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When It Comes To The Achievement Gap In Austin’s Schools, There’s More To Say.

Gabriel C. Pérez

Last week, we published a story called Held Back, a look at the achievement gap in Austin ISD and how we educate students, especially those of color or from low-income homes.

It's an important issue to many in Austin, and we heard from a lot of readers and listeners who wanted to continue the conversation on ideas brought up in the story – and some that weren’t.

We collected a handful of comments that represented larger themes present in the feedback to the story. They have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

The term ‘achievement gap’ blames students.

The term "achievement gap" blames students -- it positions students as less than, behind, inferior, incapable. And it positions certain students in this light, namely students of color, students living in poverty, students who speak languages other than English. This is a deeply problematic term, and it's a stance that we must reject in education.

It's the systems we must overhaul. We must look at the many problems with standardized testing, including bias. We must look at what "counts" in school, and question the white supremacist values/ways of acting/ways of knowing that are often held up as "better" in the U.S. and in our schools.  We must look at whose languages are valued, and whose are not, and we must work to challenge the structures that prioritize English.

To me, this is the main reason why "achievement gap" is so offensive. It's just not true. I wish everyone could spend a few hours with the amazing kids I taught at Travis and Akins. The reading test may have given my students a certain label, but it was so utterly false and incomplete. My students interpreted books in ways that I would have never imagined, seeing things I had missed, sharing perspectives I would have never considered. Students shared their ideas with generosity and joy --  and they did all this in so many languages!

I’m grateful I had mentors who taught me how to see all the assets students bring, and how to then use these strengths to help everyone grow further. This appreciative lens changed my teaching in profound ways, and I am certain that if we started with student strength in our classrooms, the possibilities for future growth would be limitless.

 – Deb Kelt, former AISD teacher and Assistant Professor of Practice in the University of Texas College of Education

Tests aren't necessarily built for bilingual students.

Austin ISD currently has enrolled approximately 15,000 English learners (developing bilinguals) at the elementary school level. Some of these students are enrolled in robust and mature Bilingual Education programs that capitalize on students linguistic practices as resources for literacy development.  Establishing goals that include both Spanish (partner language) and English is critical as literacies and languages develop cohesively in reciprocal ways.

Raising awareness and understanding that bilingual students develop literacy differently is important. We know that the use of monolingual, whether Spanish or English metrics results in students scoring below their monolingual peers resulting in deficit thinking about our bilingual students.  This pushes educators to the abandon biliteracy goals, the purchase of remedial programs and the use of ineffective regressive instructional practices; all due to invalid metrics.

 – Patricia Núñez, M.Ed. Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education, past president and Julia Hernández, M.Ed. Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education, vice president

There has to be a balance.

The saddest feature of this beautifully reported story is the pitched battle between two ideas that should be working together rather than in opposition. These two ideas are automatic skills and creativity.  When in high school I had the worst physics course in the history of the universe but wanted to become a physicist, I started drilling myself on physics problems during summers. Creative came later.

Held Back describes project-based instruction as the antithesis of drill-and-kill for reading. I’m a co-director and co-founder of a program to prepare math and science teachers, UTeach. I developed and teach a project-based course in the UTeach sequence. But this does not mean that I dismiss the 3R approach at Graham. It should be looked at very seriously. The process may be intense, and it may be guided by tests, but that will be worth it if it gets more kids to the point where they can read and write with ease, for learning and for pleasure, and also learning through projects.

There has got to exist a middle path through this controversy.

 – Michael Marder, Executive Director of UTeach

To achieve, students should be given opportunities.

The “achievement gap,” often downplays the fact that Austin, and this nation, have repeatedly chosen segregation and inequitable resource and opportunity distribution for their schools. It’s a mistake to try to understand “achievement gaps” without paying attention to the historical and contemporary opportunity gaps that persist between the education provided to different groups of students based on race, class, and geography.

Austin, long one of the state’s most racially and economically segregated cities, has undergone “freedom of choice,” federal desegregation court rulings, the dissolving of attendance zones, busing, the expansion of magnets, “priority schools,” and the eventual restoration of neighborhood schools that mirrored the residentially segregated reality of the community.

Opportunity gaps have consequences. Black and Latinx students in AISD are dramatically underrepresented in AP and magnet programs, continue to be disproportionately disciplined, and many are opting-out of the public option entirely in favor of charters. Racism today works in more subtle and elusive ways than it once did. Everyday discriminatory practices often occur without intent, and can reflect lowered expectations, deficit mindsets, or implicit biases about certain students and communities.

 – Will Davies, Austin area bilingual educator, UT graduate student

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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