In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks associated with in-person learning, every weekday at 8:30AM students at the New Haven high school where I teach join our online advisory before virtually attending their remaining classes for the day. Kenneth, a senior and one of my advisees, logs on from his cell phone. He is a passenger in a coworker’s car, both of them clad in orange vests after their night shift at the Amazon warehouse. Kenneth works there five days a week from 3:15AM – 8:15AM, attends school online, and then goes to his second job at Walmart. As he finishes his final year of high school, Kenneth is working about 55 hours a week.
Kenneth and his peers are the subjects of articles like Richard Rothstein’s “Why covid-19 will ‘explode’ existing academic achievement gaps,” their voices absent, but their hardships made to carry the argument, while the root causes of the “achievement gap” remain unaddressed. In recent months, a deluge of such articles have been published, invoking the “widening achievement gap” and “suffering” of “low-income, black and Hispanic students” under a remote learning model — often ignoring the heightened risks of in-person schooling for these same students and their families.
Consulting firm McKinsey and Company has been singing the same tune, claiming “The hurt could last a lifetime.” The hurt they are referencing is not the loss of life, which has been disproportionately high among people of color, with even greater racial disparity for Black, Indigneous, and Latinx youth who account for 75% of COVID-19 deaths in people under 21 years of age, despite representing only 41% of that population. Nor is the hurt even to the youth themselves. Rather, the “lifetime” hurt, according to McKinsey, is to their “productivity” as future workers: “The achievement gap costs the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The notion of an “achievement gap” emerged in the mid-1960s and has transfixed reformers for nearly 60 years. One of the earliest and most influential studies of a racialized “gap in achievement” comes from sociologist James C. Coleman’s 1966 report, which, in the same vernacular as Daniel P. Moynihan, blamed Black families for their children’s lower test scores. Like the Moynihan Report, the “achievement gap” has advanced a framework for understanding inequality that is predicated on hollow data points and reformist solutions, which veil the actual causes of educational inequality: racial capitalism.
For decades the “achievement gap” has been used to justify opening “no excuses” charter schools, infamous for punitive and abusive treatment of students of color, paternalistic policies for parents, and anti-union attacks on overworked teachers. Although it has galvanized plenty of hand-wringing and billions of dollars in philanthropic funding, this “achievement gap” analytic and the reforms it recommends have done little to address racism, poverty, or educational inequality — nevermind close the “gap.”
Shifting the conversation from the “achievement gap” to its systemic root causes, Gloria Ladson-Billings has urged education researchers to recognize the consequences of accumulating education debt: “I am arguing that the historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society have created an education debt.” Building on this concept in her 2019 book, We Want to Do More Than Survive, Bettina Love compares the “achievement gap” to sharecropping: “Dark students and their families are sharecroppers, never able to make up the cost or close the gap because they are learning in a state of perpetual debt with no relief in sight.”
This education debt comes in many forms. There’s the debt owed to youth of color, whose school districts receive $23 billion less in funding than those serving predominantly white students. Carrying an even greater burden is the debt that originates beyond the walls of schools, but which permeates them.
Reflecting on her family’s struggles, which have driven her to get a frontline job mid-pandemic, one of my students, Valentina, ended our recent conversation with: “Capitalism has pushed this live-to-work mentality. It’s just a continuous cycle of paying our debts—of labor just to make ends meet.”
At the school where I teach, the vast majority of students — 92% of whom are youth of color and 75% of whom qualify for free-and-reduced lunch — are inheriting this debt, now exacerbated by the pandemic. The idea that in-person schooling could somehow turn this debt into credit is an illusion that pretends the reach of racial capitalism stops at the school door.
Nearly all of my 12th graders are working essential jobs, the majority in food service, but also in warehouses, grocery stores, and retail shops; most are paid minimum wage. Like many of her peers, Cheyenne, who works at a restaurant, talked about the risks she faces at work: “My bosses aren’t protecting me. As long as I’ve been working there [since May], they’ve only taken everyone’s temperature once. There’s no room to social distance. They don’t really care too much about that.”
Robin Kelley’s words from his 2017 talk, “What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter?” come to mind: “It’s no accident that the global division of labor reflects this history [of white supremacy and capitalism] with the lowest paid and most precarious workers in the global economy being descendants of slaves, descendants of the colonized, descendants of the dispossessed.”
The violence of racial capitalism and its impact on Black, Indigneous, and Latinx students has long been a brutal factor shaping the “achievement gap.” How could working 55 hours a week not impact a student’s ability to “achieve,” especially when measured by biased standardized tests with eugenicist roots? And how can education reformers continue to propose longer school days, data dashboards, iPads and internet access as anything more than caulk over a chasm?
Throughout this pandemic, transnational corporations and white parents alike have been sounding the “achievement gap” alarm under the guise of concern for “voiceless” Black and Brown children, but in service of their own neoliberal agendas. The students they speak of, however, can speak for themselves — and as they struggle through this time, with a fierce resilience that no young person should be forced to cultivate, their realities and their words call for more radical solutions.
When the pandemic hit New Haven, Kenneth and his circle of friends were all already working while attending school. Throughout his junior year, Kenneth’s job at Walmart often pulled him out of school early so he could clock in on time. In August, at midnight on his 18th birthday, Kenneth applied to Amazon, received a response within six hours, and soon began his first shift. He works to support his family, including his mother who is unable to work due to a disability. About the struggle of balancing school while working so much, Kenneth explained: “Poverty is already enough, something that’s not your fault, but once you’re in it, you do what you have to do to get by.”
Cheyenne began working when she was 14 years old, but when the pandemic escalated she transitioned to a job at a local restaurant that offered more hours. During the summer she worked 12 hours every day. Since school began, she works from 3-10PM on school days and 10-10PM on weekends, just shy of 60 hours per week. Her schedule is just beyond the bounds of Connecticut state law, which permits 16 and 17-year-olds to work six hours each weekday and eight hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The economic rationale that fuels such laws is the same motivation now driving a return to in-person schooling. And not surprisingly, it is the very same people who stand to benefit and lose from both.
Just 45 minutes away, in Darien, one of the country’s wealthiest towns, students are not considering working full-time while attending school. A Darien high school teacher surveyed his students and found that: although during the summers, some work at yacht clubs, golf courses, and as gate attendants, “few students at Darien have jobs, especially during the school year. I can’t think of a single kid that I know of who is working right now or has been since the pandemic hit.”
Valentina took on a job during the pandemic to help her family with medical bills. Her father’s chronic illness, worsened after an injury at his welding job, has meant frequent doctors’ appointments and six surgeries in one year. Valentina told me, “A parent doesn’t want their kid to have to choose between work and school. My parents told me that if work is becoming too much for school, they’re going to make me quit. But I’ve seen them struggling for too long. And I’ve seen the difference between me not having a job and me having a job — and I’m not going back to not having a job.”
Last month, New Haven Public Schools surveyed students and families to determine who would go back to in-person schooling and who would continue learning remotely. Cheyenne, Kenneth, and Valentina, along with the majority of my advisees, all opted to remain remote. Nationally, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 76% of parents of color, compared to 51% of white parents, believe: “It is better to open schools later to ensure the risk of getting coronavirus is as low as possible, even if it means some students will fall behind academically.”
Meanwhile, in articles and op-eds, on social media and at meetings, white and elite parents — those whose children do not need to work to support the family and who can themselves work from home — presume to speak on behalf of families of color. They invoke, in the words of one mother giving public testimony at a recent New Haven Board of Education meeting, “children who are not mine, who will never ever catch up from the loss of in-person education” in their advocacy for exactly the opposite of what these children and their parents are overwhelmingly demanding. This gesture is a familiar one, long employed by conservatives, moderates, and liberals to drive policies that serve the speaker, rather than the people they claim to speak for. So effective is the mythology of the “achievement gap” that without even speaking the phrase, the message rings loudly.
As many continue to disavow standardized tests, admitting they measure wealth rather than intelligence, we must also discard their offspring. The problem we face is not an “achievement gap;” it is a racial capitalist chasm. To call it by its real name, though, must be more than a symbolic shift in language. It must be a declaration that liberal reforms never have been and never will be the answer. Only systemic changes that alter the material realities of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx youth and their families can begin to bridge this chasm.
Until then, the use of the “achievement gap” will simply be self-referential, revealing more about those who instrumentalize the term than about the students they claim to help. To put it another way, the “achievement gap” measures only the extent to which its adherents are resigned to leaving in place the systems that keep educational equity always out of reach.
 All students are identified not by their real names but by a pseudonym of their choice.