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The Misuse of ‘Equity’
Cambridge Flunks the Merit Test
A fracas has erupted in my home city, Cambridge, Ma., over a seemingly small matter—who can qualify for advanced middle school math?
It is actually a large issue, or Cambridge Public Schools have made it so, because their answer, stunningly, is “no one.”
Prior to the pandemic, Cambridge stopped offering advanced math in grades six through eight. Its explicit aim was to reduce disparities between low-income Blacks and Hispanics (who were under-represented in such classes) and whites and Asians.
The policy, according to subsequent state test scores, has done nothing for children of color. But it has done something to students who might have benefitted from algebra. As the Boston Globe reports, frustrated families are voicing protest; some are leaving the district. Others have signed up for private tutorials such as the popular afterschool class, “Russian Math.” But that costs money—so now, the window is open only to those with means.
The disparity between Black and white performance persists. And to those being ill-served by Cambridge Public Schools, we may add students of every ethnicity and station who might have qualified for in-school algebra—and who now face an uphill battle to reach advanced math classes in high school, including calculus—a gateway to college majors in math, science and computers.
Could any policy be more destructive to educational aims while producing less (meaning zero) benefit?
In response to protests from families, Cambridge school leaders told the Globe they can’t reinstate advanced math in middle school, because students are still hurting from pandemic losses, and offering algebra would widen disparities.
“We have a huge focus on addressing both the academic achievement gaps and the opportunity gaps in our community,” said Superintendent Victoria Greer. “One thing the district is not interested in doing is perpetuating those gaps.”
The Superintendent’s muddled sense of the district’s purposes point to an issue that is in no way limited to Cambridge. How should learning gaps, or any kind of performance disparities, be measured—by individual or by subgroup?
The issue is tearing the country apart, but the Cambridge response is so extreme, and so self-destructive, it should serve as a useful example of what not to do.
Better instruction, and more attention to underperforming minorities, may help and should help narrow achievement gaps, but equalization cannot be the only or superseding goal. If it were, a system that delivered uniformly poor performance—even uniform illiteracy—would be a rousing success.
And that, in a fashion, is what Cambridge is promising: equal mediocrity for all.
Except, of course, Cambridge schools are not mediocre (we could only wish). In 2022, as measured by the state MCAS tests, only 12% of 8th grade students “exceeded expectations” in math. Just over half partially or completely failed to meet expectations, that is, to perform at grade level.
And the intended beneficiaries of the just-say-no-to-algebra policy? Among Hispanics in Cambridge, only 4% exceeded expectations; among Blacks, 2%. Close to three quarters of each group either partially or fully failed to meet expectations.
It’s hard to believe that Cambridge—host to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology—could not do better. Is there another city in the country with more outsized math I.Q.s per capita?
For starters, I’m willing to bet that if Cambridge were to invite the math faculties of area colleges to volunteer, particularly as tutors for those in need, more than a few tenured brains would rise to the challenge. And I bet some good would come of it.
The current policy is actually counter-productive, because it restricts algebra to those who go outside the public schools. And it distracts attention from the real issue: Cambridge schools are failing Black and Hispanic kids. The urgent problem facing Black families is not that disproportionately fewer are excelling than whites, but that, on an absolute basis, very few are excelling.
Concern for equity cannot be allowed to distort the community’s goals to the point that merit is discouraged. As a society, we are seeing too much of that. Three thousand miles west, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Glossary of Terms on the website of California Community Colleges, which has 1.8 million students, defines “Merit” as “A concept that at face value appears to be a neutral measure of academic achievement and qualifications; however, merit is embedded in the ideology of Whiteness and upholds race-based structural inequality.”
Renouncing merit does not help children of color. Au contraire, it’s a means of wishing away the evidence of poor schooling. What students—particularly underachieving students—need is not ideology but a commitment to teach, for as many hours, and over as many months and with as much individual attention and community resources, as needed. A dollop of creativity would help, too.
People who live in and about Cambridge seem to get this. The Globe published six letters in response to its report; all displayed a common sense that escaped the district’s leaders (hundreds more commented online). “I find it stunning that Cambridge school leaders would pursue a strategy of holding back students,” said Flip Johnson of Brookline. “To close the gap, Cambridge Public Schools must focus on elementary education,” and hold elementary schools to a high standard, adds Eugenia Schraa Huh, a former teacher running for Cambridge School Committee. “So much is wrong with the Cambridge School Committee’s decision to drop algebra 1 from middle school math,” writes Liz Zucker. And Genevieve O’Brien aptly worries how America will “compete on the world stage.”
How indeed. Making war on merit is not the answer.