Tuesday, May 21, 2024

In two pieces over the past month, Cambridge Day has reported on the continued rollout of Chromebooks for all students at CRLS. The coverage has been misleading and unfair. The new policy, which gives a Chromebook to every student in the school, and requires them to use only that devices while in the classroom, is a major success for the school and for the city.  The two articles, unfortunately, focused heavily on the perceived lack of a “democratic process.”

Why were a small number of families so upset about the new policy that they reached out to a School Committee member? Why did that School Committee member add a last-minute motion to the agenda asking that juniors and seniors be exempt from the new policy? Why did Cambridge Day write two articles bemoaning the lack of what they saw as a fair process? In my mind, the answer to all of these questions is that families in our district with the most racial and economic power have a hard time seeing their own unearned privilege.

The first article bemoaned that, “issues of equality outweigh the lack of notice,” and that officials were, “shrugging off concerns over process.” The second piece, an opinion piece, opined: 

Our school officials talk a lot about how much they respect the students, but mania for a theoretical instant equity has given cause for students to see it as nothing more than lip service. The students are in better company, though: Democratic process got the same treatment.

I won’t get in to the merits of the new policy, which were defended convincingly at the last School Committee. Nor will I argue about whether students had ample warning of the policy. (I personally sat in at least one meeting about the policy over a year ago, but I will take at their word that students had no idea this was coming.) Instead, I want to focus my comments on the paper’s assertion that there wasn’t a fair and democratic process here.  I think that doing so can help us as a city as we continue to have conversations about how to achieve equity in our schools.

To begin, it’s important to state that parents and students are not entitled to be consulted about every decision made at the school.  It’s the height of white and class privilege to think otherwise. On those occasions where the decisions will have a real effect on the education of students, parents are consistently asked for input.  This was not one of those decisions because there was no potential harm to students in the new policy; the logic for the policy was overwhelming, and supported by the staff. 

The fact that some students and their families saw great harm in the policy, and were upset about not being consulted or warned, points to unexamined privilege. As one small example, students wealthy enough to have their own computers complained that they would be harmed in AP computer science classes because Chromebooks are inadequate in those classes.  The computer science teachers testified that this was not the case and that they support the new policy. If the teachers of the AP class say that the classes don’t require outside computers, why do the wealthy families insist that they want to continue using them?

It’s not disrespectful to students to inform them of a new policy and then expect them to adhere to it, unless that policy harms them in some way.  How have wealthy white parents in our district come away with the idea that we need to be consulted on all decisions and that what is best for our individual child should carry the day? We elect a school committee, who hires a superintendent, who supervises the principal.  That principal, on the advice of a team of technology experts, in consultation with teachers and after a yearlong pilot program, decided on the policy.  Families were told about it and could have celebrated, as most families did. Instead, some of them complained that the new policy would harm their children.  When that was proven to be false, they hung on to their complaint that the process was not fair or democratic.

Here’s what democracy looked like in this case:  The school made a policy that some people didn’t like.  Those people, who did not represent any of the people too poor to afford computers for their children, were upset that they had not been consulted or adequately warned and wanted to be exempt from the policy. They found an elected official to sponsor their cause. School personnel came to two consecutive School Committee meetings to explain in detail why the policy made sense.  Two student representatives from the high school who sit on the Committee conducted a hurried survey to see how their peers felt.  Based on the results of the survey, both of those students also supported the new policy. Based on all of this, the committee member who wanted to exempt the juniors and seniors withdrew her motion. Furthermore, based on feedback from students at the first committee meeting, the administration at the high school fixed several things to ameliorate some of the hiccups that came with the new policy.

In what ways is this not democratic? In what ways was the process unfair? It was the picture of democracy.  You can only ascertain that it was unfair if you believe that families with the most social capital should be consulted on all decisions or if you believe that when wealthy families want something, democracy should lean in their favor. Is that a lesson we want to reinforce?

Tara Edelschick
Parent of two CRLS students