Why We Should Worry Less About The "Achievement Gap"

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Why We Should Worry Less About The "Achievement Gap"

by Brandon Smith, Senior Mathematician, MIND Research Institute
A fourth grader uses high-school level math concepts as she "plays math" at a MIND Research Institute Family Math Night.
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Worried about the "achievement gap"? @BrandonSmith of @MIND_Research says you shouldn't. http://huff.to/1eni0A7 @CiscoCSR #CSR #STEM
Wednesday, June 17, 2015 - 10:15am

It's very common to talk about raising student achievement. After all, this is where we see gaps. Doing poorly on an assignment or failing a test denotes "poor achievement" and stands out to teachers, parents and society. We naturally want to fix student achievement. But here's the twist: The achievement gap is not the root problem, and we hurt our students and ourselves by focusing on it.

More than half of all fourth graders are not proficient in math, and the disparity among groups is alarming -- 54% of white students and 64% of Asian/Pacific Islanders are proficient in math, compared to 18% of blacks and 26% of Hispanics, according to the Nation's Report Card. The gap widens as students progress through school.

The achievement gap is just a symptom of a bigger problem... a dissonance between the rich mathematical experiences students should have than what they actually have. This is what I've started calling the "experience gap." For example, when we teach children division with fractions, we have them memorize "Ours not to reason why ... just invert and multiply!" We don't ask kids to understand the why and how this works -- we discourage them from even thinking about it.

Our intentions are good, but we're focusing on the wrong thing, and it's hurting students. If students can flip and multiply, they can pass the test -- the standard sign of academic achievement. Our worry over the achievement gap puts students into narrow contexts of thought full of vast, isolated content and speedy tricks. Unlike the cereal, tricks aren't for kids.

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