Achievement Gap or Culture Gap?

Great article in the Washington Post by James Boutin, a teacher near Seattle, “We are trying to close the achievement gap all wrong.”

I served on a couple of committees for our local school district. We’d get extensive reports about the “achievement gap” — how the test scores of certain ethnic groups were lower than the scores of the majority group. Were there big differences? Yes.

But I kept asking why the only measure of success was these certain tests. The admins looked at me like I was crazy. The other parents also looked at me like I was crazy. I tried to explain there were two reasons I asked this question:

  1. Standardized tests test a certain type of learning and not necessarily the kind of learning that is, in the end, valuable.
  2. Standardized tests are culturally specific. They are often culturally biased and reflect the values of the majority culture. Besides, how do we know that other cultures valued succeeding on these tests?

Boutin’s article explains this much more eloquently than I ever did.

Ironically, I would say schools continue to disservice students because they’re so hellbent on closing the achievement gap of standardized test scores.

Students who have to spend the vast majority of their day doing reading, writing, and math instruction geared toward helping them pass tests lose valuable opportunities to practice other skills and learn things critical to being human and participating in American civil society. Why don’t we spend more time teaching students about interpersonal communication or nutrition or personal finance in public schools? Why do we still cling to a curriculum that is outdated and thin?

He goes on to talk about how different groups value post-secondary education. He gives an example of a student who wasn’t looking to go away to college because the family needed them close. As he discusses in this quote, the culture that values individual success isn’t the culture of all the students.

It reminded me that I come from a family and culture that puts great import on individual success. Different people and cultures will define success differently, and our public schools must be a place that accommodate those differences, particularly regarding how we talk to students about their post-secondary life and aspirations.

Early in my career, I had the good fortune to work closely with a group of Ojibwe people. The cultural values around home, family and success were so different from mine. Going away to college was not desirable – it brought back memories of the days when Ojibwe children were forcibly taken from their homes to go to boarding schools. Kids who did leave for college often returned before graduating, as they found it difficult to live away from their family and culture.

I’m sure there are many cultures in today’s schools that have similar cultural values. Why is the mainstream culture measure of success the only one we value? Why is that the only way to get ahead?

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