Pushing Past the Achievement Gap: An Essay on the Language of Deficit

"Achievement Gap" vs "Opportunity Gap"


by Olivia Dougherty, JPEF Summer Data & Research Intern


This essay, written by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, focuses on the language we use when talking about and with youth who are perceived as not meeting the proficiency in academic assessments. Dr. Ladson-Billings proposes that using the term “achievement gap” places the onus of responsibility on the child, when it is not the child that is failing, but rather the systems and institutions around that child that are failing. The language evolution from “Achievement Gap” to “Opportunity Gap” moves the responsibility off the child and rightfully places it onto systemic and institutional factors.

Key points include:

The “Opportunity Gap” is a result of systemic factors that affect Black and brown students at a higher rate than their white peers, such as:

Funding. Schools in large cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York showed an average of $10,000 more in spending per pupil for schools that had predominantly white students compared to schools with predominantly Black and Latina students (Lombardo, 2019).

Representation in Schools: Children of color are, at times, perceived as “not prepared for the challenges of school” or that their families “just don’t care.” However, research has shown students of color are overrepresented in areas of concentrated poverty, which is directly connected to their overrepresentation in underfunded schools (Potter, 2020). This compounds with barriers to family engagement in schools, such as access to reliable transportation or available interpreters in languages other than English. This directly affects the rate of participation for families in school related functions.

Economic Gap: Higher education attainment is encouraged to ensure higher economic outcomes; however, it is reported that on average Black men make 87 cents for each dollar White men earn (Miller, 2020). Similarly, a 2022 report found that Latina women make 49 cents compared to their white male counterparts, and Black women make just 58 cents (National Partnership for Women & Families, 2022). 

These key points highlight the factors that are affecting historically marginalized students at a higher rate than their white peers, resulting in inequities that create the opportunity gap. The importance of language change is to shift blame away from the student.

Achievement Gaps Arise from Opportunity Gaps 


This article focuses on how the opportunity gap became so significant that we, as a society, have accumulated an educational debt that must now be dug out through equalization both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Key points include:

Access to early education. Children living in a lower-income household are 20% less likely to be enrolled in early education programs compared to those in middle-income households. Yet, evidence shows a significant portion of a child's learning happens through play from birth to age 5. Preschool options then become increasingly important as research shows education gaps between economic classes become evident by kindergarten (Miller, 2020).

High quality teachers. Based on local, qualitative research, we have found that both working conditions and competitive salaries are essential to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers (Jacksonville Public Education Fund, 2022); subpar working conditions and low salaries lead teachers to either transfer districts or leave the profession entirely. Predominantly minority schools are more than five times as likely to have uncertified teachers as compared to those in predominantly white schools. A teacher's preparedness, background, and success all impact the student’s achievement (Ordway, 2020). Students who are challenged in more rigorous classes may demonstrate higher achievement and success than students in less overcrowded classes with less challenging material (Manager, 2014). 

Access to advanced placement pathways. In situations where test scores are controlled for, Latine students who scored in the 90th percentile were still half as likely to be placed in college preparatory classes compared to their white peers with comparable test scores (Ed Post, 2020).

Jacksonville Context:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau about 40% of the Jacksonville population identify as Black or Latino (US Census Bureau2021). Accountability must be placed on the institutions that have historically and systematically withheld opportunities from this group of students compared to their white peers. Here are some ways that we as a community can work to pay off the “education debt” that has accrued for our most marginalized members.

  • Use selective language such as “Opportunity gap” instead of “Achievement gap” in order to maintain responsibility and accountability for systems and institutions rather than the individual child.
  • Encourage Black and Latine youth to explore teaching as a career choice so that we can increase representation and opportunity in schools.
  • Come together as a community to support policies that can change the systemic gaps that cause inequalities. This can be done by attending school board meetings, city council meetings, and supporting the funding and development of an open and welcoming environment.
Additional Sources: 

Black and Latino students are locked out of advanced classes while white students reap the benefits. Home. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.edpost.com/stories/black-and-latino-students-are-locked-out-of-advanced-classes-while-white-students-reap-the-benefits

Manager, S. N. S. M., Nadeau, S., Manager, S. M., Director, J. P. S., Parshall, J., Director, S., Shepherd Director, M., Shepherd, M., Director, Farbman, D. A., Marchitello, M., Miller, A. F., Olinsky, B., Rowland-Shea, J., Coffey, M., & Rasheed, Z. (2014, January 31). Revisited: Do schools challenge our students? Center for American Progress. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/revisited-do-schools-challenge-our-students/

Miller, C. C. (2020, March 16). Public School is a child's right. should preschool be also? Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/featured/sns-nyt-should-preschool-be-childs-right-20200316-vlwuliwu7zgn3cvmevlzvsl3ki-story.html

Ordway, D.-M., & About The Author Denise-Marie Ordway She joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2015 after working as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the U.S. and Central America. (2020, November 20). Increasing public school teacher pay: What the research says. The Journalist's Resource. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://journalistsresource.org/education/school-teacher-pay-research/

Quantifying America’s Gender Wage Gap by Race/Ethnicity. https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/quantifying-americas-gender-wage-gap.pdf.

Black and Latino Men in the Classroom. Home | Jacksonville Public Education Fund. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.jaxpef.org/media/236227/2022teacher-diversity-research-brief-final-98.pdf

Stephen Miller, C. E. B. S. (2020, August 7). Black workers still earn less than their white counterparts. SHRM. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/racial-wage-gaps-persistence-poses-challenge.aspx 

The Century Foundation, The Century Foundation, Vallas, R., Kashen, J., Foundation, — B. T. C., Potter, — B. H., Hamilton, — B. L. T., Williams, — B. C. P., Granville, — B. P., & Moultrie, — B. T. (2020, July 22). TCF study finds U.S. schools underfunded by nearly $150 billion annually. The Century Foundation. Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://tcf.org/content/about-tcf/tcf-study-finds-u-s-schools-underfunded-nearly-150-billion-annually/?agreed=1

U.S. Census Bureau quickfacts: Jacksonville City, Florida. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/jacksonvillecityflorida/PST045221




of public schools in Duval County earned an "A," "B," or "C" in 2018-2019.