Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dear School Committee and City Council members:

I’ve been coming to budget meetings for about 15 years, and most of my remarks and questions have been one way or another about the gaps – whatever you want to call the gaps.

Over that time, it’s been frustrating to me how little academic progress we’ve made. But really it’s been more confusing, because I’ve had trouble understanding why Cambridge, of all places, has made so little progress.

One explanation I’ve heard is that teachers have low expectations of children of color. There’s research that shows that to be true nationally, and I’m sure we’re not immune.

But I opened a Cambridge Chronicle article about the new MCAS results and saw a chart that included third-grade ELA scores on it. And something about this chart jumped out to me.

Who has low expectations? 

The School Committee’s and the administration’s goal, your expectation for white children, is that close to 80 percent will hit targets in 2020.

But you have much lower expectations for black children: you expect fewer than 50 percent to achieve the same mark.

You – we, and this whole system – have low expectations: of the kids, but also of ourselves.

A budget is a blueprint, a map of the design of a system. What would this budget look like if your goal, your expectation for these 2020 African-American third-graders – who are only in first grade now and just starting to read and write – was for them to read and write at the same level you expect of the white third-graders?

I understand how this happens, and I don’t think it’s conscious ill will. But we’ve passively accepted this system where we look at a baseline number and past progress and determine how many points forward that means we can move the bar. We’re a data-driven district, right?

But that baseline number is low because we underserved the black third-graders of 2016 – and most of the black third-graders before them. Why do we accept that that low baseline should determine the future of today’s black first-graders?

School Committee member Laurance Kimbrough quoted Nikole Hannah-Jones a few weeks ago: “Our public schools are not broken, but are operating as designed.” 

The past two budgets and, I assume, this budget are designed so that two years from now, nearly 80 percent of white third-graders but fewer than 50 percent of black third-graders will get a good score on the MCAS. That’s all we expect of ourselves. We have designed this gap into the system. Every year. And so that’s how it operates, quite reliably.

So I just ask again, what would this budget look like, how would it be different, if your expectations for yourselves were different, if your goals for black children, and for all groups at the low ends of the gaps, were the same as for white children?

Leslie Brunetta, Roberts Road