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Schlichtman fact-checks debate claims about racial gap

Paul Schlichtman, a candidate for reelection to the School Committee, provided this commentary in response to an ACMi debate, which you can watch here >> 

Paul Schlichtman, School Committee candidate, 2020 photoSchlichtman

I have been involved in Arlington politics for more than two dozen years, and I have never seen a candidate debate in urgent need of extensive fact-checking. Until now.

In the middle of the debate, challenger Lynette Martyn asked the other candidates, “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 percent of our kids on IEPs, the 30 percent 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.”

The answer is simple. The “widespread disparity gaps” that are the centerpiece of Ms. Martyn’s campaign simply don’t exist. We are not shortchanging “thousands of students” in the Arlington Public Schools, and these accusations are defamatory and particularly hurtful to the dedicated and caring educators working in these schools.

Stat-savvy committee

Our School Committee is fortunate to have some of the most statistically savvy members on any public body. Jane Morgan teaches statistics at Southern New Hampshire University. Dr. Kirsi Allison-Ampe has a background in medical research. My graduate work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education included a concentration in psychometrics and statistics, and for the past 19 years, I made my living analyzing student performance and accountability data for the Lowell Public Schools. If Arlington has a “widespread disparity gap,” one of us would have discovered it.

I have posted a transcript of the debate, and I have started a detailed fact-check page, on my campaign website, which provides a more in-depth analysis that I can provide here (including direct links to the transcript and the state data). It contains a discussion of significance tests in statistical analysis, and why an apparent difference in data is really meaningless.

One example: Ms. Martyn said “Arlington prides itself on a 96-percent graduation rate,” and goes on to cite alleged disparities among subgroups. She says, “We don’t know how to talk about these uncomfortable truths. If we aren’t willing to lean into these difficult conversations, then we’re not going to be able to tackle the systemic issues . …”

However, we do know how to talk about our data. The state reports two sets of four-year graduation rates. One, which includes all students in the Class of 2019, reports differences between white (96.1%), black (92.3%), and Asian (100.0%) graduation rates that are not significant. There were only 13 black students in the cohort, so the percentage graduating (12/13 or 92.3%) cannot be seen as evidence of disparities between racial groups. Examining the adjusted cohort rate, which restricts the analysis to students who were in the cohort at the beginning of ninth grade, showed that all 12 (or 100%) of the black students who began ninth grade in Arlington graduated in four years.

A closer look

A more in-depth analysis brings us to the number of students dropping out of the Class of 2019. Of the 360 students in the cohort, five students dropped out. That’s five too many, but the analysis shows that the biggest contributing factor is when a student transfers into the district after the start of ninth grade.

Of the 315 students who began ninth grade in Arlington, two dropped out. Of the 45 students who transferred into Arlington, three dropped out. Students who transfer into Arlington after the start of ninth grade are also less likely to graduate on time than students who spent all four years in our system. This data doesn’t point to systemic issues of racism. The data suggested that some students needed additional support, and we acted on our findings by prioritizing the hiring of additional psychologists, social workers and special-education teachers.

That said, no excuse of benign misinterpretation can explain blatant misrepresentations of state data.

When Ms. Martyn was challenged on her statement, “If you’re a white kid who comes from an economically stable family, and is a native English speaker, and learns the same way as everyone else, Arlington Public Schools is great,” she pivoted to another false accusation. She said, “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.” She pointed to state data to justify her claims, but a look at the state’s reporting on Arlington’s district profile reveals that eight out of 803 Asian students were disciplined (0.996%) and 54 out of 4,282 white students were disciplined (1.261%). No statistician would view this difference as significant, but it absolutely conflicts with Ms. Martyn’s false accusations.

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 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.

This commentary was published Saturday, April 25.

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