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5 minutes reading time (1081 words)

A philosophical look at discussion of school race data

Richard L. Schmeidler submitted this letter. He is a retired computer programmer and New York lawyer. He moved to Massachusetts in 1999, and to Arlington, in 2009.

Unconscious bias

There is a philosophical question that I think is relevant to the current School Board election campaign. When there is a situation in a community involving inequality, with some people better off than others, who is hurt? More specifically, are only the people hurt who are worse off, or are all members of the community hurt (although to different extents)?

Before I address current events, I would like to describe this question as applied to a situation that was highly disputed in its time but is not likely to be so contentious now. Two hundred years ago, slavery was the norm in much of the United States, but it had been abolished in Massachusetts a generation earlier. Many people in Massachusetts wanted to abolish slavery throughout the United States, but this was not accomplished until after the Civil War, years later.

Two hundred years ago in Massachusetts, I believe that it was generally (but not universally) accepted that slaves were worse off by reason of their enslavement. Slavery, as an institutional fact in the United States, hurt them. Two other groups were also affected -- those who were neither slaves or owned slaves, and slave owners.

Abolitionists argued that even those who did not own slaves were affected because they were living in a society that was pervaded by the evil effects of slavery and its consequences. There were even those who argued that slave owners were hurt because of the brutalizing effects of the institution. I think that this was a minority view, that most people felt that slave owners were better off than if their slaves were to be freed. (In defense of the minority opinion, which I admit I hold, let me cite Donne, writing about death in his Meditation 17: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.")


Local issues today

A current dispute seems to me to be of this nature. It did not start out this way, but -- as often happens -- the nature of the dispute has changed.

This dispute is well laid out by School Board incumbent and candidate Paul Schlichtman in YourArlington here >> published Saturday, April 25.

He first presents his opponent's position: "In the middle of the debate, challenger Lynette Martyn asked the other candidates, 'I’ve noticed that no School Committee candidates have been specifically addressing the state’s data on the extreme disparity gaps for our high-needs students, including 15 percent of our kids on IEPs, the 30 percent of our kids that identify as students of color, our economically disadantaged students and our English-language learners. This amounts to thousands of children with disparities in MCAS scores, graduation rates. These students deserve better from our school system, and I’d like to understand why no one is talking about the data specifically.'"

This statement of Martyn's position is his, not hers, and it is most immediately a question about the nature of the debate. However, it addresses some of her underlying concerns about the schools, and it includes some language on which he focuses: "extreme disparity gaps," 'thousands of children" and "deserve better."

In his response, Schlichtman changes the subject somewhat: "The answer is simple. 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." He quotes "thousands of students," but changes "extreme disparity gaps" to "widespread disparity gaps" and "deserve better" to "shortchanging." (A still better term for this last appears below.)

'No dispute between candidates' about disparities

It is clear that there is no dispute between these candidates that there are disparities in the Arlington Public Schools (APS). On May 17, in a posting to the Arlington Email List with the subject "Candidate Schlichtman called out by parents, an AHS senior and residents for saying 'widespread disparity gaps simply don't exist' " Schlichtman said, "I am not challenging the existence of any disparities or the need for continuous improvement; I am specifically challenging Ms. Martyn’s statements that our schools are plagued with 'extreme' disparity gaps that impact 'thousands' of children who deserve better in our schools."

In the context of the philosophical question I raised, Schlichtman's term "impact" seems particularly useful. Two hundred years ago, did the existence of slavery "impact" not only the slaves, but also the majority of the population who did not own slaves, and maybe even the slave owners?

Schlichtman has successfully changed the focus of the dispute. The dispute is no longer why the debate is not addressing the disparities.

The question of whether the disparities are or are not "extreme" is a fuzzy one that hinges on facts that are not available to me (including statistics that do not necessarily tell the whole story). However, there is a huge difference between the candidates as to whether or not thousands of children are impacted by the disparities.

If one takes the position that two hundred years ago, only the slaves were impacted by slavery, one could conclude that what disparities exist in the APS impact only what I presume to be the relative minority of students whose unfortunate experiences appear in the statistics. If one takes the position that slavery impacted the great majority of the population of the United States 200 years ago -- both the enslaved and the free, though to different extents -- then I think that one should conclude that thousands of APS students are impacted by the unchallenged existence of disparities in the schools they attend.

Just as I do not express any opinion about the statistics since the existence of disparities is unchallenged, so I do not express any opinion as to Schlichtman's statement as to defamation. I am not a Massachusetts lawyer. 

This letter was published Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Town of Arlington to LGBTQIA+ students: You belong


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