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Support for Schlichtman -- and the value of data

Steve Berczuk of Teel Street submitted these comments supporting Paul Schlichtman, a candidate for reelection to the School Committee, and addressing the discussion of racial data after the ACMi debate. 

Paul Schlichtman, School Committee candidate, 2020 photoSchlichtman

The School Committee race in Arlington has taken a counterproductive turn.

The School Committee faces many challenges, including the need to improve education for everyone, hire a new superintendent and enable APS to function as effectively as possible in the Covid-19 pandemic era. And yet a large amount of effort has been spent on one sentence taken out of context.

Paul Schlichtman -- a thoughtful, experienced educator, administrator and School Committee member -- wrote a letter, and applied his analytical skills and experience as an educator and education administrator to rebut what he believed to be an inaccurate characterization of statistics by Lynette Martyn during the April 17 Arlington School Committee debate.  Candidate Martyn and some of her supporters have responded to his analysis not by addressing the data but using a line taken out of context to misrepresent Schlichtman’s position on achievement gaps in the Arlington Public Schools (APS). This is shocking and disappointing.

Schlichtman’s letter opened:

“… The “widespread disparity gaps” that are the centerpiece of Ms. Martyn’s campaign simply don’t exist. We are not shortchanging “thousands of students” in the Arlington Public Schools, and these accusations are defamatory and particularly hurtful to the dedicated and caring educators working in these schools.”

Schlichtman presented detailed numbers explaining how “We are not shortchanging 'thousands of students' in the Arlington Public Schools” -- the specific aspect of Martyn’s claims that had concerned him in the debate. He walked readers through his analysis, making it possible for them to evaluate his argument. 

From Schlichtman’s almost 1,000-word letter filled with facts and figures, Martyn focused her response on his one phrase (“widespread disparity gaps ... don’t exist”) and has yet to respond with a comparable analysis that could help the voters understand why her own claims were correct. Similarly, published letters to Your Arlington and The Advocate endorsing Martyn and challenging the Schlichtman essay also take the same phrase out of context and, generally, do not disclose specific objections to his critique, with its underlying numbers indicating that APS does not shortchange “thousands of students.”

Schlichtman has repeatedly acknowledged (including in his ACMi candidate interview) the disparities in education and other challenges that some students face, because of racial and cultural biases, SPED funding levels and other constraints. Still, the major objection raised to Schlichtman’s candidacy by Martyn and some supporters continues to be that he denies the existence of such disparities.

There are many ways to identify and describe problems. Some problems can be quantified (e.g., based on 2019 data that several letter writers, including Schlichtman, are using to summarize potential issues, such as numbers of students disciplined). Personal stories, anecdotes and other observations can live alongside the more quantifiable data to help us identify challenges that need attention. (As an example of the latter, Schlichtman’s letter discussed the potential contribution of late transfer into APS on student dropout.) Meaningful analysis and full consideration of the underlying evidence are how we can understand the true scope, and nature, of disparities in APS.

I hope that in the home stretch of the election the candidates can focus the debate on how best to understand the present state of APS and the scope and nature of disparities, rather than expending more energy on an out-of-context phrase, that triggers “blanket outrage” and gives the erroneous impression that one candidate does not care about ensuring that all APS students receive the support they need to succeed. Schlichtman’s words during this campaign, and his actions as a School Committee member over 18 years, clearly show that he does care and is not blind to the existence of disparities.

I believe that Paul Schlichtman with his extensive experience as an educator, education administrator and education policy official who understands data analysis will help the School Committee to address the challenges APS will be facing.

Rather than focusing on words out of context, let’s talk about how, after the campaign is over, each candidate will apply their different perspectives and approaches to collaborate with the others on the seven-member School Committee to find the right solutions for our community.

This commentary was published Thursday, May 21, 2020.

Comments about this column are welcome. Make them at the window below and be sure to include your full name, a site requirement.

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