Monday, June 27, 2011

Opportunities, Not Achievement: An Interview With Richard Milner

By Sam Piha

Richard Milner is the author of "Start Where You Are But Don't Stay There" and an Associate Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University. His recent Commentary in EdWeek (May 6, 2011) "Let's Focus on Gaps in Opportunity, Not Achievement" inspired us to ask him more about overcoming the opportunity gap.

Q: In your EdWeek commentary, you differentiate between the opportunity gap and the achievement gap. Can you briefly explain what you mean by this?

A: I mean that we sometimes place so much emphasis on the outcome (mainly a test score) that we do not necessarily spend enough time thinking about why disparities exist. What opportunities do students have in different social contexts to succeed? Do they have qualified teachers? How many years of teaching experience do their teachers have? What resources are available to students and teachers? How supportive are administrators to teachers and students? In short, what is the opportunity structure that shape student performance on these examinations? I believe we need to focus more on the opportunities, the processes and structures, that shape students’ success and failures.  

Q: Do you consider out-of-school programs a viable way to close the opportunity gap? Can you explain why or why not? 
A: We know that students can lose important learning and growth over the summer months for instance. Out-of-school programs can make a huge difference in terms of helping students build knowledge in their courses and also their social and communication skills. 

I would urge programs to continue developing evidence of their usefulness, not only related to academics but other important skills necessary for students to succeed in society such as social skills, study skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and perhaps most importantly social justice orientations and skills. It is critical that students feel empowered to change and challenge negative and inequitable situations that show up in their communities.  

Q: If afterschool programs want to be serious about closing the opportunity gap, what should they be thinking about or doing? 
A: The reality is that teachers and administrators are socialized (and almost forced) to think about achievement in a somewhat myopic manner: results on tests. It is important to note that I am not suggesting that teachers, administrators or afterschool personnel not focus on achievement scores. They must be concerned about achievement scores due to the bureaucracy and expectations placed upon them. However, I also believe that afterschool programs should be looking at the opportunities and resources that students have or not in order to address students’ needs. For instance, if students do not have “the same” or an equitable share of resources as their classmates with more resources, how can out-of-school organizations bridge the gap and provide those resources, such as with computers or even the internet. In other words, how can afterschool programs “level the playing field?” 

Q: In the Learning in Afterschool Project, we promote learning that is “active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery, and expands horizons.” (you may review our position here) In what ways do you believe these principles align with your notion of necessary learning opportunities? 
A: I believe your vision is aligned well with what we know about good teaching and meaningful learning. While there is some high quality teaching (building on some of what you have outlined above) that takes place in some classrooms, there is also some very poor instruction that takes place in other classrooms. Teacher learning does not end once he or she graduates from a teacher training program. Ongoing professional development focused explicitly on high quality instruction and coupled with some of the ideas you outline above are critical for success. In a similar way, afterschool and out-of-school instruction needs to be constructed in a way that is consistent and sustained with high quality instruction as well. In other words, how are teachers, mentors, and facilitators trained to ensure “active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery, and expands horizons” are actualized in afterschool programs? 

Q: In your commentary, you discuss the absence of opportunities for low-income youth of color. Can you say more about this? 
A: In a general sense, I believe those of us in U.S. society as well as in education struggle to have the tough conversations regarding issues of socio-economic status (SES), gender, geography, and race. These are the very difficult conversations that we need to engage because when we disaggregate data on standardized tests, we realize there is something happening. Students from higher SES typically outperform students from lower SES. The same point is true for race and ethnicity. African American and Latino students typically do not perform as well as White students. The question is why. No group of students is intellectually superior to another from a biological or genetic perspective. Yet, we see these disparities. One of the reasons is because of what we are and are not doing and talking about in schools and classrooms (both among adults and students). Until we engage the hard topics and the difficult conversations, we will continue to see, I believe, huge disparities between and among certain groups of students. Still, having the conversation is only part of the challenge. Doing something about what is learned is another. 

Q: Who’s getting it right? What states or cities or organizations are making headway in addressing the opportunity gap? 
A: I am reluctant to name particular schools, organizations, or states that are “getting it right” because I realize there are so many factors that go into understanding and addressing opportunity gaps. I showcase teachers in my new book who, I believe, are getting it right or at least close to it. However, I understand that the reasons are numerous, nuanced, and complex. What I will say is that we should perhaps start by looking in on what particular teachers and administrators are doing and then we need to work at changing entire systems, schools, districts, and states. We need to understand that all students can learn, should be empowered to reach their full capacity to live and learn, and have the right to be taught by teachers who care about them and refuse to let them fail.
H. Richard Milner IV

H. Richard Milner IV is an associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. He is the author of Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010). He can be reached at

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