HGSE Faculty Members Participate in Panel on Educational InequalityBy Amanda Dagg
“This is a solvable problem,” replied Komal Bhasin, principal of Boston’s Excel Academy, when asked about the achievement gap in American education. Bhasin, joined by Glenda Carpio, Harvard College associate professor of African American Studies and English; John Diamond, associate professor at HGSE; and HGSE Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, discussed this pressing issue at a recent panel at the Fong Auditorium titled, “Zip Code, Income and Race: Determinants of Educational Opportunity?” FAS Senior Lecturer Anya Bernstein moderated the event.
The four panelists offered diverse perspectives on the causes of and potential solutions for educational inequality. According to Diamond, a sociologist, there are broader structural mechanisms at work in America that promote a racialized society. “The fundamental issue is that the most privileged people in the U.S. are given access to the best educational resources at the expense of the less privileged,” he said. This system of inequality is maintained through the separation of people into categories, the unfair allocation of resources, and a predominant social ideology that justifies such practices.
“The major problem with trying to solve any social problem is that those who suffer most from it are often those who are most engaged in fixing it,” Carpio added, encouraging movement toward a more collective approach to education reform. Implicit in this problem is a widespread misrepresentation of at-risk kids and their attitude toward education. Kids are not failing because they are unmotivated or unruly, but because they often suffer from what Weissbourd called “quiet” problems: sleep depravation, vision problems, and external responsibilities like childcare.
The panelists agreed that improving teacher quality is one of the most effective and immediate ways to confront this challenge. “By recruiting good folks, developing good folks, and retaining good folks, we can close half the achievement gap,” Weissbourd said. Long term, this means changing the image of teaching as a profession altogether so that high-quality candidates will enter the field and stay.
“It takes people who know what high expectations look like and are willing to do whatever it takes to meet them,” Bhasin commented.
One point of discussion was whether responsibility to improve academic achievement lies primarily with schools or families. “For many families, the kids are the connection to the wider world,” Carpio said. “The schools need to help the kids inform the parents, they are the bridge.” Bhasin echoed this sentiment, citing her own experience with students and their parents as evidence that schools need to involve parents in a positive relationship with shared expectations for their kids.
Although Weissbourd agreed with this claim, he argued for a greater focus on the family at an earlier age. “If you change things like language learning at home, if you work with parents in helping them feel like they have a right advocate for their kids, and if you help parents learn to communicate effectively with teachers, all these things can really help students achieve,” he said.
Diamond, rather, pointed to a broader set of factors that have direct impact on educational inequality, including the government and policymakers. “If we want to address educational opportunity at large we need to intervene at a structural level,” he said, explaining that there are many social policies in effect that make it difficult for low-income and minority parents to support their children’s education.
Ultimately, according to the panelists, we need to change the way we think about and define the achievement gap. “The achievement gap is not the gap between low-income and affluent kids,” Bhasin said. “It’s the difference between where low income students are performing right now and their potential.” Our current understanding of this issue is characterized by low expectations of both teachers and students, she explained.
“What our goal needs to be is the difference between where we are now and excellence,” Diamond concluded.