Research News

Educators need to shift focus from achievement gap to opportunity gap to better serve racially diverse students

A report released this week by the Council of Great City Schools finds black students continue to perform and test at levels significantly below their white counterparts. A new book released this month by Vanderbilt University education professor H. Richard Milner details strategies for closing this persistent achievement gap by refocusing our attention on opportunity gaps to successfully teach students in diverse, urban schools.

Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms was published this month by Harvard Education Press.

“I believe we have not made much progress regarding achievement disparities because we are focusing attention in the wrong areas. Much of the current focus on the performance of racially diverse students is on an achievement gap, which is an after-the-fact measure,” Milner, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, said. “To truly serve all students well, we need instead to look at gaps in how we are teaching all students and other opportunity gaps. By opportunity, I mean there are stark differences between and among students regarding their exposure and experiences – economic resources, qualification of teachers, rigor of the curriculum, expectations of teachers and parental involvement.”

The book provides a counter to pervasive notions that teachers and students in highly diverse and urban schools cannot succeed. Rather, it demonstrates how teachers and students work through and transcend academic, social, individual and systemic challenges in order to thrive.

In addition, explicit attention is placed on the need for teacher education programs to prepare their students to teach in both urban and suburban schools.

“The book showcases real teachers and students succeeding in spite of challenging and inequitable structural and institutional realities,” Milner said. “Teacher learning and development are based on teachers’ ability to systemically study their practices and transform them. The title stresses the need for all teachers, even experienced ones, to start where they are but not to stay there in understanding issues related to diversity, opportunity gaps and instructional practices.”

Milner analyzes case studies of classroom practices that address learning and developmental needs of racially diverse learners.  Informing these discussions and the cases themselves is their persistent attention to opportunity gaps that need to be understood by teachers who aim to promote the success of all students.

“Milner offers fresh evidence and insights about what is possible – and what is happening – in schools and classrooms where teachers successfully negotiate diverse settings, and where they see working in such settings as opportunities for both their students and themselves,” Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in the book’s forward. “He shows us real teachers doing the hard work of simultaneously being teachers and learners. This is the real stuff of teaching, and it should remind us all to start where we are—but not stay there.”

Milner’s research, teaching and policy interests are urban education, teacher education and the sociology of education.  He has published more than 50 journal articles and book chapters. Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There is his fourth book.

More information:
Richard Milner Faculty Profile: