Defining the Gaps: The Power of Language and the Allocation of Responsibility

Skyline College
College of San Mateo

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges, and each college is encouraged to determine its own language for discussing equity.

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges has been on the forefront of student equity for over twenty years. Shortly after the Board of Governors started requiring Student Equity Plans in 1992, the ASCCC formed an ad hoc Student Equity Committee to develop guidelines for local implementation. This ad hoc committee would morph into the Equity and Diversity Action Committee, which has created a vision of equity for the ASCCC on issues ranging from affirmative action to disability rights.

Even with this very proactive approach to equity, the language concerning student learning and success still does not always properly reflect a progressive vision for student equity. Decades of deficit terminology embedded into the state’s language of education, including the use of “achievement gaps” and other regressive terms, have permeated professional discussions at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, debates in the legislature, state policy documents, education research, and the media; consequently, this language is visible in ASCCC literature, from Rostrum articles to resolutions, and it has significant consequences for how the public views the California Community Colleges’ mission and students.

Ladson-Billings (2007) addressed the many ways in which “achievement gap” terminology is problematic and how it perpetuates a “deficit paradigm.” Specifically, this paradigm absolves educators of their responsibility to provide equitable opportunities for underrepresented students. According to Ladson-Billings, one of the problems with the term “achievement gap” is that it “makes us think that the problem is merely one of student achievement. It comes to us as if the students are not doing their part. We hear nothing of the other ‘gaps’ that plague the lives of poor children of color” (p.317). Among these other gaps are unequal school funding and inequities in health and wealth.

Ladson-Billings concluded that “we need to change the discourse from achievement gap to what I have termed an ‘education debt’ . . . When we speak of an education debt we move to a discourse that holds us all accountable. It reminds us that we have accumulated this problem as a result of centuries of neglect and denial of education to entire groups of students” (p.321). Unsurprisingly, the ASCCC has taken a similar stance in recent resolutions, mentioning “marginalized” students as well as others that call for removal of deficit-minded terms such as “remedial” and “remediation,” which typically accompany discussions of underrepresented students.

Similar to Ladson-Billing’s “education debt,” the verbiage that has gained the most traction in educational discourse is “opportunity gaps,” which extends the argument that we need to hold ourselves accountable for the success gaps between African American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students and their white and Asian peers as well as the gaps that exist between other marginalized groups and their hegemonic counterparts. Welner and Carter (2013) noted, “relatively little attention has been paid to disparities in opportunity. Current discussions of the ‘achievement gap’ highlight and emphasize significant differences in school results” (p.2). They continued, “The ‘opportunity gap’ frame, in contrast, shifts our attention from outcomes to inputs – to the deficiencies in the foundational components of societies, schools, and communities that produce significant differences in educational . . . outcomes. Thinking in terms of ‘achievement gaps’ emphasizes the symptoms; thinking about unequal opportunity highlights the causes” (p.3). This very small shift in language, however, has huge implications for how we, as faculty leaders, advocate for our students. If we are able to see the student success gaps in terms of institutional opportunity, we can take the onus of inequitable outcomes off the students who have been disproportionately impacted by the health and wealth gaps and inequitable educational funding.

Though Welner and Carter focus primarily on the K-12 education system, some important lessons can also be learned by higher education. First, the opportunity gaps in primary and secondary schooling are creating substantial inequities in students’ academic skills and habits of mind, and since the community colleges are attended by and large by students with lower GPAs and test scores, they are primarily responsible for addressing these gaps. Second, community colleges need to recognize that they sometimes perpetuate these opportunity gaps. When marginalized students, particularly students of color, enter the college landscape, they are not only plagued by the same health and wealth gaps described by Ladson-Billings, but they also face daily microaggressions and discrimination. If equity-minded professional development has not been instituted at the college, the sensitive and proactive teaching needed to transform these inequities will be absent.

As a result, the term “obligation gap” is gaining traction among college leaders, including administrators, academic senates, and other governance constituencies, because it highlights the responsibilities that faculty and administrators have for serving underrepresented and marginalized students (Sims et. al., forthcoming). Taylor-Mendoza (personal communication, August 8, 2018) originally coined the term with respect to the dwindling access formerly incarcerated youth were experiencing in higher education. She argues that faculty, staff, and administrators must “take on ownership and responsibility for creating systems that lend themselves to opportunity [through] design thinking and equity.” She contends that the opportunity gap paradigm does not go far enough in creating educational equity because it still places the responsibility on students to take advantage of these opportunities. However, many students, particularly first generation college goers, have trouble navigating the landscape of higher education. Simply creating an opportunity or program without intentionality does little to provide access or to increase student success and retention. Furthermore, an obligation-centered framework requires practitioners and educators to continually reflect on their interactions with students and their pedagogies, and it creates praxis as they frequently ask themselves “should we do this?” and “Is it in the best interests of the students?”

Fortunately, the ASCCC can shift the conversation from one of deficit and lack of achievement to one of opportunity and obligation in one very simple way: the organization must change the language it uses in its resolutions.

The language used in resolutions is important because the ASCCC resolutions represent the collective voice of the state academic senate, and, as a result, the state’s community college faculty at large. Though resolutions are authored by a single delegate or a small group of delegates, they are passed and revised by the entire body. This process is markedly different from Rostrum articles, which are written by faculty from across the state and represent only the views of these authors. Similarly, since ASCCC papers, which are authored by ASCCC committees, are adopted by the ASCCC delegates via resolutions, these documents must also reject deficit language and embrace language that places the responsibility, the obligation, for closing equity gaps on community college institutions.

Resolutions and adopted papers become the official positions of the ASCCC. They communicate the organization’s values, priorities, and commitment to educational equity to lawmakers, the Chancellor’s Office, the public, and California’s community college faculty, staff, and students. These documents are a public representation of who the ASCCC believes it is and where it wants to go. The use of deficit language in resolutions and papers only damages the progressive vision that the ASCCC has spent decades cultivating. And as the largest system of higher education in the world, the California Community Colleges have the opportunity to shift the discourse around student success and how colleges and universities serve traditionally marginalized and underrepresented students.

When looking closely at ASCCC resolutions, one may perceive that the ASCCC plenary delegates have had a bit of a discourse crisis in the last few years regarding how to describe student success and educational equity:

  • Fortunately, in the last six plenary sessions, the word equity—excluding “equity plans”—appears 34 times in resolutions;
  • In fall 2014, the ASCCC passed Resolution 7.08 “Remove the Term Remedial from the Student Success Scorecard,” which advised the Chancellor’s Office to replace “remedial” with “basic skills” and “ESL” on the Student Success Scorecard. However, the resolution does not cite the term’s roots in deficit language as the reason for its removal.
  • The term “achievement gap” appears ten times, while the more progressive term “opportunity gap” does not show up at all;
  • The term “marginalized” appears seven times but only in three resolutions, and the term “underrepresented” only shows up once.

These examples demonstrate that the ASCCC has embraced a vision of educational equity. However, they also demonstrate the difficulty in describing what educational equity looks like at local colleges and at the state level. Curiously, one resolution passed at the spring 2015 plenary aligned equity and achievement gaps four times, referencing the senate’s concern for equity and achievement gaps. However, when these terms are defined in the ways described above, they are contradictory. The comparatively low success and retention rates of underrepresented students cannot be a result of institutional barriers—equity—and student achievement, or achievement gaps. Instead, we must shift our language to show concern for equity and opportunity gaps.

As an important governance body that represents the collective voice of the California Community College professoriate, the ASCCC must be mindful of the language it uses in official documents, including resolutions. The upcoming fall plenary session provides the opportunity to clarify the organization’s commitment to educational equity. As professors often tell their students, language is power. As a result, the ASCCC should encourage delegates to use terms and descriptors that more accurately describe the struggles underrepresented and marginalized students experience in their institutions. The ASCCC must finally finish what it started with Resolution 7.08 in fall 2014 and reject deficit language once and for all. The organization must take responsibility for the equity gaps in the California community colleges and must publicly do so in resolutions by replacing regressive terms like “achievement gap” with the more progressive “opportunity gap” and including language, such as “obligation gap,” that make clear that the ASCCC works in kinship with students and is committed to not only providing them with equitable opportunities to higher education but to intentionally and relentlessly helping them take advantage of the programs and resources colleges have to offer.


Ladson-Billings, G. (2007). Pushing Past the Achievement Gap: An Essay on the Language of Deficit. The Journal of Negro Education, 76(3), 316-323.

Sims, J.J.; Taylor-Mendoza, J.; Hotep, L.; Wallace, J. Minding the Obligation Gap in Community Colleges: Theory and Practice in Achieving Educational Equity. New York, NY: Peter Lang (forthcoming).

Welner, K.G. & Carter, P.L. (2013). Achievement Gaps Arise from Opportunity Gaps. In P.L. Carter & K.G. Welner (Eds.), Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Giver Every Child an Even Chance (pp. 1-10). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.