuses on fixing the deficiencies of children. Both characteristics work together to perpetuate inequality and threaten to widen the achievement gap, when further perfected.
Coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in his book first published in1958 (Young, 1959), the term meritocracy is used to describe a dystopian society that assigns individuals into different occupations based on their merit, defined as intelligence and efforts and measured by IQ tests. The book was a satire meant to be a warning of such a society (Young, 2001). However, much to the chagrin of the author, the term has somehow transformed from a pejorative term into a positive ideal embraced by political leaders and the general public, especially in the United States (Allen, 2011; Celarent, 2009; Lemann, 2000; Young, 2001).
The appeal of meritocracy stems from its ostensible fairness and justness (Allen, 2011). In a meritocratic system, individuals are rewarded for their own merits (Sen, 2000) and social stratification is based on individual ability and efforts (Allen, 2011; Kaus, 1992b; Young, 2001) rather than inheritance. It promises to give everyone a fair chance for social ascendance if they have the ability and put in efforts. Thus, meritocracy is very consistent with the American dream.
American public education did not technically begin with a meritocratic mindset. It started being open, comprehensive, forgiving, and accessible to all children without sorting them based on their test scores at an early age (Goldin & Katz, 2008), which is very different from the more explicit meritocratic systems such as China (Zhao, 2014) and the U.K. (Young, 2001). However, there is no doubt that American education as a whole espouses and practices the essence of meritocracy in a number of ways. First, standardized test scores such as IQ and SAT have been used to grant or deny access to educational opportunities ranging from different levels of universities to talented and gifted programs in schools (Lemann, 2000). Second, credentials or different levels of education attainment have been used as primary determinant in the Education in the Age of Globalization » Blog Archive » From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality: