NYU Metro Equity Study Report fails on many fronts
A Letter From a Concerned Parent
The following letter was written by a concerned Westport parent to the members of the Westport Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools. The author has given us permission to publish it here in its entirety.
F ollowing Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, along with my own detailed review of the recently published equity study from NYU Metro, I am writing to express a number of questions and concerns with respect to the study’s contents, conclusions, and potential recommendations for future action. Although for several reasons I was not supportive of the Board’s original decision to partner with the NYU Metro Center on this study, I am grateful that its publication has created the opportunity for an important conversation to take place within the Westport school community, and also the town at large. My questions and concerns comprise the following:
Potentially misleading and/or incomplete use of statistics
While the study devotes much space to revealing surface-level disproportionalities (nearly exclusively along racial lines) in numerous educational areas, e.g., with respect to “access” to instruction and curriculum, academic outcomes, disciplinary action against students, etc., describing these data in percentage terms only – without explicit reference to the underlying raw numbers as well, which require extra digging to find beyond the published report – paints a potentially misleading picture.
For example, while it may be shown that white and Asian students are “over-represented” (relative to total enrollment composition) in AP and Honors classes, and similarly that blacks and/or Latino students are “over-represented” in Track B/C academic tracks, the underlying data would also show that out of 1,626 combined white and/or Asian students at Staples High School during the 2019-2020 school year, 993 were not in AP classes and 609 were not in Honors classes that year. Meanwhile, 49 and 66 combined black and/or Latino students were in AP and Honors classes, respectively. Another example: 341 white students and 20 Asian students were in combined Track B/C academic programs in 2019- 2020; and out of 140 combined black and/or Latino students at Staples, 74 were not in Track B or C.
I use basic arithmetic to ask a simple question: With the added illumination provided by the raw underlying numbers, can anyone seriously make the case that deserving black or Latino students are (systematically) being denied “access” to advanced educational instruction or, conversely, that whites or Asians are somehow being unduly favored for the same?
Statistical insignificance and/or possible sample bias with respect to the district’s “root cause” team, various focus groups, etc.
The study highlights contributions (in the form of anonymous quotes, working group session minutes, surveys, etc.) from various stakeholders within the Westport school community, namely: A “root cause” team of 30 members, comprising school administrators (including the Superintendent), coaches, teachers, etc.; a “student focus group” (20 members); a parent/caregiver focus group (23 members); and a WPS staff survey (216 participants out of 975 total district staff members).
While comments at Monday’s Board meeting asserted that multiple viewpoints were included in such discussions in the past, the comments selected for the published version of the report (e.g., that “pervasive implicit biases” exist within Westport schools, that “[sic] um kids are racist without knowing they’re racist”, or that “...their guidance counselor was specifically not showing them...harder colleges, because of their race”) skew preponderantly negative. Given the limited number of participants in these sessions – noting that there are more than 5,400 students across the entire school system, an even greater number of parents, nearly 1,000 combined teachers and staff members, etc. – the comments published in the final report strike me at most as anecdotal (rather than systemic), and do not appear to me to be a fair sampling of views within the broad and diverse Westport community.
“Hammer and nail syndrome” with respect to viewing all educational disparities through the lens of race alone
The equity study is officially referred to as a “Root Cause Report.” From the report’s Executive Summary, the reader is led to believe that “lack of data”, “lack of...restorative practices / approaches to discipline”, “implicit biases”, and “insufficient...learning on culturally responsive sustaining education” form the sum total of these so-called root causes for any and all disparate educational outcomes within Westport schools – again, virtually exclusively along racial lines.
It is perhaps understandable that, given that data around Westport schools’ racial composition are so readily available in the first place, NYU Metro has chosen to zero in on race as the dominant variable to explain whatever disparities in educational outcomes may exist. (And here I am purposely censoring my opinion regarding NYU Metro’s obvious ideological slant, which I believe also skews its analysis). Nevertheless, despite the apparent lack of availability of (or difficulty in obtaining) non-race-related data, I believe it is dangerous to approach such a complex challenge – which I would define as ensuring that each Westport student achieves his or her full educational potential – through the lens of race alone, without regard to the countless additional variables in an individual student’s life. As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
While it is presently unfashionable to say so in public, a more fruitful analysis of the underpinnings – that is, the “root causes” – of disparate outcomes in education might include reference to additional important, well-documented, sociological and economic variables. These include: household composition (single vs. two parents, marital status, etc.); household income; parents’ educational level; religious observance; a family’s particular “cultural” emphasis on education; the individual’s innate intelligence and capabilities; etc. At best, NYU Metro’s focus on race alone paints a woefully incomplete picture of why educational outcomes differ among individuals, and across selected sub-groups.
Imprecise language describing the equity study’s ultimate goals and intentions
“Equity” is one of the most misunderstood and therefore troublesome words in our current popular discourse. The simple dictionary meaning connotes ideas such as fairness, impartiality, etc. Within the context of a public school education, to me, “equity” is most accurately characterized by “equality of opportunity”; whereas for others, “equality of outcome” might be closer to the mark. I would argue that, as these two opposing viewpoints are mutually exclusive, the Board must determine (and communicate publicly) a crystal-clear working definition for our current purposes.
Despite this exercise being billed as an “equity study”, it is remarkable that NYU Metro does not get around to articulating its version of “equity” until page 39 of the report:
The concept of equity is synonymous with fairness and justice. To be achieved and sustained, we think of equity as structural and systemic as opposed to isolated and individual. An equitable system maintains policies, practices, and procedures in collecting, and analyzing disaggregated data to inform and address inequitable experiences and outcomes. Equity as a robust system and dynamic process reinforces and replicates equitable ideas, shared power, resources, strategies, conditions, habits, and outcomes. In order to increase access to programming for every student, a reframing of mindsets, policies, practices and procedures are warranted. Developing a more culturally responsive school district cannot be done with baby steps, an approach which often trades the possibility of equity for a privilege-sustaining illusion.
Within NYU Metro’s somewhat confusing and belabored definition of “equity”, there appear (to me, at least) to be numerous, potentially opposing, strands of thought and shades of meaning. I am not sure I can explain in plain English what the above passage actually is saying, or what tangible “call to action” might result from it. Again, the Board must codify its own definition of “equity” so that we all may understand what truly it is that we’re after here.
Lack of clarity in terms of how to tangibly address perceived inequities in Westport schools
Although I am aware, based on comments made at Monday’s Board meeting, that “action items” stemming from the equity study’s findings were perhaps not part of the scope of NYU Metro’s work this time around, it is still possible to find glimpses of NYU Metro’s ultimate intentions in this regard within the text of the report. Specifically, the report mentions that
School communities that are based on White and affluent normative culture are often rife with inequities that are grounded in a lack of access to educational programming for individuals that do not fit this mold. Achieving equity in school communities means redistributing access and opportunity - to learning materials, rigorous instruction and curricula offered in advanced placements courses, and extracurricular programming.
What, I ask, is meant by “redistributing access and opportunity”? I know that at Monday’s meeting, at least one Board member overtly dismissed the idea of instituting academic quotas – again, along racial lines – with respect to AP classes and the like. But is this the entire Board’s official view? What about racial quotas for non-academic and/or extracurricular activities, including sports teams? In the process of determining a path forward in terms of what to do in response to the equity study, I might also ask the Board to codify what it would not do. As things stand, this is unclear to me.
In closing, I know that the above list of concerns, even if expressed somewhat differently or with different points of emphasis, is shared by many in our community. At Monday’s Board meeting, the overarching desire to create a learning environment for students that is “welcoming”, “inclusive”, and so forth, was expressed several times, and (in my assessment) by several individuals who hold a range of views on the purpose and efficacy of the equity study itself. This suggests to me that all of us are ultimately after more or less the same goal, which is the flourishing of our students. It is not clear to me that NYU Metro’s report has been helpful in this effort, and I would look forward to ceasing Westport’s involvement (as was essentially confirmed by Supt. Scarice on Monday night) with NYU Metro going forward. Thank you for considering my comments in this letter.