Maria José Botelho: Mind the ‘gap’ — and the language

  • Fort River Elementary School in Amherst. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/28/2018 8:31:50 AM
Mind the ‘gap’ — and the language

The recent unanimous vote to approve a dual-language program in Amherst elementary schools is one structural change that the Amherst School Committee and school district argue will help “close the achievement gap” (“Dual-language program OK’d at Amherst elementary school”).

I laud the school committee for responding to the need of Spanish-speaking children in our community. I worry, though, that using language like “closing the gap” leaves the educational inequities with children and their families, while leaving social policies and school structures intact that have contributed to this gap. The achievement gap discourse sabotages Amherst’s efforts to restructure classroom learning to better serve Latinx children and their families. The language of “the achievement gap” turns our gaze to individual children and communities, distracting us from the historical and sociopolitical factors that have created the gap.

The achievement gap is not something that is inherent to children and their families and communities. What children experience in schools are products of historical, political and socioeconomic practices that have created what educational anthropologist Gloria Ladson-Billings calls an “education debt” for many culturally and linguistically diverse children.

This shift in language use turns our focus from children and communities to the past and present social and educational practices that have produced the debt. Certainly, dual-language programs are one way that school communities can pay down this education debt. But this restructuring takes time and deep collaboration.

Maria José Botelho
Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at College of Education of the University of Massachusetts Amherst

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