National Writing Project

Gloria Ladson-Billings Reframes the Racial Achievement Gap

By: Gloria Ladson-Billings
Date: April 2007

Summary: Gloria Ladson-Billings suggests reframing the idea of the racial achievement gap as one of educational debt in this address to the 2007 Urban Sites Network Conference in Washington, DC.


In her speech titled "From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools," Gloria Ladson-Billings offered a comprehensive analysis on the state of education.

Among her main points was that the term "racial achievement gap" unfairly constructs students as "defective and lacking" and "admonishes them that they need to catch up." She suggested the term "education debt," moving to a discourse that "holds us all accountable."

Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of two critically acclaimed books, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children and Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms, and has published many journal articles and book chapters.

The following are excerpts from her speech.

Ladson-Billings on labeling children "at-risk"

We cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, "Well, gee, I don't know why they aren't doing good." So if anybody gets it, I know that writing project people know language matters. What you call something matters.

Ladson-Billings on unethical education practices
I do spend a fair amount of my time in schools. I get to hear many things about what's quote "wrong with our students." And one of the things I hear is that children lack exposure or experiences. I hear this really at the early level a lot. So as a consequence, many of their classroom days are filled with day after day after day of experiences, but little, if any, teaching. Now I do believe that schools can and should offer students some interesting and new experiences, but those experiences have to be tied to student learning. . . . To take kids to the zoo or to the amusement park without some learning link to it, particularly when none of these high-stakes tests are going to ask them or hold them accountable for whether or not they've been to Six Flags, it's not only unfair, it's unethical.
Ladson-Billings on reconceptualizing the racial achievement gap
Last year, in my American Educational Research Association presidential address in San Francisco, I challenged my colleagues in education research to reconceptualize this notion of the achievement gap and to begin to think about the incredible debt that we as a nation have accumulated. So rather than focusing on telling people to catch up, we have to think about how we, all of us, will begin to pay down this mountain of debt that we have amassed at the expense of entire groups of people and their subsequent generations.

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