Opinion Schools / Kids

LETTER: Members of Parent Group Question Madhu Pai, Ask for Apology on Achievement Gap Statements

Dear Ms. Pai:

We are members of PARES, Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity in SOMA Schools, a grass-roots organization consisting of more than 600 local parent Facebook group members. We write in response to your October 4, 2017 Op-Ed in the Village Green entitled “Re-imagining Data for SOMSD – Not More, Just Different,” which was written in support of your public statement that the PARCC achievement gap numbers were not “universally bad.”

When taken as a whole, your Op-Ed expresses the position that an achievement gap across racially disparate populations is unproblematic as long as each child is learning, and you imply that children of color inherently lag behind white children. As concerned parents committed to addressing bias and discrimination in our schools, we find it necessary to challenge the positions you’ve expressed.

First, you start by communicating the belief that an achievement gap between white students and students of color is in any way acceptable. In the first paragraph of your Op-Ed, you share that you “don’t see the results as universally bad.” In support of this position, you claim that “we are seeing traditionally marginalized student groups making gains toward proficiency vs. prior year.” You also claim that “the large spread between white and black scores is not unique to our district, it manifests nationally and at the state level due to a host of reasons.”

Ms. Pai, any achievement gap along racial lines is unacceptable, particularly one that is as stark and as persistent as the one we are experiencing here in the SOMS District. As the longest serving member of our Board of Education, you must be aware that 85.6% of white high school graduates from Columbia High School are enrolled in a 4-year college 16 months after graduation compared with only 47.34% of Black graduates. Your failure to acknowledge this as a problem that needs our community’s complete and immediate attention is causing acute harm to students currently enrolled in our schools. To be abundantly clear, every year that the achievement gap has persisted under your leadership represents a significant number of students that our district has failed to serve merely because of their race.

Frankly, we are not assuaged by your faulty argument that the problem is universal and therefore apparently unfixable. There are a number of districts around the nation successfully addressing the achievement gap, some of which are celebrated in a January 30, 2016 article in The Atlantic entitled “Closing the Achievement Gap, One School at a Time,” which provided insight into the “plenty of ways to get more minority students in advanced high school courses.” Also readily available is the January 15, 2015 National Journal article entitled “No Child Written Off: ‘You Can Get Smarter,’” highlighting the success of the Evanston school district in closing its achievement gap. We also encourage you to read the U.S. Department of Education’s 2005 report on “Closing the Achievement Gap: Lessons from Successful Schools.” Solutions to closing the achievement gap exist and are being implemented successfully in districts that have abandoned the culture of low expectations for children of color. PARES invites you and other Board members to study these approaches and to take appropriate action.

Second, the claim that we “need better data inputs to direct policy” is disingenuous. Ms. Pai, your desire for more data does nothing to relieve you of the duty to act. Indeed, you fail to acknowledge that data on the achievement gap between white students and students of color in our district is and has for some time been readily available to the Board. It is on the basis of this data that the district was successfully sued in 2014 by the ACLU, which found that academic tracking and frequent out-of-school suspension use disparately impacting Black and Hispanic students violated the civil rights of those students. And we cannot avoid the fact that the recent PARCC data clearly demonstrate an achievement gap occurring as early as 3rd grade for students of color. Furthermore, even if the currently available data were indeed insufficient, you have had years of service on the Board to request more and better data and have failed to do so until now.

Third, you argue the lack of success in addressing the achievement gap is because “we have limited insight into the myriad of complex underpinnings driving student performance, leading to narrowcasting responsibility for racial disparities in achievement on institutional racism and the need to ‘fix’ [your emphasis] our teachers.” This statement dismisses concerns that have been raised time and again about the impact of institutional racism on our children and reeks of racist inclinations that are especially harmful when voiced by a leader in our educational community. To be clear, if – as you write – the so-called “underpinnings” of driving disparate student performance along racial lines are not caused by institutional racism (including the paucity of teachers of color at all levels in our schools; segregation among our elementary and middle schools; the lack of an anti-racist curriculum; appalling rates of suspension of Black students; and the inappropriate use of leveling), then the only other logical hypothesis is that these “underpinnings” must have some other racial correlation. In other words, either we are failing the students because of their race or they are failing themselves because of their race. Please consider carefully that your repeated public denial of the former perspective may be appropriately perceived as an embrace of the latter.

Fourth, and most problematic, is your specious claim that achievement “gaps are evident well before kindergarten,” insinuating (without the use of the data which you identify to be critically important) that children of color are inherently less prepared to achieve than white students. Your support for a “strategic direction to address the needs of individual learners (e.g. ALL children)” [emphasis yours] echoes the “All Lives Matter” movement which seeks to silence any arguments that institutional racism brings particular harm to people of color.1

Ms. Pai, we appreciate that you have served this district to the best of your abilities as a member of the Board of Education. In light of your recent statements, however, we believe that your participation on the Board exacerbates the achievement gap and causes direct harm to children of color in our district. We request that you forthwith issue a written apology to the community for insinuating that (a) the achievement gap is in any way acceptable and (b) that the gap is in any way attributable to the students or their families.

Sincerely,

Ritu Bachlawat

Tawana Burnett

Paula Juliana Gomez

Jessi Gottlieb Empestan

Gail Greenstein

Julia Haubner Smith

Tania Mason-Eastmond

Rhea Mokund-Beck

1 Please see Gordon Hodson, Ph.D’s August 25, 2016 article “Is the ‘All Lives Matter’ Slogan Racist?” in Psychology Today. See also David Theo Goldberg, Ph.D’s September 25, 2015 article “Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ Because All Lives Don’t Matter in America,” published in the Huffington Post, stating that “All Lives Matter” reflects a view of “racial dismissal, ignoring, and denial.”

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