Annual Meeting Honors Rothstein, Activists for Public Schools

Richard Rothstein accepts Activist for Public Schools Award from CPS's Lisa Guisbond. (Photo by Larry Aaronson)

No sooner did Richard Rothstein graciously accept his Activist for Public Schools Award from CPS than he challenged CPS members and other progressive reformers to rethink issues of educational equity and the “achievement gap.” Demonstrating his adherence to evidence, he passed out a chart showing huge gains in math scores for Massachusetts black 4th and 8th graders between 1992 and 2009. The evidence, he said, does not support the idea that our schools have utterly failed black students. On the contrary, they have made such great gains in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, that they essentially closed the gap that existed between them and white and students in 1992. The gap persists because whites have also made gains during that time.

Rothstein’s point was not that school quality doesn’t matter, nor that we cannot improve schools for black students, but that if reform activists buy into the idea that schools alone can make up for larger social inequities and close the “achievement gap,” we are buying what amounts to a losing battle for teachers and schools. We are also neglecting to focus on the real problem, he said, the broader social inequities that leave too many children unprepared to learn and grow once they arrive at school. Society would do better to address the inequities affecting students before they even arrive at school than keep beating up teachers and schools for perpetuating or not eliminating achievement gaps.

Rothstein addressed a full and attentive audience at the Church on the Hill and drew a range of questions and comments. Barbara Fields, who formerly headed the Office of Equity in the Boston Public Schools for 24 years, challenged the notion that the achievement gap couldn’t be closed or even eliminated by investment and improvement in urban public schools. We need adequate funding, resources, and political will to address the inequities that still exist within and between school systems, she said. Fields, who is a member of Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) and the CPS board, agreed with Rothstein about the need to tackle inequities in society directly and not imagine that all society’s ills could be solved by the schools. She supported his assertion that early childhood education and wraparound services are crucial. However, she noted that even within the Boston school system, there are sharp differences in the quality of education being offered in different schools, often depending on the racial and income characteristics of the student population and the surrounding neighborhood. This situation must be challenged directly, she noted.

In answer to a question about the disconnect between President Obama’s stated views on testing and his education department’s policies, such as Race to the Top, Rothstein read a recent quote from Obama that could have come right out of the CPS Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child. Obama said, in part, “One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

As Rothstein read the quote verbatim, audience members called out, “Does he know what Arne Duncan’s doing?” Rothstein urged CPS members and others to call attention to Obama’s words and urge his administration to enact policies that are consistent with them.

In addition to honoring Rothstein, CPS presented Activist for Public Schools Awards to Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, Rep. David Sullivan, and the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. A special lifetime award in honor of the late Sumner Z. Kaplan was presented to Judge Kaplan’s daughter, Ruth Kaplan, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. In a moving moment, Ruth Kaplan and her mother, Eleanor, accepted the award from CPS board member Sheila Decter, saying how much it meant to feel Sumner’s spirit alive in the room.

The awards ceremony also honored Sen. Donnelly and Rep. Sullivan for their consistent voices and efforts on behalf of public school families and the public employees who teach and care for our children and the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) for its unwavering efforts to create equity and access in public schools for all students.

[Video footage of the CPS annual meeting and Richard Rothstein’s talk is available here. All photos in photo gallery by Larry Aaronson.]

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