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Tackling the Empowerment Gap

By Harry Boyte, Center for Democracy and Citizenship

One goal of “We the People” is to overcome the “empowerment gap” in education – affecting not only disadvantaged students but also, in different ways, all students, teachers, staff, families, communities, and school administrators – by creating empowering learning and teaching cultures. In this organizing work, Public Achievement, the civic education initiative many ADP schools are adopting, is a seedbed for democratic change in education and in the society.


The phrase “the empowerment gap” comes from Sheldon Berman, superintendent of the Louisville Kentucky schools. Berman has called for a change in frame from the “achievement gap,” a narrow set of metrics on student success, to “the empowerment gap” (see “Tackling the Empowerment Gap,” Learning First Alliance, October 31, 2008; also attachment “The Empowerment Gap Versus the Achievement Gap,” Education Commission of the States, 2010).

Here is some of the base of research and theory building which buttresses a focus on the empowerment gap:

  • A rapidly expanding body of research demonstrates that student success is best measured by broad indicators which assess how and whether students become empowered agents of their own education and lives, capable of shaping their environments. This view challenges narrow metrics of success (embodied in “The Achievement Gap”) in part for failing in their own terms, often widening inequalities. Students as empowered agents are equipped with habits and skills of deliberation, critical thinking, contextual thinking, complex reasoning, life long learning, collaborative problem solving, and productive action. Evidence from a variety of sources indicates that while students as empowered agents do well on tests and typically have high graduation rates and college attendance and completion rates, their path toward such success is far richer and more multidimensional than a focus on standardized testing allows; it is cognizant of students as “whole people,” with multiple talents and capacities and public as well as private, careerist motivations (see for instance Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas; Hilary Swank, Freedom Writers, Bill Ayers, Teaching Toward Freedom; Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life; for parallels in higher education, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academics Adrift, and Chronicle of Higher Education commentary from January 25, “Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?”; Scott London, Doing Democracy: How A Network of Grassroots Organizations Is Strengthening Community, Building Capacity, and Shaping a New Kind of Civic Education);
  • Tackling the empowerment gap widens the lens of where education takes place to include families, neighborhoods and a variety of community institutions and settings (Lawrence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do; Nan Kari and Nan Skelton, Creating a Culture of Learning in St. Paul);
  • Tackling the empowerment gap revitalizes the older mission of education for citizenship. In recent decades, this ideal has dramatically weakened as schools have lost connection to parents and communities and become understood as the path to private, not public goods. The Center for School Change has documented the disappearance of parent engagement from teacher education curricula (see appendix with George Mehaffy in Boyte, “Against the Current: Developing the Civic Agency of Students,” Change magazine, June 2008). Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch famously found common ground about such developments (see the exchange in Education Week February 26, 2007, “Bridging Differences.”);
  • Tackling the empowerment gap translates theory and principles drawn from community organizing into cultural, institutional and professional change in ways that build civic capacity and civic agency (see for instance Xavier de Sousa Briggs, Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe; Jeannie Oakes et al, Learning Power: Learning for Education and Justice, and Jeannie Oakes and Maurisa Sanders, Beyond Tracking: Multiple Pathways to College, Career, and Civic Participation; Dennis Shirley, Community Organizing for Urban School Reform; Clarence Stone et. al., The Politics of Reforming Urban Public Schools);
  • The concept of public work, developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and its partners over two decades and at the heart of Public Achievement, is gaining global recognition for its success in such translation (see for instance, Boyte and Kari, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work,; also Boyte “Constructive Politics as Public Work,” forthcoming Political Theory).

“Overcoming the empowerment gap” is part of a larger We the People movement for democratic change in America. We the People joins efforts for civic renewal and political reform with educational reform. Education has often been seen as separate from the civic and political reform movements, but as James Madison once put it, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.  A people that mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power that knowledge brings.”

Put differently, without creating interconnections among what until now have been largely separate strands of change, it will be impossible to rebuild a culture of democracy that develops the civic agency of “We the People” to tackle the biggest challenges we face as a society.

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