“Black students are failing.” This is the focus of discussion in most academic and educational spaces that I found myself in, including classrooms, education conferences, and community-based spaces. Since I started my graduate career in 2010 in the sociology of education, I very rarely read or hear about poor Black students with high academic success, or even middle-class Black students’ academic achievement. This narrative of Black students’ failing has heightened through the COVID-19 pandemic, with terms like “learning loss” and “learning lag” used to discuss the gap. So much so that “Black students” seems to be synonymous with poor and low achievement. Where are the stories of high-achieving Black students?
The field of education is saturated with research studies and discussions on the achievement of Black students, specifically the underachievement of low-income Black students in inner-city public schools. Educators, politicians, wealthy philanthropists, and policymakers are consumed with the achievement gap, the phrase used to discuss the differences in achievement between low-income Black students and middle-class White students. Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez of the college of education at University of Illinois –Urbana Champaign calls this obsession “gap-gazing.” Why is the academic achievement of Black students a single story of underachievers?
In renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s viral TED talk “The danger of a single story,” she illustrates how dangerous a single narrative about a group of people can be. A single narrative have the propensity to perpetuate untrue and dehumanizing stereotypes that impact the way that a group of people are perceived and treated. The achievement gap ideology provides a single anti-Black story of Black students, namely as “at-risk,” underachieving, and low-performing students who do not value education, and in a sense academically inferior to non-Black students, especially White peers. The stereotype of underperformers as the single story of Black students shapes institutional agents such as teachers, counselors, and administrators’ perceptions, expectations, and treatment of Black students. For example, while teachers’ expectation is a strong predictor of student achievement and attainment, studies by scholars such as Drs. Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Seth Gershenson show that teachers, especially non-Black teachers, have lower expectation for Black students than White students. Black students are also more likely to face disciplinary actions for committing the same school violations as their White peers due to the adultification of Black children rooted in the single story. Even for adults, one can imagine the difficulty of living in a society that views you as inferior and uses phrases such as “at-risk” to describe your abilities and potential.
The achievement gap ideology is a problem definition, that is, it simplifies and organizes Black students into one deficit narrative and treats them in ways that reinforces this troubling narrative. The achievement gap discourse places Black students in an “unteachable, unable to learn, at-risk, disadvantaged, and undesirable” category while ignoring historical and contemporary facts that have restricted Black people from receiving the same educational opportunities as White people in this country.
Understandably, there should be a focus on the low academic success of Black students. After all, they are among the lowest-achieving racial/ethnic groups in the United States.
However, the immense focus on the achievement gap and underperforming Black students restricts us from holistically addressing the academic achievement of all Black students. If we as educators, politicians, and policymakers are interested in increasing the academic success of all Black students, we should perhaps spend a little less time on the achievement gap which requires a comparison of low-income Black and often White middle-class students, and more time examining Black students (regardless of class) who are academically successful to learn from them.
We should focus more on reframing the narrative of the achievement gap as the accrued outcome of the unequal distribution of social, economic, and educational opportunities and resources throughout U.S. history rather than as a problem endemic in the communities of low-achieving students. For Black students, we should also highlight positive counternarratives of Black students’ achievement and explore more research on best practices to cultivate high achievement among this group. For instance, a 2019 research article by Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu reported that the high achievement of that urban Black males at Capital Preparatory Magnet Schools (CMPS) in Hartford, CT was guided by vision-oriented leadership, successful academic and non-academic strategies such as effective teaching and learning and extracurricular activities, structured learning environment, and a strong sense of care and commitment to students’ academic success. Likewise, a 2022 research article by Drs. Infini Jemison-Ewing and Marlon I. Cummings found that high achieving Black students in public schools in a Chicago suburb emphasized diverse curricula and classrooms, high quality diverse teachers, self-efficacy, and resilience as factors that shaped their academic success.
Historian David Tyack’s seminal 1976 essay, “Ways of Seeing,” reminds us that seeing in different ways and having different points of views is helpful in creating an accurate view of reality. Instead of focusing on the achievement gap that places Black students at the bottom and middle/upper-class White students at the top, we should stop the comparisons and truly focus on how to better educate Black students in order to fight against the danger of a single story.