Emmett Johnson

"What you're about to witness is my thoughts...right or wrong -- just what I was feeling at the time" - Jay-Z

DUSD’s Test Scores — My Response pt II

Last week I posted a link to an email out of the Dublin Unified School District, highlighting district-wide test scores, along with my email response expressing concern for the portrayal of certain sub-groups.

Having received no response to my submission, I made it a point to attend the subsequent Board meeting to provide public comment and ensure that my concerns were heard.

I was grateful to see a handful of others who had come to express similar concerns. It also became apparent that some had reached out to the Superintendent (Dr. Hanke) more directly, as the discussion of test scores opened with somewhat of an apology.

However, it was also clear from the commentary that the true concern of the email — the possible impact within the community and across the specific sub-groups that were called out — was not fully understood across board. 

In the end, I moved forward with articulating my concerns. My prepared remarks are copied below.

-edj- 

Thank you, Dr. Hanke and the Board for all that you do and have done for our kids, and for also broaching the topic of test scores in this public format.

Three minutes is a challenge for this topic — at the very least, I hope these words can spur additional dialog and increased sensitivity.

Dr. Hanke’s email to the community back on August 29 stated, and I quote, ”…a stubborn achievement gap remains for certain sub group populations of our students including students of color, English Learners, economically disadvantaged students and those with special needs.  These students are significantly behind their Asian and white fellow students in all indicators of success.”

This paragraph concerned me on a few levels, and on September 4th, I provided a response, sent to Dr. Hanke as well as Kolb Elementary’s principal, Mrs. Browning. Dr. Hanke — if you have not yet seen that email, I do have copies and hope that you will take some time to consider its content.

While time won’t permit all of my questions and concerns, I do want to address the blanket statement of students of color being significantly behind in all indicators of success. While the numbers, at a very high level, might support that conclusion, there are many nuances to that discussion. I do not – I cannot – believe it simply a matter of color.

Allow me to articulate the basis of my concern and my worries about potential perceptions.

While used at both national and state levels, color is a very basic criteria and one that we should perhaps rethink as a basis for reporting. We teach kids color before we teach them numbers and letters. It is a primary descriptor; one that is very easy to articulate. 

If the notion is that students of color are somehow inherently inferior, then we need to have a completely separate discussion; however, I don’t believe that to have been the message and I think we just need to reconsider how we parse and communicate these results.

Negative perceptions and stereotypes, along with their impacts, can be very real; and we owe it to all members of any group to be sensitive as to how we portray them to the community.

My son is a 1st grader at Kolb. My wife and I will do what it takes to ensure he is never significantly behind anyone in anything. He will, for better or worse, face more pressure from me to perform as compared to a number of his friends — and that stems in part from long-held color-based stereotypes and the messages that could be gleaned from the aforementioned email, even in the most well-meaning of hands.

Two weeks ago, a little guy (likely a kindergartener) walked by with his dad and said to me, “Hey, Mr. Brown Man”. That was okay. That was natural. I would be considered brown.

However, it highlights color as an initial indicator when the INDIVIDUAL is so much more. We must be careful with the messages we send that little guy and others like him. When communications from authority figures highlight shortcomings with an emphasis on color lines, the cycle of stereotyping is refueled and can then repeat. In a community where the active African American population is a small one it is all the more critical to avoid the automatic bucketing of those few and sending the wrong message about groups and achievement to the community. 

My hope is for my son to have to fight negative perception and stereotype a little less than I did. I don’t want assumptions made of his performance simply because of his color, and I don’t want hesitation when considering him for advanced activities and opportunities because his skin is brown. For any student who may be struggling in an area, I don’t want these words to lead to shame or a feeling of inferiority in those who need additional confidence and lifting up. Your careful communications can help.

In summary, I am hoping for a more nuanced approach to communicating results like these in the future, and I also hope that the improvement mechanisms to be deployed are created, communicated, and implemented in a way so as to avoid simple biases based on such high-level characteristics as color.

Thank you for your time.

DUSD’s Test Scores – My Response pt I

On August 29, the Dublin Unified School District Superintendent sent a communication to the entire district community. The email, intended to tout the district’s year-over-year gains in standardized test scores, unfortunately also called out specific ‘sub-groups’ in questionable fashion.

“A closer look at both the API and AYP results show that, unfortunately, a stubborn achievement gap remains for certain sub group populations of our students including students of color, English Learners, economically disadvantaged students and those with special needs. These students are significantly behind their Asian and white fellow students in all indicators of success.”

Being a ‘person of color’, I was extremely disappointed in the distribution and tone of the communication and took the time to craft a response to the Superintendent. That response follows:

A Parent’s Perspective Re: Superintendent Message Regarding District Test Scores

Dr. Hanke;

I would like to first thank you and all of those involved in the education of our children here in Dublin. My wife and I take education very seriously, and we are determined to instill a deep appreciation of education in our 1st-grader (at Kolb). I look forward to working with your teachers and administrators as he grows, learns, and experiences.

In your most recent email to parents regarding district test scores, you state:
"A closer look at both the API and AYP results show that, unfortunately, a stubborn achievement gap remains for certain sub group populations of our students including students of color, English Learners, economically disadvantaged students and those with special needs.  These students are significantly behind their Asian and white fellow students in all indicators of success."

I am concerned about the comparisons here on a few levels.

Three of the four groups (English Learners, economically disadvantaged students, and those with special needs) represent ‘circumstances’ and a ‘being’ (in the case of the latter) researched and generally proven to present learning challenges regardless of race/ethnicity. The comparison of those groups to Asian and white students implies that Asians and whites do not fall into those categories, and I would submit that a fairer comparison would have been against similar sub groups across other districts.

The fourth sub group, “students of color”, represents a ‘being’. Taken on the surface, the comparison made could suggest an inherent inferiority, and as a person of color (African-American) that message, communicated in this forum, is of concern to me. I hold my son to the same if not higher standards as everyone else, and I expect others to assume a similar stance in their expectations. While the data, at a very high and basic level, supports the reported conclusion, I believe the true underlying causes to be much more complex. I submit that simply highlighting this type of data at that level might send the wrong message to the community.

Having a broader interest in the future of education, I would personally like to understand more of the demographic data underlying the test results. I am curious as to whether or not there are factors beyond color — perhaps a couple of those represented by the other sub groups — that might serve as better dimensions for highlighting the noted gaps.
I pulled data from the district’s website looking to perform a more detailed analysis; however, the granularity I hoped for was unavailable. Specifically, I would like to know:

  • the specific subsets grouped into “students of color”
  • percentage of “students of color” also represented in each of the other three sub groups demonstrating achievement gaps (English learners, economically disadvantaged, and special needs), along with a similar breakout for the Asian and white groups
  • for each of “students of color”, Asian, and white student groups, average test results for those students that did NOT fall into the other three sub groups demonstrating achievement gaps

Please let me know if that information can be made available and who I would call on to obtain it.

Again I thank you for your efforts and all the district is doing for our students, and I look forward to future successes. Feel free to reach me at <redacted> for more dialog.

Regards,

 - Emmett D. Johnson, Jr.

To read the Superintendent’s entire email, click here.

Bye-Bye Record ‘Books’ – Big Data has Destroyed You

From m-w.com:

record (noun)

·      a collection of related items of information (as in a database) treated as a unit

·      (1) : an attested top performance (2) : an unsurpassed statistic

If you follow sports, you’ve heard it I’m sure – LeBron James is the first person in NBA history to score at least 30 points while shooting 60% from the field in six consecutive games. Per all the publications, he “broke the record”, as only two players had ever managed it in five straight.

My first thought – “That’s not a record – that’s a piece of trivia!” Surely the NBA ‘record book’ didn’t maintain that stat.

But then I caught myself, quickly realizing that whether officially maintained or not, it doesn’t matter.

The fact is that with all of the data now available, with all of the tools to combine and permutate data points as never before, the number of records, both informational/logical and ‘unsurpassed’, is infinite, and no ‘book’ can ever hope to contain it.