The following was submitted by Arlington School Committee member Paul Schlichtman in response to “Arlington Parents Call Out School Committee Candidate, Note Racial Disparities,” published May 20, 2020.
DigBoston recently published a letter claiming that my position is that the Arlington Public School is adequately serving its economically disadvantaged students, linguistically diverse students, and students of color. That is not true. My school committee colleagues and I have actively worked to address the needs of students, and prioritized closing the achievement gap and ensuring safe and supportive schools as reasons for advocating for a $5.5 million operating override last year.
Passing an override on the same ballot as a $291 million high school project is unprecedented. We couldn’t have done that without the community supporting our numbers, and without the in-depth documentation of the needs of the community and a strong argument to support the override as the necessary solution.
That is why, in order to talk about the issues we face today, we need to begin with a firm understanding of the controversy that prompted the letter you published, as well as what our data does and doesn’t say.
During the ACMi debate, Ms. [Lynette] Martin asked the following question:
“I’ve noticed that no school committee candidates have been specifically addressing the state’s data on the extreme disparity gaps for our high needs students, including 15% of our kids on IEPs, the 30% of our kids that identify as students of color, our economically disadvantaged students, and our English language learners. This amounts to thousands of children with disparities in MCAS scores, graduation rates. These students deserve better from our school system and I’d like to understand why no one is talking about the data specifically.”
For the past 19 years, I have worked for the Lowell Public Schools. My job involves the analysis of the district’s data. I worked with individual student data, aggregating it to paint pictures of classrooms and schools. I looked for trends, I looked for patterns. I looked for levers of change that would make the schools a better, more effective place for children. I serve on the state Board of Education’s Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council, which advises the board pertaining to changes in the state accountability system and assistance for struggling schools. I have also served as principal of two elementary schools in Lowell. Before I worked in Lowell, I performed a similar function at Madison Park High School in Boston, and was an elementary teacher at the Mason school in Roxbury and the Philbrick school in Roslindale.
This is my area of expertise. I believe that, in order to have a conversation that involves data, the data must be correct. We need precision in our work, or we spend time and resources chasing solutions that don’t match the underlying problem. It was difficult to start with Ms Martyn’s question, as the term “disparity gap” isn’t commonly used in education. It’s not terribly descriptive, as she is essentially using a synonym as an adjective. In the debate, I latched onto a small portion of her question, grabbed my phone, and looked up our graduation rates. 100% of the Asians in the Class of 2019 graduated from Arlington High.
Ms. Martyn’s response in the debate: “Our Asian kids might be doing better on our MCAS scores but they are being disciplined at five times the rate of our white kids.”
Given the level of incorrect data floating through the debate, I wrote a piece correcting the record. There’s an in depth discussion of the data on my website, www.schlichtman.org, but the point I made was there were no extreme disparities in the data, but there is room for improvement. I corrected Ms. Martyn’s “five times” statement by pointing to the district discipline data which reports that 8 out of 803 Asian students were disciplined (0.996%) and 54 out of 4,282 White students were disciplined (1.261%).
Subsequently, Ms. Martyn has attempted to walk this back by writing, “Other than one time during the debate when I inadvertently overstated the rate at which Asian high school students are disciplined compared to white students (without notes mistakenly stating it was five times the rate rather than 2.6 times, which is the correct figure), I am unaware of any other error in my statements that evening.” This number comes from moving the discussion away from district data to Arlington High, where 4 (out of 157) Asian students were disciplined at Arlington High. The small numbers magnify ratios when compared to other small numbers, which are easily manipulated and misinterpreted. We can’t claim extreme disparities when just one student having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day at school can shift ratios and alleged conclusions dramatically higher or lower. We can’t claim extreme disparities when we repeatedly divide small numbers into smaller and smaller fractions that descend deep into statistical insignificance.
Promoting herself as the “only data-driven candidate” and the only candidate talking about the “extreme disparity gaps” is the foundation of Ms. Martyn’s campaign, at least it was until she decided her path to election was to flood Facebook and YourArlington with attacks on me for challenging her numbers. I point out that our district data doesn’t show any overall statistical difference between Asian and White students, and the response has ranged from accusing me of using a “model minority trope” to “ignoring the experiences of students of color.”
Racism is evil, and it has been a toxin infused in the American experience from the first day Europeans landed on this continent. Our schools are a better place today than in the past because of the diligence and hard work of our staff and our community. Along with the rest of the world around us, we have not reached a race-blind panacea, which is why we strive for a culture of continuous improvement in everything we do. This work requires precise, thoughtful analysis in an environment where it is safe to examine our reality and talk openly about the next steps forward. The norms required for this difficult work are violated when false or misleading data is dumped into the center of our public discourse.
Promoting blanket outrage over extreme gaps shortchanging “thousands of students,” when the thousands don’t exist, blinds us to the important work of fighting racism. It blinds us to examining and evaluating the interpersonal relationships that are the foundation of our work. It is toxic. It is hurtful and defamatory to members of our school community, and counterproductive to our efforts to create a better world for all our students.