The Opportunity Gap, not the Achievement Gap

The following is a statement delivered to the Hartford Board of Education by HFT President Carol Gale

I am reading the book, “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. As a result of that reading I stand before you to put my learning on how to be an antiracist into practice and to challenge you to explore how to be an antiracist too. 

As I read, I understood the differentiation between biological racism and ethnic antiracism, body racism and cultural racism.  Then I got to the chapter on behavioral racism and I saw my experiences as an educator under a new lens- an antiracist lens. “The behavioral racist is one who is making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals.” The harm stemming from this attitude in Hartford Public Schools is that it holds a higher behavioral expectation on students of color and punishes them more harshly when they make a mistake. Whereas the same mistake made by white students is met with sympathy, understanding, and a second chance. 

Along this same vein, I have witnessed a Black student’s lack of effort or productivity in class being perceived as a tarnish on the entire Black race; or the expectation of intellectual inferiority of the Black race resulting in lowered expectations in what an individual Black student can achieve.  On the other hand, a white student’s failings academically are not used against the White race as a whole.

According to Kendi, “Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals.  But policies determine the success of groups.” As we look ahead to how to successfully move beyond a year of virtual learning, chronic absenteeism, social isolation, grief, and depression, we must be willing to address the policies that underlie our  potential for success. 

Two policy areas that need to be examined are that of standardized testing and budget. Kendi says, “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies….The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority.”

“The idea of an achievement gap between the races- with White and Asian at the top and Blacks and Latinx at the bottom- creates a racial hierarchy, with its implication that the racial gap in test scores means something is wrong with the Black and Latinx test takers and not the tests.”

Instead of standardized tests, we need to standardize opportunities for all of our students. These opportunities need to be prioritized in our budget, because without resources, opportunities diminish rapidly. Our students suffer from an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap. Give them a rich and broad curriculum, inclusive of art and music for all students; give them smaller class sizes with more one-to-one interaction with their teacher; give them first hand experiences through field trips, lab experiments, after school clubs, enrichment programs, vocational technical classes and guest speakers; give them social emotional support; give them internships, shadowing opportunities, and mentors.

The staff of HPS contains a wealth of human capital that can be tapped for more and creative ideas than I have time to enumerate here. Invite your local leaders to the table to engage in fruitful dialogue to address the problems we encounter now and in the future. Take the lead on making HPS policies truly make a difference in the education of our city youth.