from the achievement gap to empowerment

Harry Boyte argues that the “achievement gap” is the wrong framework for thinking about education. It “assumes the point is upward mobility — how to give poor people, especially racial minorities, resources and remediation so that they can make it in a hypercompetitive, individualist, meritocratic educational system and society.” But Harry asks, “What if the problem is the hyper-competitive, individualist education system itself, now largely a screening mechanism for personal advancement?”

I would elaborate as follows. The main policy debate about education is about individual human capital in a competitive global market. The premise is that individuals need skills to compete. Poor individuals especially need better investment to give them a leg up in the labor market. Communities’ welfare depends on the aggregate of individuals’ human capital.

The limitations of that narrative are at least as follows:

  • It omits non-cognitive skills that also redound to the benefit of the individual, such as being able to work in teams (and especially in diverse teams)
  • It overlooks social capital and collective agency as the basis of economic success for communities and nations. If we have a lot of people who know math but don’t ever work together, we will not prosper.
  • It has an implausible motivational theory: teachers, kids, and families must do whatever it takes to boost individual human capital. In reality, activities like service and politics can be more motivating.
  • It overlooks the importance of communities in education. James Coleman started the whole social capital research agenda by arguing that communities’  engagement with schools was a precondition of their success, even when success was measured in individual economic terms. It is very hard to engage communities in schools if they turn into machines for developing the individual labor market advantage of students. (Why should I engage with the school in my community if its job is to prepare each individual student to compete against my kids in the labor market?)
  • It overlooks other educative assets and resources, beyond schools.
  • It works best for the institutions that are drawing the most economically competitive students and faculty. The dominant narrative works fine for Stanford. But what is a local college supposed to do? Should it try to claw its way up the competitive rankings in search for students who already perform better before they enroll?
  • It overlooks democratic and civic outcomes, such as participating effectively in the democracy.

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Rebecca M. Townsend

    Yes, these are all valid points. And the concern that those who have worked on the “gap” that is very real for many people is that some people are empowered from before they are born. Systems exist to help them grow and thrive and learn and advocate. For others, the fight is on from day one. Schools are working toward helping students learn. Equality of opportunity is what schools do not have, and as a result, their students do not have. Fighting for that equality is still a critical concern. Critique of the “hypercompetitive, individualist” system can occur alongside efforts for the students in that very system to learn and grow. Boyte’s critique doesn’t lead to the abandonment of those efforts, does it?

    • PeterLevine

      I don’t think it has that implication, Rebecca.