Beyond Achievement: Schools in a Community Context

Posted: March 2, 2012 by meghandoran in Uncategorized

A recent report from the Boston Foundation suggests family poverty in Boston is a serious issue.

We’ve all heard of the ‘achievement gap’: that persistent difference between how white students and students of color perform on standardized test in the United States.  Recent studies, however, have focused on a different gap in achievement: this one between students from wealthy families and students from poor families. It may not be altogether surprising that wealthy students do better in school than poor ones. But the disturbing fact is that this gap has been growing over the past 40 years, even as the gap along the color line has shrunk.  At the same time, as income inequality in the United States grows so does economic segregation in schools.  The persistent gaps in achievement along race and economic lines suggest that economic inequity remains as relevant as ever, yet the path to narrowing these gaps and providing a quality education for all our children is continues to be elusive.

So how can we work towards educational equity? While we at the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project don’t pretend to have the solution, we do think past attempts to move towards equity hold some critical lessons for addressing racial and economic gaps in student achievement today.

First and foremost, we must recognize the community context within which inequality functions.  Attempts to address the achievement gap often focus on getting students, schools and families to do better.  Students, schools, and families however are embedded in communities, cities and regions. In Boston we have seen how communities act and react to issues of educational equity, how resources can be differentially allocated between communities and how there is a further differential in resources between the city and its suburbs. This whole system encourages some students to thrive while forcing others to struggle.

Yes it is important to focus on ‘the achievement gap’ and find ways for everyone to do better. But there are other gaps which are equally important in impacting the ability of young people to succeed. One such gap is what’s called a ‘democracy gap’ – where some individuals, neighborhoods, and towns have access to government and strong voices while others face exclusion. This is a major goal of the Boston Busing/Desegregation Project: to give voice to those that have traditionally been excluded due to race and class inequities and learn from their experiences.

We are constantly faced with the question of what we can learn from the past when the city has changed so much. Indeed demographics have shifted, schools have been updated and the city’s economy has been remade.  But the gaps are still there beneath these changes, and not just in achievement but in access and voice. Until we close the democracy gap in our communities, city and region, it is unlikely education will ever be ‘the great equalizer’ it was intended to be.

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