We’ve been looking at the so-called “achievement gap” for decades and too often misreading it as a sign that some students innately do better, perform better or are just somehow better than others. Depending on your environment, that’s not something you might say out loud or take seriously as an idea. But it could still be an idea that you subconsciously accept.
“We’ll never be able to catch them up”
“These kids just won’t get it”
“Some parents just don’t care about education”
Those are ideas that can take hold when you don’t push back on them. Because when you consider the wide range of challenges our students can face – challenges that disrupt their studies, that lower their confidence, that prevent them from achieving their potential – you might start thinking the “achievement gap” is just a fact of life. You might think that it’s just the normal way of things. Worse, you might start expecting your Black students, Hispanic students or other non-white students to be the lowest achievers. At that point, you’re at risk of giving up on your mission to make a difference in all your students’ lives.
Now, the challenges our students face are real. But so is their ability to excel – and it’s up to us to surround every student with an unshakable belief in their abilities, especially when they can’t see it for themselves. But in order to do that work as leaders, we need to study.
For two years now our team has held book studies outside of school hours to understand the achievement gap and why it exists, so that we stop ourselves from accepting it as normal. Notice that I call these book “studies” and not a book “club.” I think focusing on the “study” has really changed our team’s attitude and challenged us to dig into this important work.
Build a Foundation of Trust
Initially, when we started having these book studies,, we definitely held back some of our thoughts and feelings, because again – we needed to build a higher level of trust to be honest about any harmful assumptions or misperceptions we’d taken on. That’s why it’s so important to start with a small and interested group, take the time to warm up to one another, and practice being honest about our assumptions. Over time, we built a foundation of trust that we could rely on and model for new members of the study group.
Share the Leadership Role
It’s very important that the decisions about our study material, how we approach it and how we structure our discussions aren’t just coming from me as the principal. If the group feels like I’m personally forcing them to be there, or that I have the most control of our time together, that’s not going to help us. Instead, it’s going to work against our effort to build that shared belief in every student. So it’s much more effective to empower everyone in the group to facilitate and share the leadership role.
Make Space For Deep Conversations
Initially, we had pre-formulated questions and guides that went along with each book. It was a more formal structure. But then again over time, we saw that we were highlighting the ideas that really sparked our own interests more than any recommended discussion topics. With the foundation of trust that we established, we were able to start having more organic and energetic conversations that followed our interests and included what we were actually observing among our students.
As we continued to have these book studies, guess what? We started having these deep, meaningful conversations about redlining, housing affordability, generational poverty and how those forces have impacted our school community and the work we do in our building. That has allowed us to take apart the stories we absorbed or created in our minds that didn’t serve our students, or that didn’t hold them and their families in the highest esteem. We were able to push back on the harmful narratives around the “achievement gap” and the way those narratives can wear us down and hurt our belief in our students. Removing those narratives and strengthening our belief that every student can in fact excel, that continues to be some of the most vital work we do every day.
Otis Kitchen’s book recommendations:
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