Now that the tempest over this newspaper’s positioning a photograph next to an intemperate letter has subsided, there still exists the achievement gap that was the subject of that letter. I decided that I should see if I could find out a little more about this important subject.

When I went to the high school website, I was directed to the website of the Minority Student Achievement Network (www.msanetwork.org). Oak Park-River Forest District 200 and Oak Park District 97 both belong to the MSAN which is “an unprecedented national coalition of 25 multiracial, urban-suburban school districts across the United States.” The network’s mission is to “discover, develop and implement the means to ensure high academic achievement for students of color, specifically African American and Latino students.” Besides us, some of the other public schools are Ann Arbor, Cambridge, Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Shaker Heights and Princeton. Pretty fancy company. The only other Illinois school is Evanston.

The website had a section on Research, but since the Big Research Project was done back in 2000-2001, I didn’t read it. I was disappointed that only three of the 25 districts had posted their “District Updates.” At least District 200 had an update, but it was dated May 2003.

I learned that an achievement gap refers to the observed disparity on a number of educational measures like grades or tests between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Now here in Oak Park we’re concerned about the gap between the white kids and the black kids. I couldn’t figure out if we have a gap between the rich kids and the poor kids or the boys and the girls. I wonder.

According to the MSAN, there are four key “strides” that are critical to addressing the learning needs of all children and closing the achievement gap: equity-access/honest conversations about race, student-teacher relationships, literacy and math. All good ideas

So there you have the Achievement Gap for Dummies. I would be foolish to pretend that I really know anything about a very complex issue that involves the intersection of history, culture, economics, learning styles, race and God knows how many other factors. And I do know that lots of dedicated smart parents, teachers, students and consultants have all worked on this problem for a pretty long time. But I also know that despite all these efforts and the expenditure of so much blood, sweat, tears and money, this pernicious gap doesn’t seem to be closing very much. I suspect that the greatest disappointment of the administrations and boards of our two school systems is their failure to make much difference on this issue.

So I got to thinking just why, despite all the efforts of all these smart people, we can’t seem to get the job done.

Maybe it’s because the problem is too difficult to solve, or can’t ever be solved. It is a very western and modern notion that every problem has a solution. Just because you’re well-intentioned, hard-working and committed doesn’t mean you get a good result. Ever play golf?

Remember the Danish King Canute who was lavishly praised by his people as being all powerful. To demonstrate the folly of such presumption, he went to the shore and, before his people, commanded the waves to cease. If Canute couldn’t stop the waves, then maybe the next superintendent can’t close the achievement gap.

Or maybe it’s a mystery. Malcolm Gladwell’s essay in The New Yorker reports national-security expert George Treverton’s famous distinction between a puzzle and a mystery. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The problem of what would happen in Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein was a mystery requiring judgments and assessments of uncertainty. The problem of a mystery is not too little information, but too much. The achievement gap is a mystery. Too much information. Too many constituencies. Too many agendas. Puzzles come eventually to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t. Just how did John Kerry lose the 2004 election? A mystery.

Or maybe the persistence of the achievement gap is a result of white guilt. I’m reviewing this possibility, reading Shelby Steele’s book White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of The Civil Rights Era. I’ll have my report next month.

Join the discussion on social media!

John Hubbuch

John is an Indiana native who moved to Oak Park in 1976. He served on the District 97 school board, coached youth sports and, more recently, retired from the law. That left him time to become a Wednesday...

One reply on “The achievement gap: a puzzle or a mystery?”