Language is inherently viral, which is how new phrases enter our lexicon seemingly overnight. It’s true in popular culture (many of us on the team just learned what ‘no cap’ means) and in the socio-political sphere. The term ‘anti-racism’ was not invented in 2020, but its use has gone viral as the way to describe in eleven short characters the work we as individuals and a nation need to do to identify and eliminate racism by changing the systems, structures, policies and practices that protect and promote it. That’s a lot of weight for eleven characters to carry.
The words we use matter. They will always matter. And as our understandings of communities and the challenge they face evolve, so must our language.
That’s why “achievement gap” is on the outs. It has had a solid twenty-year run as the predominant phrase and measure of inequity in the education reform sector, in which “achievement” is refers to proficiency on state and national standardized tests. But as Lynn Jennings at EdTrust puts it: “Any kind of narrative that something is wrong with Black students and Black children is problematic.” And “achievement gap” may imply that Black and brown children are not achieving at high levels by some fault or inadequacy of their own.
Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform and a growing majority in the education reform sector prefer “opportunity gap.” It may seem like a small distinction, but language matters – and just as new phrases can have a viral effect, so too can their unspoken implications. The most recent General Social Survey from 2018, funded by the National Science Foundation and cited in the article below, finds that almost 25% of white respondents (of their total sample size somewhere between 1,500-3,000 adults) believe that Black Americans are less intelligent than white Americans. Please read that sentence again. Of the white people among those polled, roughly 1 in 4 held a belief that their fellow white Americans are fundamentally, inherently more intelligent than Black Americans.
Black students are not less intelligent than their white classmates and counterparts.
The language we use matters. The problem is not underachievement because of limited ability (which ‘achievement gap’ might imply). The problem is the lack of access to resources and opportunities to promote achievement in line with potential (which ‘opportunity gap’ might help shine a light on).