The land of disparities

City yearYesterday, the Parent Imperfect joined a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at City Year, that temple of youth development in Boston’s South End. I saw lots of Boston Public Schools parents there, including one of the authors of the report, whose middle-school daughter was sitting in the corner of the auditorium, reading a book for the whole time. The daughter was amazingly patient (can I purchase a couple of bottles of this patience?) and Mom was very aware of her daughter, even as she tried to wield the stage hook against long-winded speakers.

The occasion these little dramas was the launch of a report about how Black and Latino male students fare in the Boston Public Schools. This report was a little different than many such efforts in that the BPS commissioned the work, participated in the study design and signed off on its findings. The Center for Collaborative Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform did the research. Speakers mentioned the Barr Foundation about 20 times, so I assume the foundation provided much of the dough for what must have been (and continues to be) a very expensive piece of work.

Privilege and prejudiceFor over an hour, slide after slide drove home the point that everyone in the room came in taking for granted: Structural barriers to achievement lead to very different outcomes in the BPS for Black and Latino males, on the one hand, and Caucasian and Asian boys, on the other. I would call these barriers, “institutional racism,” but, given the prominence of big institutions in the process, the study was politic enough not to use such incendiary terms. “Structural barriers to achievement” seems so much more neutral and, therefore, appropriate for polite company. I guess it’s OK to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about such terms.

Overly polite or not, this study makes its point with more detail and more nuance than I have ever seen it made, at least in Boston. Rather than just talking about this statistic for “Black” kids and that one for “Latino” kids, the study uncovers the diversity behind such words by exploring, for example, at the differences in achievement between African-American males, born in the U.S., and Afro-Latinos from the Caribbean.  “Whites” and “Asians” weren’t described with this same sensitivity to diversity, but I can live with that, given the point of this study.

All of this made for a more interesting (and lengthy) presentation, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. Girls do better than boys in the system, across all groups. Within the boys, Black and Latino boys face particular barriers to achievement. Among Black and Latino males, Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners face double or triple barriers.

The lack of economic analysis in the study disappointed me. The authors clearly wanted to keep the focus on the impact of race and ethnicity, but even a couple of slides acknowledging that children living in poverty make up a large part of the student body of the BPS and that social class also influences educational outcomes would have helped. I’m not sure we can understand how race impacts outcomes in the BPS without at least a nod to the way race is tangled up with social class in U.S. cities, but that’s a much longer thing.

METCOI also wonder if we can understand outcomes in the BPS without also including analysis of trends in enrollment and outcomes in charter schools, the METCO program and the region’s private schools. I don’t have data, but I am aware that significant numbers of high-achieving students, including more than a few Latino and Black males students that I know, have departed the BPS for these alternatives (and no small percentage of them come tumbling back into the district later). The growth of these alternative forms of educating our children is gradually changing the composition of the BPS student body and, the nature of the challenges faced by the district. But not even the Barr Foundation could pay for that sort of analysis. These things are on my mind, but they don’t take away from what is a really important piece of research by these people.

The best part of the study is that it takes the bold extra step of naming some of the causes of the problem, and then suggesting ways that we, as a community, might change this situation. It’s here that the tracking that is so central to the BPS experience gets a hard time. For these analysts, something about the way BPS has constructed and implemented Advanced Work Classes and the famous Boston exam schools make those two programs, as currently configured, an important part of the problem. Few of the study’s recommendations deal with AWC and the exam schools (two recommendations, I think), but those are two of the recommendations that are going to get the most attention. The “Village,” the community list-serve at the nation’s oldest public school immediately lit up with both indignation that anyone would dare question the current paths of access to the school, and indignation at that indignation.
Come togetherThe Annenberg Institute at Brown University can tell us just how bad the racial and ethnic disparities are in our schools. The Institute might even be able to tell us what we need to do to narrow those disparities, but it can’t tell us how we can come together to make it all happen. This coming together behind a different vision has always been the challenge and the glossy report handed out yesterday (pea-green and purple, for some reason) isn’t going to help us do that. Political leadership could help make that happen. We’ll see. For the most part, how to come together is something for those us–students, parents, teachers, school administrators alongside political and other community  leaders–who live and learn in the land of disparities to figure out.


Filed under Boston Public Schools

15 responses to “The land of disparities

  1. Kathy

    I’ve been pretty disappointed, but I guess not surprised, by the levels of defensiveness and “I’ve got mine” attitudes expressed on the Village email list. Parents who really don’t want to believe that institutional racism exists and that if you just work hard enough, it will all happen for you. I have read the Annenberg Institute report summary and I’m glad they put it all out there. But I do think that a lot of their recommendations (make all 4th and 5th grade classes Advanced Work Classes, provide priority for low income and minority children for K0 – K1,restrict exam school enrollment to BPS 5th and 6th graders) will not stand up legally or politically. So where does that leave us? You ask a lot of good questions about the effects of the whole school environment, including METCO, charters and private schools. Would love to know more about the trajectories of students’ experiences in and out of the system.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I hope you are feeling better.

      AS far as the Village goes, the extremes of opinion are those that get expressed there, in the most extreme way possible. I think that some people didn’t really understand what is being recommended. Even so, there is and will be a lot of resistance to change among people who believe that the system as it is has worked pretty well for them. As you know, some people say that’s why I feel the way that I do about things.

      I do think that if Boston attendees of charters and METCO (the private schools are really another kettle of fish) were integrated into the analysis, one would get a different picture of the education of Boston’s Black and Latino males. There would still be important disparities, but they would look different than those that emerge from this study. It makes the quest for quality education for all that much more complicated…

  2. Your point about poverty is excellent. But leaving that out is a huge problem, because it says that the problem is solely due to “institutional barriers” that the School system could do something about. In the real world, if one of the biggest problems is poverty and we can’t even talk about it, not to mention do something about it, that is huge missing part of the picture.

    The School Board and the administration will never talk about poverty. I guess if they did, people would ask them why they and the Mayor don’t do something. Like having more support services and enough teacher resources. So let’s just not talk about it. Yeah, that’s the answer.

    And one more thing. The idea that the exam schools should have the same makeup (in every way) as the BPS enrollment makes the report hard to take seriously, when there is no discussion of poverty and how so many of kids in poverty are in BPS.

    Unless they also have a target to have the BPS enrollment reflect the city of Boston, which it does not. And again the School Board would never talk about because the city might have to do something.

    • Maybe I am letting the authors of the study off too easily on the poverty issue, but I do think that poverty, race and ethnicity each operate in different ways to help create the outcomes that we see. Any meaningful solution can’t just focus on one of those factors.

      I didn’t get the idea that the exam schools should be like BPS enrollment in every way, but I think they could be significantly less different. The O’Bryant already reflects BPS enrollment pretty well. I guess I think that there should be fewer exam school seats in the system and that kids who have been in the BPS should have some sort of preferential access to those seats (although it won’t work to prohibit anyone else from applying). I also like the idea of eliminating AWC as the an inside track to the exam schools. These are the sorts of changes that will meet a lot of resistance, so they are less likely to happen.

      • From the Executive Summary:

        Therefore, to remedy the lack of opportunity to
        enroll in AWC and exam schools for Black and
        Latino males, we recommend that the district:

        Convert all grade 4–6 classrooms into AWC
        classrooms with high expectations and rigorous

        Ensure that AWC and exam school enrollment
        mirrors the district’s enrollment by race/ethnicity,
        FRL eligibility status, ELL status, and special
        education status.

        So they do actually mention FRL eligibility in passing.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I haven’t talked to anyone about the issue, but it may be a case of sensing that they need to take a more radical position to get any positive movement at all. For me, this is more about strengthening the other high schools than it is about changing the exam schools. As I said above, the O’Bryant already mirrors the BPS population quite well, and BLA isn’t so far off as to make the “mirroring” idea a totally outlandish proposition. We are really talking about BLS. If the school was really committed to increasing the number of Black and Latin students in the school, it could do that, over time. I think the BPS is going to have to do that for them. There is now essentially a point system for entry to the exam schools that is allegedly 50 grades (as presented by the applicant’s school) and 50 test score. Why not 10 FRLE (free/reduced lunch eligibility), 10 BPS attendance (5 points, each, for successful attendance of Grade 5 and Grade 6 at a BPS school), 40 test and 40 grades? This would, of course, need to be combined with a determined (and budgeted) effort to re-brand BLS as a place to which more Black and Latino students should want to apply, and more programs designed to quickly identify all children who are having trouble transitioning to the school, and more quickly providing them with support. Combined with the change proposed for AWC, this would hold out the possibility of quite a change in the opportunities for Black and Latino males in the system, assuming that it would survive the inevitable court challenge.

  3. DJS

    So the busing program and the impact it has on school budgets and makeup received no mention?

    • Thanks for your question, DJS. I’m sorry it has taken me some time to get to it. By the “busing program,” I assume you mean the current sequel to Boston’s court-ordered desegregation ruling that 40 years ago mandated busing as part of a strategy to de-segregate the schools. Neither the presentation at City Year, nor the Executive Summary of its report gave direct attention to the effect of school busing on Black and Latino male achievement in the schools.

      I think it’s a tough question. Busing costs $$$, especially when the district must bus all charter school children, too. That money could certainly be used to improve the education delivered in struggling schools. At the same time, since the BPS has yet to figure out how to deliver education of equal quality across the city (no small task), busing opens up (limited) opportunities for families who are willing to bus their children to gain access to higher quality schools (assuming they are are lucky enough to get in). In the very long discussion about school assignment in Boston, it became clear that no viable assignment system was going to be able to cut transport costs significantly. I consider those costs to be part of the cost of our history of separate and unequal education. As the system seems to be “re-segregating” in important ways, I fear we’ll need to pay those costs for a while.

  4. DJS

    “Re-segregating?” As in Boston is 50% minority but BPS are 85-90% minority? Any mention made of that?

    • Not exactly. Re-segregating, in the sense that schools are becoming less diverse. This is not true of all schools, for sure, but it is a troubling trend present across the system. The percentages you mention are addressed in the report, as is the composition of AWC classes and the exam schools, which is quite different than the BPS, as a whole.

  5. Ian

    As the parent of a younger kid just starting down this road I have to ask you something….

    You used AWC, right, and your kids go to Exam schools, right?

    I honestly do not know enough about AWC to know if it is going to be a key factor in us being able to stay in BPS or not in the future, so I do not have a fully formed opinion on removing it. However, I have noticed that the crowd that is most involved in trying to push for reforms that will eliminate or change these programs (at least on the internet) also tend to have older kids that used them in past.

    Imagine yourself in my shoes, probably similar to where you were 10 years ago. You tell me, should I be OK with changing the system that most of the middle class people that stayed in Boston and BPS utilized? That is not a rhetorical question, I am actually hoping that you give me a good reason why I should not be worried.

    If this is bad for me then it seems like you being someone who got yours in an unfair system and now that you are grandfathered in you care about fairness.

    • Really good question,Ian, and I appreciate you raising it. Others have raised the same thing with me, but privately. I will give you a full answer, but I have a really nasty cold today, so I can’t do it right now. I do want to clarify, however, that one of my kids did do two years of AWC and the other did not do AWC. Both are now at BLS. In my experience, the parents who are most angry about AWC are not those whose children had access to the program.

    • Hello again, Ian. Why should you not be worried about the move to change a system that “most middle class people” have used in the past? This could turn into a very long answer. I’ll make it short, at the risk of being misunderstood. AWC breaks up school communities as some children leave to take advantage of this privilege. I’m sure you’ve already seen this effect. The program also creates a lot of instability and transition for the kids who participate. In part because our daughter stayed in the Hernández for 4th grade, she ended up attending four different schools in four years (Hernández, Hennigan, Irving, BLS). What were we thinking? She did fine with this for a while, but I think we are seeing some of the effects of all of that transition now that she is in 8th grade. Even if she had left with the rest of the AWC kids, she would have been in four schools in five years.

      The academics were, on balance, better in AWC than in her previous school, but not dramatically better. Her Grade 5 AWC class at the Hennigan was actually quite a bit larger than her Grade 4 class at the Hernández, and the teacher had no support from “paras.” Especially for sixth grade, the hype was just that. although I must admit that Vince’s sixth grade year at the Hernández was something of a lost year. By going to AWC, Connie also had to give up the bilingual immersion program at the Hernández, which was very important for our family. She has not taken a Spanish class since she finished fourth grade.

      I don’t think there is any way to deny that AWC is bad for the schools that the kids leave. That’s why the principals of schools without AWC so uniformly dislike it. Also, it is a mixed bag for those who do it. More importantly, it leads to the sort of system described by the recent report. It sets up a tracking system in which white and Asian boys are several times more likely to end up in exam schools than Black and Latino boys. As people who live in this city we should be worried and upset about that.

      Should you be worried about a move to change this system? I wouldn’t presume to say what should worry you, but I fear that the likelihood that the system will change a lot is slim, despite what the data says. And even if it does change, you will remain supportive of your child(ren) and the schools they attend..

      • Ian

        Probably like most people I try to take it year by year with BPS and not overreact to things, but I guess I would rather have more options then less when my kids get to that age, as you have had.

        The thing I guess that bothers my about this report is that it seems like their reaction to inequality in AWC is just to get rid of it. Rather then trying to figure out how create more opportunities, it seems like they would rather get rid of them to create equality.

        The other thing is that all of this just seems to me to be lashing out against inequality within BPS, but how much does that even really matter in a system that is already, what, 85% minority and low-income. The real inequality is actually between the districts that surround Boston and Boston itself.

        The problem is this, in my opinion you cannot have a BPS, at least in the near term, that has no tracking or exam schools and also has any measurable amount of middle class people in it. High-minded principals aside most people are going to do everything they can for their kids within their means. Since middle class people have the resources to move a few miles down the road to a different school district or send their kids to private school I think the system needs to have some way to give faith to people that their kids have plenty of opportunities in order for them to stay. But inevitably those things (like AWC) are going to end up not matching the demographics of the district as a whole.

        Now, you can have an honest debate about weather BPS would be better off not having tracking and focusing on teaching a 99% low-income and minority student population. In my (admittedly biased) opinion BPS is better off educating students from a broader swath of society. I think it helps to have parents that have the resources to be more engaged politically, with the schools themselves and it is better for the kids to be exposed to some people that are not exactly like them.

        I guess I think that if equality is your #1 priority and you are fine with doing that even if it eliminates diversity that is fine. But I have not heard any plan that I think has a reasonable chance of being able to have your cake and eat it too.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to lay out your thoughts here. I’m sure others are thinking what you are writing. No one is talking about equality. We are talking about equitable access to the quality existing in the system, on the one hand, and increasing quality, on the other. This is not easy in a country that is become more unequal and more privatized by the minute, but I don’t see what choice we have. As armored vehicles patrol the streets of Ferguson, I worry more about what happens if the country continues to become more inequitable, than I worry about the reverse.

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