Deconstructing the Achievement Gap

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The School of Education at USF hosted a forum on the challenges in access to education within the urban education system last week. Four panelists offered solutions towards bettering the system, but not many deconstructed what the achievement gap actually refers to.

Their analyses of the symptoms suggest the achievement gap is comprised of socioeconomic, psychological, and historic barriers that create disparities in access to education.

Co-Founder of the Omega Boys Club, Dr. Joseph Marshall, moderated the discussion. He helped establish the Omega Boys Club in 1987 to provide youth with leadership skills and opportunities to higher education to deter them from violence.

Regarding the achievement gap Marshall said, “Closing this gap between under-resourced students and their peers is one of the most pressing issues facing urban school districts around the country.” He added, “Progress is slow and we need to recognize when the status quo is not working.”

Deborah Estell, coodinator at the Omega Boys Club, said part of the problem in defying the achievement gap rests on “old school instructors.”

Responsible for directing the Omega Boys Club Leadership Academy, a weekly program that offers academic and college prep classes, Estell emphasized the importance of a disciplinary structure in the classroom. At Omega teachers ensure electronics are out of sight and make participation mandatory. “At Omega, we create and maintain a safe environment where everything said is held sacred,” she said.
Panelist Patrick Camangian, a USF Professor in the Teacher Education department, said the solution is to look at the untold histories of minority groups. A former high school English teacher, Camanangian said, “When we don’t allow young people to see the world through their perspective then we don’t develop a knowledge of self,” he said.

Emphasizing the need for cultural relevancy for students in the classroom Camanangian added, “Since young people have the resiliency to make it through the thick social toxins of their everyday life.” As a result students can think critically to make informed decisions for their communities.

Gisel Martin, an education graduate student, said Camangian’s method is reflective of education philosopher Paulo Freire. Martin, an aspiring ethnic studies professor said, “Talking about racism and oppression in education is something that I’m interested in.”

Katrina Traylor, co-director of the June Jordan School of Equity and panelist at the event focused on three standards she applies with her own students: great teachers, meaningful curriculum, and high standards.

Yet she said there may also be a psychological situation that needs to be addressed when discussing the achievement gap. Educators need to “deal with our own psychological gap.” She said, “You can’t really convince students that they’re capable of these really daunting tasks if you don’t actually believe it yourself.”

Whether or not they pursue higher education, Traylor focuses on ensuring her students are eligible for college by their senior year.

In dealing with the psychological issues students may face, Traylor said June Jordan tries to retain teachers of color and bring alumni as role models for current students.

“We know our students have struggles and we never let that exist as an excuse for what they need to accomplish,” she said.

Noah Borrero, USF professor in multicultural education, spoke about how teacher education training can prepare graduates for the challenges they may face in future classrooms. He said that when he was a graduate student at Stanford University, Borrero developed the Young Interpreters program where bilingual students became empowered by sharing their interpretations and experiences among peers. An increase in their test scores was seen after their involvement in the program.

At the university teaching level Borrero said, “As we think about ourselves as scholars and producing research, we need to think about co-creating, applying and communicating knowledge.”

Although the event did not state a clear definition of what the achievement gap is, students who attended the event seemed to reach their own conclusions through the information panelists provided.
Marcus Dennis, a tenth grade student of the Upward Bound program, which assists low income high school students seek higher education, said, “I think a good majority of the achievement gap is race and then the other majority is just how much you put into it.”

USF Senior Natalie Kamajian said, “The achievement gap is just kind of a loose term more or less. It’s socially constructed to kind of divide not in school but in all society there are things that divide us. It just kind of puts people into these pockets of their limits.”

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