ASHEVILLE — To erase the educational achievement gap between white and black students in Asheville City Schools, Lauren Evans says the phrase “achievement gap” itself needs to be more scrutinized.
Echoing a nationwide trend, Evans, who will begin her second year leading Asheville Primary School when students return on today, instructs her staff to use “opportunity gap” instead of “achievement gap” — historically the more common phrase — when broadly discussing academic differences between groups of students. It is a language shift picked up by Asheville City Schools administrators, who over the past year have increasingly substituted “opportunity” in place of “achievement” in public meetings.
The next challenge, for both Evans and the district, is to get more community members on board with the new terminology.
“Some people view education where there is just a new buzzword over-and-over again,” Evans said. “When you’re talking to someone about the difference between achievement and opportunity gap, you need to demonstrate that it’s not just semantics.”
In 2005, four years after the federal government passed No Child Left Behind legislation, Evans started her career as a special needs teacher in Washington, D.C., According to the legislation’s opening line, it was designed to “close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice.”
Evans heard “achievement gap” throughout her early career, often in the context of what schools could do better. In Washington, she also began hearing an emerging term, “opportunity gap,” which stressed a need for more equity in all societal sectors: health care, transportation, outdoor recreation and even the private sector, in addition to education.
“’Achievement gap’ unfairly puts the onus on the students,” Evans said. “’Opportunity gap’ is a more intricate understanding that learning is the result of an entire system.”
In 2010, Evans moved to Asheville to teach at Isaac Dickson Elementary, and became a first-time principal in June 2018. The previous school year, more than 80 percent of white students in ACS were proficient in reading, math and science, compared to less than 30 percent of black students according to data provided by Asheville City Schools.
Jessica deBettencourt, whose daughter will return to Asheville Primary for second grade next week, appreciated the efforts Evans has made regarding language.
“Just changing the terminology isn’t going to change the reality of inequity our students are experiencing,” deBettencourt said. “But the term opportunity gap leads us to a more solutions-based discussion.”
While Evans came to “opportunity gap” earlier on, ACS came to embrace the new language, districtwide, more recently.
“’Achievement gap’ was the term we used almost exclusively until about five or seven years ago,” said Melissa Hedt, executive director of curriculum and instruction at Asheville City Schools. “Over time, we’ve developed a better understanding that if you just say ‘achievement gap,’ it sounds like people may just have different abilities, but when you talk about ‘opportunity gap,’ you begin to be able to identify all the contributing factors.”
Hedt cited after-school activities, transportation and the ability to have a teacher of the same race as some of the opportunities black students lack more often than their white peers in Asheville.