What is the “opportunity gap”? A discussion about race, income, and disability
Kids of color who learn differently face unique challenges. One of those challenges is something called the “opportunity gap.” What is this gap? Why does it exist? And what can we do about it?
In this episode, Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra talk with Julian Saavedra, host of The Opportunity Gap, a new podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. Julian is a longtime educator who’s now an assistant principal in Philadelphia. Listen as Julian talks about issues of privilege, race, and disability — and the opportunity gaps he’s seen firsthand. Hear him explain why we need to focus on the causes of the gap to help kids reach their full potential.
Listen: The Opportunity Gap podcast
Check out Julian’s article: Let’s improve how schools and families talk about race
Read a young adult's perspective: To be Black in America with a learning disability
Amanda: Hi, I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood.org. And I'm a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And this is "In It."
Amanda: "In It" is a podcast from the Understood Podcast Network. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. We offer perspective, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences.
Gretchen: Today, we're talking about closing the opportunity gap for kids of color who learn and think differently.
Amanda: Which is a big, hard, and important topic, but we've got an excellent guest here to tackle it with us.
Gretchen: Julian Saavedra is a longtime educator and is currently an assistant principal at a Philadelphia high school.
Amanda: He's also a teacher fellow at Understood, part of a community of teachers we have who learn from and support each other and then take those learnings out into the classroom. So we go way back with Julian.
Gretchen: And, most important to our conversation today, Julian is the host of "The Opportunity Gap," a fantastic new podcast in the Understood Podcast Network. Julian, welcome to "In It."
Julian: Woohoo! Hi. Hello, everyone. That intro, you make me feel good.
Gretchen: Well, you should.
Julian: Just exciting to be here with you all and to really tackle a topic that everybody should be talking about. And I'm glad that we're taking the opportunity to come together and kind of hash it out from our different perspectives.
Amanda: Right. I think that's such a perfect segue to talking about the theme of your podcast. And your podcast that you do with your friend and another teacher, Marissa, is called "The Opportunity Gap," right? And we know that this term is more accurate than the one people may know better: the achievement gap. Can you explain the distinction for our listeners?
Julian: Sure. You know, in educational circles in recent years, a lot of people have been discussing just the differences between students and how they are achieving. And the term "achievement gap" began as a way to distinguish between students who were achieving at a higher level based on standardized test scores. And the distinction was based on race and socioeconomic status.
Later on, researchers and educational advocates and social justice advocates started to realize that maybe we need to change the framing of the conversation. Because it was ignoring the fact that systemic racism is a foundation of our society.
Like our society was built on the premise that certain people would not have as much power as others. And if we ignore that fact and look just at the results and not at the root cause, then we're not really doing justice to the problem. So the "opportunity gap" arose as another term to really look at some of the root causes for why the achievement wasn't happening. 'Cause again, I spoke to systemic racism. And the day-to-day experience of many of us — and when I say us, I mean people of color — is that it's still alive and well. And you know, I could tell you very clearly what I've been experiencing as an assistant principal in a urban school in Philadelphia makes it apparent that systemic racism is real.
But I do believe that once people are given a chance to be presented with the facts, they can come to the conclusion that everybody can achieve if given similar circumstances. It kind of brings me to where we started this whole journey with Understood. We talk about the 1 in 5, right? Our students who have learning and thinking differences. And there used to be this talk of this achievement gap between those students and general education students.
And I guess the term would be a learning… typical learners. Help me out, Amanda.
Amanda: You know, I think, I think they're all right. I would say "a student who doesn't need specialized instruction." Because "typical learners" for me is like a word that says "typical favorite food," right? Nobody learns the same way. Nobody has the same favorite food, that kind of thing.
Julian: So, you know, thinking about students that fall into that category, the 4 in 5. For so many years, people talked about how there was a gap in achievement. But when instruction is given to people that have learning and thinking differences in a way that is going to support them, the more we find that their achievement equals and in many times exceeds their 4 in 5 student counterparts.
So, you know, we're thinking about this whole idea of opportunity gap, again, getting to the basis of what is the root cause. What are the factors involved in holding back students from meeting their true potential and not just looking at the results? So, that's kind of where we're heading with this podcast, where we try to unpack some of those difficult things.
And, you know, we have some fun on the way and joke around and be silly, but we also try to be serious about these conversations and maybe bring up topics that people don't normally converse about.
Gretchen: You know, I think some folks might not know what are some of the sources though, of the gap, right? Like, so you talked about systemic racism, but if you could break it down a little bit more. Like what have you seen are some of those opportunities that have not been equally available to all students?
Julian: I know people hear this all the time, but it really is true, is funding and resources. I work in a school that has, you know, 98 percent of our students are able to qualify for free and reduced lunch. So they meet the poverty line. Whereas the district that I live in, it is a vastly different economic situation.
So, when I get in my car and leave my district where my kids go to school and drive to the place that I work, the funding structure is vastly different. The school that my kids go to — it is beautiful. It has everything you could ever need. But when I go to the school that I work at, the teachers in that school, the administration in that school, the students in that school work extremely hard every single day to make learning happen. But, you know, we are fighting to have appropriate cleaners in the school. We don't have bathrooms that are working the way they should be working. We don't have the amount of staff that we would require. You know, I think about our special education students, and they're not getting all of the services that they should have based on their IEP, just because we don't have the staff for it.
And so when I think about just the baseline resource availability, that's one of the biggest areas that this opportunity gap presents itself. And on top of that, a lot of our students might be coming from areas that are economically depressed. In Philadelphia, we have a really big gun violence situation happening right now. And my students have to worry about that as they walk home.
Amanda: I imagine as a vice principal, you have to worry about it, right?
Julian: Oh, every day, every day. So, you know, there's all these other societal things that are in place that, you know, the school is not necessarily equipped to deal with or solve. But it doesn't mean it doesn't impact the day-to-day learning experience of our students.
Amanda: So, I just want to ask a follow-up cause I wanna, you know, I understand the funding thing a little bit, right? You know, having been, I worked in a really rural school district here in Maine and drove from my privileged school district to that school district and had a lot of the same kinds of things you're talking about.
But I think a lot of people don't understand why you drive six miles and it changes. Do you have a clear explanation, or a clear-ish explanation, of that?
Julian: Sure, sure. Clear-ish. In many cases, school districts use a combination of funding streams to fund their sources. And for many suburban districts, a lot of the school funding is based on property taxes.
When we look at that correlation, then that's what we'll see — the funding sometimes is unequal. You know, the other issue is that in a lot of our larger cities, they've been defunded for decades, right? So we're, we're dealing with schools and districts that have not had robust funding structures for 30, 40, 50, 60 years. And there has been an abundance of funds and in investment in the last five or six years, but it's still playing catch-up.
Amanda: That's so helpful to me, super helpful. And I also think, like, I will add in here from a disabilities perspective too, there's a funding issue here too, right? Because we talk about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which has never been fully funded.
So you're already looking at students with disabilities, the funding for those programs are already not funded. And then you add on top of it other funding issues, and it can be an increase in that opportunity gap in some of the schools, too.
So, I'm going to pivot a little bit. I want to know if you feel like you had the kind of education where your potential was realized.
Julian: So, you know, something that I think is sometimes missing in the conversation is what's happening outside of the school walls. And I would say that a large chunk, if not all of my most profound educational experiences came outside of school.
I lived in a neighborhood similar to what my students live in. I was brought up by a single mom. My father passed away when I was young, and my mom brought us up and my grandmother was a really big part of our lives. And they both worked really hard to make sure that education was a top priority. So, you know, my Nana did not play around. She had us reading the dictionary, and she bought us the Encyclopedia Britannica, and we had a whole set in our room, and we watched "Jeopardy" with her every night.
We went to a Catholic school. All of my teachers were white women, some of them nuns, but I didn't have a male teacher until I was a ninth grader, 10th grader. I didn't have a Black male teacher until I went to college, right? So, I didn't see people who were like me, or looked like me, or understood where I was coming from in an authority educational setting until much later.
The school I was at was probably 60-40. So, it was a mixture of people, but you know, it really helped me understand how education could be a safe space. And I still will always respect the values that the schools that I went to taught us, like they really focused on being a good person and doing for others.
But when I got to college, I went to a primarily white school in Connecticut. And the biggest jump is not that I had never been around white kids before. Like some of my best friends were white. But it was the socioeconomic switch that really blew my mind. Because where I grew up, it was, you know, working-class kids. Like a lot of my buddies' dads were plumbers or carpenters or, you know, guys that work with their hands. I worked in a factory for most of the high school.
But then I went to college, and I was with, like, upper-class people that, you know, drove really nice cars and they had multiple credit cards, and they went to Switzerland for break and things like that. And I was like, whoa, this is what, how did I get here?
But it really opened up my mind to like a different way of living and how this whole other side of society that I had never been exposed to, this is how folks lived. You know, I was the kid that, you know, a lot of my buddies at home, they were not going to college. I didn't know anybody from my neighborhood that went to college. Nobody. Like everybody either went into the streets and did that, or they went to work. So, I was one that kind of focused on how education could be opening some doors. What it's done for me is really given me these life experiences that I might not have had if I had remained where I started.
Gretchen: So Julian, that's making me wonder about two things. So, first of all, how did you decide to become a teacher? And then even way before that, how did you become one of the only kids in your neighborhood to go to college? Because you know, sometimes knowing what to do, how to apply, and all of that's involved in college applications, sometimes even knowing how to get started can be a barrier.
Julian: I go back to my mom and my grandmother. It was just the expectation that we're going to college. But I would credit my history teacher, my 11th grade history teacher, Mrs. Benedict, shout-out to her. She sat with me after school and helped me fill out my FAFSA form. And she pushed me to really find ways to get into school.
And I remember if — I applied to Yale. And I put the application together, and I dropped it off to the guidance counselor. And the guidance counselor didn't think that I was going to be Yale material. If you could see air quotes with my voice, then…. You know, and her explanation was, you know, just, she didn't think that I was going to fit in there and my type of people didn't really go there that much.
And I didn't understand what was happening at the time. Now, looking back, I get what was going on. But she purposely didn't send the application in on time. So I come to find out that I got wait-listed at Yale. And the people at Yale said it was because if you had sent it in on time, you would have had a guaranteed spot.
So, you know, I think about that experience of knowing that somebody in a position of authority purposefully impacted what I could do. It said to me, all right, I'm going to make sure that I find a way to get into schools and make sure that I'm an advocate for people like myself. And it has been a blessing to be able to impact kids and open them up to what education can actually do for them.
And somebody that can speak their language. Like I get them, I understand where they're coming from. And building relationships is one of those foundational parts of education. Like if you don't have that, you have nothing.
Amanda: You know, it takes a lot to make me speechless, both of you know that, right? And that story just made me speechless.
Gretchen: My heart's pounding from it. Like seriously.
Amanda: I was literally going to ask you about, you know, the conversations that you and I have had, Julian, about systemic discrimination and how it brings about this lack of trust in institutions. I think you just told us one of those stories right there.
You know, you going into education is one of those concrete things that you could do to help bring about that trust. What are some of those other concrete things that teachers can do to start building that trust?
Julian: We know that across the country, the majority of our teachers are more like the two of you than they are like me. We know that 2 percent of teachers nationally are Black men. But, given the fact that the vast majority of our teachers are white women, what can they do to start making inroads and building more trust? Well, I think a lot of them already do. It starts with having authentic desire to do the job you've chosen to do.
For me, it was all about opening myself up to learning from the students, like learning is a two-way street. Learning is not just us dictating information to the people in front of us. And the teachers that are able to build the strongest relationships are able to create a climate where, especially if you have students that are not sharing the same demographic that you are, there's an even bigger opportunity to learn from each other.
And then the second thing that's coupled with that, you have to have high expectations. And I say that in that many people believe building relationships sometimes is being caring and being warm. And that's great. You also have to have respect and high expectations and tough love. And when students know that you're going to hold them accountable, they might not like it in the moment. But ultimately they're going to respect that you're not going to let them get away with things. You're going to be consistent. You're going to be there. You're going to be in their corner. And I think if you couple the authenticity of wanting to learn more about them with having high expectations and with being consistent, those are all the ways that you can start to concretely build a relationship with students, especially the students that need us the most.
Gretchen: You know, one thing you just brought up, I think, is that many times people make assumptions, right, about different communities. And it seems like some of these stories you're telling about your own experience with the guidance counselor and teaching in the schools that you've taught in, that people make assumptions about communities of color sometimes and students of color. I'm wondering if there's any other assumptions out there that you'd like to debunk.
Julian: Sure. Sure. You know, I think with my own experience related to education, a lot of people believe that people of color just don't care. It's not a big deal. They don't value it. And that to me is the complete opposite.
If anything, they care about it so much that sometimes they feel frustrated because how their children are being treated in schools is not valuing them. When I open a book and I see all these people that don't look anything like me, but I'm supposed to be sitting and learning about them and learning what their values are, and nothing that my family is teaching me at home is reflected in school. Or, you know what, of course, I might feel some type of way.
And I'm not to say that we have to make everything related to people of color in schools. No, but there has to be a way where everyone can feel included. Everyone can feel valued. And so I think debunking the myth that of color don't care about education is completely the opposite. They care so much.
And for many of us it's been, it's been the venue for us to change our lives. And it was something that we fought for for so long. We're still fighting for it. You know, we tend to gloss over the history fact, but it hasn't been that long since you and I couldn't be sitting in the same room together. You know, that's my grandmother. Like, my grandmother could not sit in the same room as you all. Like, that's how close it is, right? So, when we're thinking about it from a historical standpoint, it's not that long ago.
Amanda: And it's interesting too, 'cause that brings us back to the podcast, right? It brings us back to "The Opportunity Gap," the podcast. Being able to have those conversations can be uncomfortable, but so necessary. And so, and, and, you know, it's one of the things I actually really love is that you're taking on conversations and making them not just yours, right?
Julian: I always appreciate, you know, people who are willing to just engage in a conversation. If we just started to talk about some of the things we're experiencing, we find there's a lot more that we have in common than what sets us apart. And so I hope that any listeners out there, or even both of you, you know, the value is when I'm not here, or when somebody like me is not opening up this conversation.
I hope that you all are still talking about it. And I hope that you're trying to find some way where you can talk to your children about the realities of what society really is, and that everybody in this society doesn't have a similar experience. It doesn't mean we need to be afraid of it. It doesn't mean we're going to fix it. But if we don't talk about it and we just ignore it and we just go about our day-to-day lives like it doesn't exist, then that's even worse.
So now the question is what are you going to do about it?
Gretchen: Yep. Part of that, it's something that, you know, obviously I think you hope "The Opportunity Gap" does, is it educates. right? Your podcast. So what are a few of the topics that you have in the works? Or what do you — what are you excited about talking on "The Opportunity Gap" next?
Julian: What's interesting for us is to kind of open up a place to talk about specifically with the 1 in 5 and how there's an intersection between the racial dynamics of school, but also the educational dynamics of schools. We're going to be doing a series on some figures in the educational movement who were people of color but who aren't spoken about as much, but who really transform education for kids of color and for kids with learning and thinking differences.
We just want to really bring out some of those things that people don't get a chance to really hear out loud — stories or experiences or questions. The more difference that we can have on the show to have a different opinions and explore different viewpoints, the better it's going to be for everybody.
Gretchen: I want to thank you, Julian, for taking time to talk to us today. I know you're so busy and so we appreciate you being here with us on "In It."
Amanda: Thank you so much, Julian.
Julian: Oh, thank you. Thank you. It's always a pleasure.
Amanda: So, a quick update, since we talked to Julian about special education funding. Since this conversation, the secretary of education, the U.S. secretary of education, has started talking about how we can fully fund that law and make sure there's more funds in schools for kids who are in special education services.
Gretchen: You can listen and subscribe to Julian's podcast, "The Opportunity Gap," which he co-hosts with Marissa Wallace, wherever you get your podcasts.
Amanda: And that's also where you can find this podcast, "In It." If you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about.
Gretchen: Share it with the parents you know.
Amanda: Share it with somebody else who might have a child who learns differently.
Gretchen: Or share it with the teachers in your life.
Amanda: "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need.
Gretchen: Go to u.org/init to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash in it.
Amanda: And please share your thoughts. Email us at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gretchen: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.
Gretchen: Thanks for listening. And for always being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.