How do you measure a child’s worth?
Over the past few weeks, the community members have been witnessing that conversations about Lowell’s selective admissions policy are once again stirring up anti-Black/Latinx sentiment in online spaces and within the Lowell High School community. #HereWeGoAgain
While folks may choose to believe otherwise, the admissions changes currently being considered were prompted by procedural, rather than political concerns. (Although to be fair, many of the Board’s feelings about this policy have not really been a secret.)
This spring, COVOD-19 rendered standardized testing and regular grading impossible statewide. With tests canceled and students receiving “pass/fail” grades, SFUSD staff will be unable to administer regular policies around Lowell’s selective enrollment process. So, over the past several weeks, the Board has been discussing a proposal by staff to temporarily discontinue the traditional enrollment policy and place Lowell in “the Lottery” with all other comprehensive high schools. (Cue pearl-clutching!)
As expected, anytime the topic of Lowell admissions comes up, so does race. While we have the discussion of what to do during this “not-normal” year in SFUSD, please be aware — What we say has impacts on Black and Brown children going to school at Lowell and across the city.
I am hearing from Black student leaders and Black alumni of Lowell that many of the comments folks have been making are toxic and hurtful. (Read their letter to the Board.) As these conversations reverberate across parent email groups and in the media, many of the things folks are saying are also creating secondary trauma for Black and Brown children, parents, and educators across our city who have been, or currently are, targets of racial microaggressions and outright aggression in our educational systems. This is true for charters, and private school settings as well.
Recently we saw this expressed in Board meetings when parents shouted down a student representative to the Board and targeted her and her colleague (a Latina) on Twitter, saying they were not valid representatives of their peers. Just recently my colleague Commissioner Gabriela Lopez, and I were targeted as well by trolling on our social media feeds and a disturbing FaceBook page. We don’t always have to agree, but the way some folks have taken to expressing their views is clearly crossing the line.
As the current occupant of the White House has made abundantly clear. What we say and how we say it matters.
I am asking folks to be mindful that championing “merit-based enrollment” and supporting racial equity are two activities that exist in direct opposition of one another. While many folks don’t know it, “merit” is an inherently racist construct designed and centered on white supremacist framing that justifies who is and isn’t worthy of education, safety, justice, empathy… basically humanity.
When we say some children “deserve” access to quality education, we are also inherently saying children some don’t. When we say some schools are “academic” we are saying other schools aren’t. When we say some cultures value education, we are saying some cultures don’t.
Experts in critical race theory call this binary thinking: Black vs. White, good vs. bad, safe vs unsafe. These are all ways we racially code our world based on implied beliefs that privilege whiteness.
And, yes, this even applies at a majority Asian-American school. The Model Minority Myth only exists within the context of a continuum that pits people of color against one another yet leaves the status quo unchecked.
It’s not about achievement, it’s about access
Fundamentally the issue of selective enrollment is about access and resources, not justice. In this way “merit” is not about fairness, it’s just another sorting mechanism to justify who does or doesn’t deserve access to opportunity.
Yet again, we are presented with a “learning moment”. So, let’s get educated. This article was recommended to me by Dr. R L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy who is an associate professor at NYU, my alma mater! (Thank you!
In it, there is an excerpt on meritocracy and high-stakes testing which states:
“Under the assumption that standardized tests provide fair and objective measurement of individuals, such testing seemingly held the promise that every test taker is offered a fair and equal shot at educational, social, and economic achievement. Problems like racism and class privilege are thus supposedly ameliorated through testing. This characterization of standardized testing then (and high-stakes, standardized testing now) as a means of challenging inequality is rooted in the ideal that the United States operates as a meritocracy. That is to say, regardless of social position, economic class, gender, or culture (or any other form of difference), all have an equal chance at becoming “successful” based purely on individual merit and hard work – which by extension also means that any failure is simply due to the individual’s own deficit (Lemann, 1999; Sacks, 1999). Thus, as Karier (1972) explains: Most testers refused to admit the possibility that they were, perhaps, servants of privilege, power and status, and preferred instead to believe and “hope” that what they were measuring was, in fact, true “merit.” This was also an act of faith, a faith based on the belief that somehow the “prestige hierarchy of occupations” and the people in it who provided the objective standard upon which the tests were based, were there not because of privilege, wealth, power status and violence, but because of superior talent and virtue. This was a fundamental axiom in the liberal’s faith in meritocracy which emerged in twentieth-century American education (p. 169). Consequently, the ideology of meritocracy masks structural inequalities under the guise of “naturally” occurring aptitude amongst individuals (Bisseret, 1979). Vis-à-vis the ideology of meritocracy, the low achievement on standardized tests of working-class people, non-white populations, and some immigrant groups can then be simply and neatly attributed to the failure of individual students, individual groups, or individual cultures, and not attributed to existing structural inequalities.”—Wayne Au, associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell
Coincidentally, Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist wrote a letter last week to the Boston Public School Committee. In his letter in support of suspending exam-based enrollment for Boston’s selective enrollment schools, he reiterates the idea that academic testing has always served as a gatekeeper, rather than an equalizer. He states:
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black and brown minds and legally exclude their bodies.—Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist
If you are interested in exploring this conversation further, I discussed the question of merit a while back. Please keep in mind, data presented is several years old, and gentrification and displacement in our city have made disproportionate representation for Black students an even bigger issue in all highly-requested high schools save Ruth Asawa SOTA. (Lowell’s culture has also had an impact on Black and Latinx children choosing the school. But that conversation is for another post.)
What we should be talking about
As our courageous student delegate pointed out in our first meeting on the issues, if the folks organizing to maintain the current admissions system were really champions for educational justice, they would be organizing and writing petitions supporting the full implementation of BSU student leaders’ demands to implement mandatory Ethnic Studies courses at Lowell. They would be uplifting the voices of current student leaders of all races who are organizing to address the toxic masculinity, ableism, and racism students continue to experience at the school.
Finally, I’d like to add, the narratives that some children deserve to attend elite schools have consequences on all our children. When then the Model Minority Myth is used as a stereotype to pit “hard-working” Asian-Americans kids against their “lazy” or “violent” Black and Latinx peers it reinforces bias against Black and Brown kids. But “positive” stereotypes also dehumanize Asian-American students who are less likely to be identified for academic, financial, or mental health supports.
Children should not have to prove their worth in order to access educational opportunities. Children should not have to position themselves as superior to others in order to be recognized for their accomplishments.
This report by students from the Youth MOJO leaders of Chinese Progressive Association reflects some of the ways beliefs about cultural groups play out in our schools.
Black, Latinx, Samoan/Pacific-Islander, Arab-American and Asian-American families, we cannot allow folks to divide us with harmful stereotypical narratives about our children or our communities.