“Inequitable” Versus “Unequal”: Fun With Words, Task Force Version

In these trying times of fake news and 140 character rants, we have yet another English language crisis, such that the word “inequitable” now means “unequal.”

Oh, it’s not me saying this–it’s the cross sector task force.

Or rather, it’s the people from the office of the deputy mayor for education (DME), who put together this slide for the meeting this past Tuesday, September 26:

atrisk.jpg

Look at that first piece of focus for the at risk working group of the task force:

“Inequitable distribution of at risk students across schools.”

Really?

More at risk students currently are enrolled in DCPS schools, with a few DCPS schools having very high concentrations of at risk students. Which means those students are unequally distributed: not necessarily (or even at all) inequitably, which relates to issues of justice and fairness.

To be sure, one could speak about the fact that the schools that have the highest concentrations of at risk students tend to have test scores that are not very high–and that this is indeed an issue of justice and fairness!

But even then, it makes no sense to talk of this situation as “inequitable,” because doing so presumes several things:

–Those at risk students all did not want to be at their schools; and/or
–Those at risk students are inevitably poorly served at their schools; and/or
–Those schools have everything they need and yet are still failing; and/or
–Any schools with higher test scores can do better.

Sadly, no one in any of the meetings of the task force thus far has presented any data to show that any of those presumptions is true–despite the clear urgency of doing so! The closest that anyone on the task force got to a deeper and richer understanding of how best to help students who are the most at risk in our city was in the (apparently abandoned) effort to identify and replicate practices at so-called “beating the odds” schools, which have both high at risk populations and high test scores.

Indeed, despite these lovely slides (and there are lots of them from this and prior meetings available on the DME’s task force website), at no point have the people in that at risk group been given any information about who these at risk students are; why they go to the schools they go to; and what those schools need to increase test scores or, in fact, what they may be doing already that is good or bad–and what they need.

Inequitable, indeed.

As the slides make clear, this week’s exercise of the at risk working group was to ensure those at risk students are distributed to other schools more or less randomly–without doing anything whatsoever to understand what actually is needed for anyone at any school to best help them.

So, who is this about, then: the kids? Or the adults?

For me, that (inevitable, inequitable) disconnect was all of a piece with the entire task force meeting, as I and several other latecomers found ourselves locked out of it.

That is, we got inside the building at 101 Constitution Ave. NW just fine, but once up on the floor of the meeting host, EducationCounsel, none of us late arrivals could get the locked door open.

(Recall that the public had to fight to get these meetings open to the public.)

Funnily enough, everyone we asked who was milling about at a reception on the same floor said they had no idea what the task force was; where it was meeting; who was involved; or, more practically, how to get the door open.

Former mayor Anthony Williams–one of the late arrivals and the task force co-chair–even pulled the “I was the mayor of DC” trick for someone who answered the door when I pounded on it with my fist (because decorous knocking and ringing the bell were getting us nowhere)—only to have that person close the door in our faces to find someone who (eventually) let us in.

We arrived as DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson was going through the DCPS strategic plan–which was interesting inasmuch as what was presented to the task force (see here) was more in depth than what had been presented to the general public (see here).

After that, the task force broke apart into the two groups that have been meeting for the last 6 months: the one on at risk students and the other on facilities.

The facilities group didn’t discuss much together, but broke apart into even smaller groups ostensibly to discuss how a planning cycle for schools, programming, and accountability would work. (See the slide deck here; the discussion was supposed to center on slide 12.)

At one point, several of the small facilities discussion groups reconstituted themselves into a larger one consisting of former mayor Williams, the DME, Chancellor Wilson, Jim Sandman, charter board director Scott Pearson, and–amazingly!–someone who isn’t even a member of the task force: Kevin Clinton.

Clinton is the COO of the Federal City Council, where Anthony Williams is the executive director. The council has long ties to education reform in DC.

Now, considering that the unwashed masses of non-task-force members are not allowed to say anything in task force meetings, this invitation was rather extraordinary.

(Inequitable even!)

As it was, the snippet of conversation I heard that group having didn’t seem to concern itself with the slide under discussion, but with the recently approved DCPS teachers’ contract and the increase in payment that charter schools will get as a result (despite not having anything to do with the DCPS teachers’ contract).

Still, the most publicly disembodied moment of that meeting for me concerned something the entire task force apparently never discussed at all: its vision for DC schools.

That is, the meeting slide deck had four different versions of this “vision,” none of which had any attribution whatsoever. It is not clear why the four versions were being presented, given that the task force’s last meeting also had the fourth version presented (without discussion or attribution), while none of the versions were discussed at either meeting.

But taken together, these “visions” trace true inequity.

The first version is here:

version1

Inoffensive enough—though it doesn’t capture the essence of the task force’s own “guiding principles”: “creating a core system of high-quality public schools of right in every neighborhood complemented by high-quality public schools of choice.”

Somewhere along the line, however, this version of the vision got changed (by some unknown author) to this:

version2

OK, again missing the point of the guiding principles and clunkier.

But then at some point, like a wraith, came the third version of the “vision”:

version3

Finally, an (unknown) editor got hold of that yet-clunkier version (“child student”?)–and the fourth and latest version was born in utter silence:

version4

Although this latest version is quite svelte by comparison to the earlier ones, there’s more missing than present:

–We now have only “options” standing in for our public schools. Forget guarantees; forget neighborhoods; forget a “core system” of “public schools of right.” Schools in this “vision” are like toilet paper at the supermarket. (Or Uber.)

–There is no mention anywhere about by right schools being DCPS schools. This doesn’t merely revivify the task force’s zombie discussion of by right charter schools. It means that for the writers (whoever they are), DCPS schools are basically interchangeable with charter schools.

If these mystery writers (presumably DME staff) thusly believe that there is no functional or even legal difference between DCPS and charter schools, and there is no guarantee of by right schools in every neighborhood, it’s not merely that any school could be yours—but that any school could be anywhere doing anything, while what actually is inequitable remains unknown, unexamined, and unmentioned.

So, I gotta ask, as a member of the public footing the bill for this oddly nonpublic spectacle:

Who’s actually doing all of this?

And who has agreed to it?

Judging how difficult it was to even get past a locked door into Tuesday’s task force meeting, it is completely unsurprising that none of those “visions” included a version that several task force members had floated to the task force after its July meeting:

“DC is committed to providing excellent and dynamic school options through DCPS by-right neighborhood schools and city-wide public schools of choice, including both DCPS and public charter schools.”

I guess something is inequitable, after all–too bad it’s not being discussed by the task force.

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