Let’s Frame the Question of “Achievement Gap” to Include All Schools and All Students

How a question or issue is framed is probably the most important aspect of creating useful dialogue. The way the National Issues Forum (NIF) frames the question of public education in its forum booklet, “Too Many Children Left Behind: How Can We Close the Achievement Gap?”, seems to me, actually may deter and discourage the meaningful discussion about public schools that is most needed.

I imagine that most participants choosing to attend and participate in a NIF forum about public education would be the parents or grandparents of children with high test scores, children attending schools already deemed by state standards as “excellent.” The meaning of the word “gap” frames the question, and clearly, the NIF materials stimulate discussion about the difference of achievement scores between suburban schools and inner city schools, between rich schools and poor schools, the gap between the high scores of some students and low scores of other students. With the definition of “gap” framing the discussion, most attendees at an NIF education forum would likely start with an underlying assumption that the schools in their own community are fine and that what needs to be discussed is the education of other people’s children, the education offered in other people’s schools.

Framing the question about public education improvement in terms of the “gap” in scores discourages useful discussion about authentic school improvement. The NIF booklet helpfully suggests three ways to discuss the question — 1) Raise Expectations and Demand Accountability 2) Close the Spending Gap Accountability and 3) Address the Root Causes — but, if your child and your school are on top, what’s to change? Yes, those inner city schools are a mess; yes, principals and teachers in those failing schools should be held accountable, etc., let’s discuss these failing schools, our own schools are doing just fine.

The issue of improving public education should be framed in such a way that it speaks to every parent, particularly those parents whose children or grandchildren are already high achievers, according to school standards. The “gap” that really interests parents is the gap between the actual education that their child is receiving and the optimal education that would most help their child. What might constitute optimal education is a good question. (What optimal education might look like might be a good forum discussion topic for the NIF to develop.)

Barack Obama has said that our schools should “provide an education for children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” This view of school purpose would be a great way to frame a question about public education: How do we close the gap between a child’s potential and the child’s accomplishments? What is the optimal education and how should public schools be organized to provide for this education? To use Obama’s comment about schools to frame a discussion about education would be useful because it would invite an open ended dialogue that would not only include test scores and the gap between the scores of students and schools, but it would invite discussion about many elements of schooling, teaching, and motivation that are currently unmeasured, though crucially important. Obama’s comment would frame a question that would challenge the current aims and practices of schools and would stimulate useful insight from those parents whose children, though high achievers, are bored and disengaged from their own school experience.

I’ve quoted Senator Chris Dodd’s comments, at the Democratic Candidates’ Debate in Los Vegas last fall, as saying that education is our “most important issue.” Said Dodd, “Every other issue we grapple with depends upon our ability to have the best-educated generation we’ve ever produced.” The education that Dodd spoke of is an education that far transcends what even our best schools are now attempting, an education that would profoundly prepare students to fully participate in and vitalize their democracy. One purpose of an educational forum should be to arouse parents of successful schools, parents of successful students, from their complacency.

An NIF forum should frame the question about education in a way that challenges the status quo. The question framing any discussion about school improvement should be one that include all schools and all students. There is a huge gap in our education system between what the system is, even at its best, and what it should be, what it is currently achieving and what it should achieve. This is the gap that should frame discussions about education. A good way to frame a discussion about education might be to ask, “What Is The Education That Matters?” or to ask, “How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?”

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5 Responses to Let’s Frame the Question of “Achievement Gap” to Include All Schools and All Students

  1. Rick says:

    To narrow the achievement gap we need better parents. How do we bring that about?

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Rick, I am saying that we need to define the “achievement gap” as the gap between potential achievement and actual achievement. Defined in that way, all students have a huge achievement gap and, in fact, sometimes this achievement gap is most pronounced in a school’s best students. A lot of children have wonderful parents yet have a huge gap in what they achieve, compared to what they could achieve. And what they could achieve, how to define achievement, is a huge question. Certainly what constitutes achievement far transcends what can be captured on written tests.

    If we can design an educational program that brings children toward a realization and fulfillment of their potential, then, all children will benefit, the achievement gap in all children will narrow — including the achievement gap in children who suffer from poor parenting and poor adult examples. So, I don’t agree with your statement, “To narrow the achievement gap we need better parents,” because I believe that it is possible to improve the design of school programs so that all children benefit, including disadvantaged children.

  3. Original Eric says:


    We get better parents by using proxies or surrogates (mentors/grandparents).


    Once again, we disagree on the importance of morphing the current system into something better. If you want a better framing, go for it. Here’s a google search to help:
    “framing issues for public deliberation” kettering
    Only 27 hits. Good info in public deliberation and framing.

  4. girl from new haven says:

    “To close the achievement gap we need better parents,” says Rick!!! Ok Rick, let’s review your assessment of the problem at hand, which by the way is an opinion held by many.

    Luckily for you, I have the answer to your question!!!
    Question: How do we bring that about? (better parents)

    I think you would agree that the behaviors and attitudes toward education held by many parents of inner-city and minority students would be almost impossible to change. They are a product of their environment. And so the fact that we can’t change them means that their children are destined to the life they live; uneducated and poverty-stricken, right???

    No. Not right. Wrong actually. Very wrong. So actually, saying that the only solution to closing the achievement gap is to have “better parents” is not a solution at all. I agree with Mike Bock in terms of school reform. Better programs combined with higher academic standards would be a good start. Also, chronically failing schools should be shut down. Not one cent from the tax payers should be spent on keeping an underachieving school up and running. Finally, and most importantly, we need to raise the standards we hold our teachers to. If a teacher’s students are failing to produce good tests scores, the teacher is failing.

    The achievement gap CAN be closed. If we regard the disadvantages that inner-city and minority students face as simply obstacles to overcome, the gap could potentially close within one generation.

    I hope you read this Rick. Because even though you’re a bit uninformed, you seem like a nice guy!

  5. Rick says:

    Mike, Girl, I agree with your comments. My comment about needing better parents was to point to the absurdity of some who insist that because there is a achievement gap between large city schools and elite suburban schools there must be racism. I agree that there is a lot we can do in the inner city schools to improve performance. High expectations for teachers and students, dynamic involved principles, parent friendly schools, better discipline all would help. Actually, girl, I have read massively on education matters and regularly appeared before the DPS School Board in the late 1990s providing facts from the Ohio Department of Education to show how Dayton compared to other large Ohio school districts. Its discipline rate (suspensions and expulsions) was abysmally low. BTW there is a way to get better parents. Do everything possible to attract the middle class back to Dayton. Do not build any more subsidized or public housing in Dayton.

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