In her 2006 Presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, Gloria Ladson-Billings called upon educational researchers to shift their lenses from the achievement gap to the achievement debt. Through this one-word change, Ladson-Billings calls upon educational research to widen and deepen the ways in which educational disparities are framed.
Ladson-Billings traces the path of African American, Latino, and Asian immigrant children in the United States and posits that it is through moral, sociopolitical, and historical debts that educational debt must be viewed. To measure the yearly changes on test scores tells a slice of information, but to contextualize the scores from a debt perspective begs consideration of a different set of contextual factors. As Ladson-Billings (2006) explains in just one example from her presidential address, “Indeed, Black students in the South did not experience universal secondary schooling until 1968 (Anderson, 2002). Why, then, would we not expect there to be an achievement gap?” When situated within histories of economic, sociopolitical, and moral blockages to education, we can see that the test scores only begin to represent one outcropping of the achievement debt that this nation and others like it are accruing.
Although Ladson-Billings does not call it such, she is asking us to look at the system. In this book, I am using system to mean the ways in which individuals, institutions and society make up a system of capital and networks. All human collectives operate through institutions and make up a society and system, but the kind of system differs across contexts. In an interlocking system that is structured on the accumulation of wealth, the advancement of some rests upon the disenfranchisement of others. Within a competitive, capitalistic society, there can be no winners without losers, no black market without a white market. The reach of this system is far and deep, into law, education, health, and interpersonal relationships (Collins, 2009).
When Ladson-Billings implores us to consider educational debt, and not more benignly and inaccurately construed as a gap, she brings our attention to not just one aspect of the system, as is most often the case, but several aspects of the system over time and place. A gap makes sense as a descriptor if one is interested in finding a cause-effect solution to a single problem. Rather, it is as though Ladson-Billings has taken us gently but firmly by the hand and made us step twenty paces backwards so that we can see the ways that legal restrictions, abysmal per-pupil spending in low-income contexts, and disenfranchisement of communities and parents accumulate over time and interact with each other dynamically to compose an inequitous system. From such a view, conversations and research studies about which factor we should affect to close the achievement gap are, in terms of efficacy and transformation, over before they have begun. If we are not reckoning with the legacies of sociopolitical practices that have created our practices, including the disparities of achievement on assessments, how can we hope to alter those practices? So, what are the ways to bring that out? In fact, if we are not also interrogating this system for how it rewards as well as marginalizes, how can we hope to change just some of those practices? The practices that lead some to an educational debt are interwoven with the practices that lead others to educational wealth. From such a view of education as a system, the practices of researchers, teachers, and policymakers constantly interact with the privileged and the oppressed, the colonizers and the colonized, the vaulted and the marginalized. It is from this stance that educational researchers must contend with their place in an iniquitous system that has amassed a collective educational debt. Educational research has a less than innocent place in this system, but most often, questions about ethics in human subjects research involve procedures of informed consent (Skloot, 2009), ‘giving voice’ to others, and action components of the research design (Lather, 2001). Rarely are conversations about the ethics of educational research located within a system that perpetuates inequities through that very research. This is where we enter.