A New Inquisition: Who Created Burlington’s “Achievement Gap” Perception?

by Robert Maynard 

Robert Maynard

On Monday April 16th Vince Brennan and the Burlington City Council conducted an Inquisition into the supposed racism that permeates not only the Burlington school system, but the city itself.  Superintendent Jeanne Collins was a particular target of their ire:

On the hot seat was Burlington schools Superintendent Jeanne Collins, who endured sharp questioning from Ward 3 City Councilor Vince Brennan on her commitment to equity.

Brennan, a Progressive Party member, acknowledged that city councilors have no authority over the superintendent’s employment status, but he said that the school district needs a change in leadership. The councilor faulted Collins for not providing adequate support of a 2011 report that said students of color and low-income students are not getting a fair shake in the city school system.

Part of the complaint was that the report was “unanimously accepted”, but not acted upon.  So, the basis of Brennan’s ire is that the report from a commission he headed has not been acted upon, even though it was “unanimously accepted”.  Several people involved in a discussion about whether the report should be acted upon have been assured that “accepted” means received and does not imply commitment to implement the report.  It was received as an advisory work and not as an infallible measuring stick of the school board’s commitment to educational opportunity and fairness.  How one can conduct such an inquisition, primarily based on the failure to use the report as some divine mandate caved in stone, is a question that begs an answer.  The report itself has generated controversy  and has certain flaws as True North has reported here, here and here.  The most thorough critique of the report was contained in a response by David Rome.  According to the Free Press: “David Rome is a respected math teacher at Burlington High School who has put students through their paces for more than two decades. He won an award in 2009 for helping to boost enrollment and scores at BHS in Advanced Placement calculus, one of the toughest courses any high school can offer.”

Since the report starts with the claim of a significant achievement gap between minority students and those in the “privileged” majority, accurately quantifying that gap is the logical first step in addressing it.  Rome’s response systematically takes apart the report’s claims regarding the magnitude of the perceived gap.  It also points to evidence that such measures as hiring good teachers does more to close achievement gaps than the race or ethnic background of the teachers hired.  In other words, a color blind pursuit of excellence trumps racial and ethnic concerns.  When it comes to analyzing the perceived achievement gap and finding ways to close it, Rome’s response is of far more use than the report itself.  Unfortunately, his attempt to address this matter has earned him the wrath of the report’s supporters:

“My concern is that he’s allowed to go sort of on tour to present this, so Jeannie Collins and (Burlington High School principal) Amy Mellencamp must be condoning this report because they have not silenced him,” said De Osaba.

Vince Brennan, chairman of the task force that wrote the 2011 report, a Ward 3 city councilor and former school board member, also faulted Collins for inaction in response to Rome’s public statements.

The statements above are more in line of with what one would expect the Spanish Inquisitors aimed at those who criticized holy scripture than what is appropriately aimed at a math teacher making a statistical criticism the support cited in the report to back up the claims made.  In addition to calls for censoring Rome, Sara Martinez De Osaba, director of the Vermont Multicultural Alliance for Democracy, has organized a student protest aimed at Rome.  It is interesting that the protestors are complaining that “They have had enough of being blamed, as well as their families, for low test scores,” while students in another article have the following concern about newspaper coverage: “The students, primarily African, were highly critical of newspaper coverage, explaining how words hurt them and as a result how classmates were making fun of them and their level of achievement in testing.” The perception that they lag way behind in achievement was generated by the the diversity report. Rome’s response statistically refuted the magnitude of the gap being claimed in the report, yet Rome is the target of their ire of the protests. If the protestors are really concerned about the perception that they are way underperforming, their target should be the diversity report.


2 thoughts on “A New Inquisition: Who Created Burlington’s “Achievement Gap” Perception?

  1. Minority students would truly benefit from the strenthening of the family unit and from better parenting. Unfortunately, 72% of African-American children are born out of wedlock. The entitlement “safety net” favors single mothers, and single mothers are much more likely to engage in activities that do not include bedtime stories for their young children.

  2. No one will argue that the transition to American schools and life is a challenge for recent immigrants. Nevertheless, the issue of improving academic performance should be color-blind. Making it a racial debate is unproductive.

    Mr. Rome’s report seems to be taking a rational approach unlike the ‘Brennan report’ which apparently presumes a racial problem/solution rather than a performance problem that should be remedied.

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