Educational Justice: Closing Gaps or Paying Debts?



The question of our educational obligations to disadvantaged students has typically been conceptualized using the language of achievement gaps: how and to what extent should we ameliorate gaps between students in terms of their attainment of certain valuable outcomes that are correlated with education? Recently, some have argued that the language of achievement gaps is misconceived and problematic, and that we should instead conceptualize our obligations to students as an education debt that is owed to certain disadvantaged students as descendants of historic and structural injustices. Underlying this argument is a deeper conviction that the moral requirement to bring about a fair patterned distribution of educational outcomes is constrained by an obligation to rectify historical injustices. By conceptualizing the issue as a debt, rather than a gap (the argument goes), we can keep the priority of historical obligations squarely on the table. In this article, I defend the conceptual framework of achievement gaps in primary and secondary education by arguing that patterned principles of educational justice are not constrained by any claims and obligations that arise in virtue of historic injustices.