Minding the Gap

In preparations for the January workshop, I have been thinking about the word “gap” in educational discourse. As we have discussed many times over the past decade, particularly moving through acceleration to answer the call of AB705, the term appeared in so many phrases that reflected deficit-minded judgments about students (e.g. “achievement gap,” “skills gap,” “readiness gap”). But now, as we look squarely at equity gaps in our classes, we also have to avoid turning that deficit mindset on ourselves. We are up to this challenge. It can feel daunting, though, closing the space between what we think we did, what we envisioned or intended, and how that may not match our students’ experiences.

What’s our “why”? As educators, we are often invited to overstate or hyper-perform our altruism, which can perpetuate an impossible “superperson” or “savior” narrative that is unsustainable, nevermind deeply isolating—especially in a culture that feminizes and racializes stories of self-sacrifice or effacement. Crediting Jennifer Taylor-Mendoza for the phrase, Leigh Ann Shaw and Jeramy Wallace suggest that an “obligation gap” offers us a much more student-centered view of our responsibilities. On the one hand, they write, “[A]n obligation-centered framework requires practitioners and educators to continually reflect on their interactions with students and their pedagogies.” I also appreciate how the “obligation gap” calls us beyond our individual classrooms, to improve our networks of collaboration across all the systems we navigate, benefit from, have been hurt by, and seek to change.

Information: Enthusiasm, good intentions, and even a sense of obligation to our students alone is not enough without a focus point, a tool to start with. Reflecting on our data on a regular basis holds us accountable for racial/ethnic and gender equity. But this also has to be collective labor. After I “zoom in” on my own data to ask what I can do to eliminate any disparate impacts on Native American and African American students, I also have to “zoom out” to look at broader trends across the department, division, college, and district. That’s where our networks, or coalitions, of obligation can come in, to advance questions together and follow-up to ensure against complacency. As we support our students’ success, what resources sustain that effort? Who do we need to be listening to?

Hope: Data has been exploited as such cudgel against publicly funded education, like code for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The federal policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top used high-stakes standardized test results for almost twenty years to “measure” student achievement in elementary and secondary education—ultimately re-inscribing patterns of racism and economic injustice. While the impact of teachers on student success has been acknowledged for years now in K-12 teacher effectiveness research, reductive accountability methods in the context of federal policies were highly demoralizing and did little to create meaningful change.

We do not need to repeat those mistakes. I am grateful that the Center for Urban Education (CUE) cautions about the fundamental differences between a “culture of evidence,” which can dangerously oversimplify, and a “culture of inquiry,” which asks us to engage in a recurring practice.

CUE identifies five specific strategies for working with data, with the purpose of achieving racial equity. Consider how these strategies may be useful as you “zoom in” and “zoom out” to mind the gaps you (and we) discover and reflect upon: 1. Diagnose inequities; 2. Locate data close to the work you do on a daily basis; 3. Ask equity-minded questions about the data; 4. Translate equity gaps into numbers of students; 5. Set equity goals.

Cited: The Center for Urban Education (2019). Equity-Minded Teaching Institute Workbook. Los Angeles CA: Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, pp. 58-59.

Here are a few questions I’ll offer as we keep the dialogue going:

  1. What do you think about the concept of the “obligation gap” as a motivator?
  2. Other than in your own classroom, where do you think you can best participate to advance equity-minded questions, conversations, and follow-up at RCC?
  3. How might you go about expanding your current “data reflection” allies?
  4. What is one area over the past two years where you have concentrated on helping minoritized students in your course planning, activities, assignments, or other practices? Where do you see effects? What are your new goals, based on your latest data?

This is Part I of a post on reflective data analysis and responsive teaching tools. To read Part II, click here.

3 thoughts on “Minding the Gap

  1. Janelle Arafiles

    Thank you for your post, Jo. I really appreciate the added terminology and food for thought. 🙂

    Honestly, I like the connotation of “obligation gap” as it expresses the feeling I get when I see students begin to struggle. Struggling students sit on my heart even when the day is over because I know I have an obligation to come alongside them and help them become successful. It motivates me to frequently assess my practices and how they might be translating as I approach students. Much of the time, I can manage to see the adjustments needed for each individual student. Sadly, there’s always a handful of students that needed more from me. Those are the ones I find it hard to let go of. The ones I constantly think about. The ones that push me to evaluate myself and where I went wrong.

    With time, research, professional development, personal development, training, peer and administrative consultation, the inward gaps become more clear and manageable. Although, I do sometimes feel like that inward gap is like a crack that I’m constantly filling up with new information and change. The crack progressively closes, but I’m not sure it will ever be truly closed up. Sometimes I feel like Chevy Chase from “Vegas Vacation” where he tries to stop the leaks on the dam tour with bubblegum, fingers, and whatever else he can think of to stop the leaks. Like the leaks in the dam, education is bound to leak with human errors, struggling students, and circumstances we didn’t or couldn’t anticipate. They’re naturally-occurring, but we can’t slap a stopper on it and hope it holds forever. We’re trying to uphold an obligatory purpose to serve our community of learners which will require constant upkeep, transformation, and connection.

    If you need a good laugh, here’s the dam video:

    In my classroom, I have been frequently trying to adjust my assignments to be more approachable and meaningful for minoritized students. I purposefully select passages that are respectful and welcoming. In addition, I try to keep my explanations of essay types and prompts simple and clear. For spring semester, I hope to make the size of assignments less daunting by removing word counts and spreading out turn around times for first and final drafts. I’m hoping that by providing more time between essays, students will have more opportunity to reach out to me or approach other instructors in the WRC regarding feedback and revision.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Why Use Data? – Composing Possibilities

  3. Pingback: What Worked? (A Best Practices Review) – Composing Possibilities

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