Success and Failure at BPS

Posted: October 20, 2014 by stevemcdonagh in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Implicit bias training. Human capital. Diversifying the pipeline. All phrases thrown around at a September 30th hearing at the Boston City Council to discuss the lack of diversity of the faculty of the Boston Public Schools. What do they mean? What do they mean when only 21% of the current faculty is Black, against 62% white? What do they mean when these numbers are in violation of a federal court order, and not for the first time, which mandates that at least 25% of BPS faculty be Black and 10% be of “other minority” (in the words of the order)? What do they mean when BPS spends $8 million on a campaign to increase the number of educators of color, and the percentage stays the same? When Ross Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of human capital for BPS, praises the school system for its recruitment efforts, but then has no response for why Black educators retire or leave the school system at a much higher rate than whites?

Matt Cregor, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, testified at the hearing. In referring to the court order mandating at least 25% Black faculty, he said, “We and everyone here view this as a floor, not a ceiling for what racial diversity in teacher hiring and retention needs to be in Boston.” This is an instructive line, and opens up a different way to view BPS. The hearing on the 30th framed the Boston Public Schools’ noncompliance with the order as a failure of policy, of things not working. But you can only fail if you intended to accomplish the goal in the first place. What Cregor is pointing to is, at best, a hesitancy on the part of the schools to make a commitment to diversity and desegregation, and, at worst, an ongoing refusal to do so, a stance that is not at all unprecedented in our history. Instead of complying with either the letter or the spirit of the law, the City of Boston has created instead a $1.1 billion department with an overwhelmingly white faculty, a system that pushes Black educators out quicker than their white counterparts, and an evaluation approach that punishes Black teachers. This is the system as it exists. Why do we assume it’s a mistake?

Let’s be clear, when your school system needs implicit bias training, that means that your school system is biased. When you say you need to diversify the pipeline, that means that there is a pipeline, and its white. When Black educators retire or leave at much higher rates than whites, that means that, whatever your stated intentions are, you are driving them away. When your teacher evaluation system disparately affects Black teachers, your evaluation system is racist. When looked at this way, the questions become much different. We are getting into questions of who the school system is for, and who it isn’t. Who owns it, and who serves it.

Recently, I had the chance to interview Roger Abrams, who served as part of the legal team for the plaintiffs in Morgan v. Hennigan, the case that challenged school segregation in Boston. His work on the case was focused on proving that the Boston Public Schools discriminated in the hiring and placement of Black teachers and administrators. What he told me he was surprised by, and is interesting to think about 40 years later, is the straightforwardness of the witnesses he deposed from BPS. As he says:

In the depositions [for the case]…I was able to get admissions from school board administrators to the effect that, ‘Oh, of course we assigned her to that school. She’s Black.’ And it took all my power not to go, ‘Oh, great,’ because my case was basically made through the depositions. The school board people were astounded that we alleged discrimination in hiring, because, they claimed, they did not keep racial data.”

Back then, the committee either denied being discriminatory or seemed oblivious to what discrimination even was. At last month’s hearing, Assistant Superintendent Wilson spent much of the time agreeing with the critiques of Councilors Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley, saying frequently that he “shared their concern”. But sharing concerns does not create change, and further, claims for the school system an unearned innocence in what has happened and is happening. In the quote above, Abrams mentions the school committee’s assertion from the 1970’s that they did not keep racial data with regards to hiring. This is a specious claim in itself, but is also contrasted with the reams of race-related data BPS presented at the hearing two weeks ago, in amounts that threatened to bog down the discussion. For all their precise number crunching and human capital campaigns, BPS still presented the lack of non-white faculty as, essentially, an unexplained Act of God they are not complicit in. Back to Abrams, discussing the actions of the school committee prior to desegregation:

The establishment and maintaining of a segregated school system in Boston was the result of deliberate, conscious, repeated decisions by the School Committee. People often say, quite incorrectly, that Boston and the other Northern cases were what’s called ‘de facto’ segregation, they just happen to mirror the neighborhoods. That’s wrong. There was no law, no city ordinance or state law that required schools to be segregated. But the school board repeatedly and annually made decisions as to where attendant zones would go, and they would draw those attendant zones right down through racial boundaries.”

Today, BPS does not attempt to argue that their teachers and staff are white because of forces beyond their control. They don’t argue anything at all. They simply say they share your concern and that they’re working on it, as the status quo marches on.

  1. Monty Neill says:

    I would add that the pass rates on the state’s test that prospective teachers must pass are very different for blacks and Latinos than for whites. Such entry tests generally lack predictive validity: passing one does not mean you will be a good teacher, while not passing one does not mean you will be a poor teacher. The state has never been seriously willing to address this ‘pipeline’ problem. A task force nearly a decade ago identified problems, but I never heard of any actual response. And if the possible black or Latino teaching force is small, that contributes to the too-few teachers of color in the system.

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