SMMUSD In Dangerous Waters with "Social Justice Journey:" Lacks Any Critical Thinking about Race and School Achievement
Staff presentation to school board on "Social Justice Journey" lasted over three hours and presented zero evidence their institution of a racially charged district-wide curriculum will improve race relations or student achievement
August 30, 2020
Is it Social Justice or Antiracism at SMMUSD?
The top administrators at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District presented their work on creating better student achievement and combating racism during a Special Meeting of the school board on Tuesday evening. Citing the persistent achievement gap that has existed in the district between white and Asians on the one hand and other minorities on the other, staff leapt to the conclusion that racial bias had to be the reason behind the difference in test scores.
The school district has been trying to narrow the achievement gap for 20 years now, often with initiatives that fully acknowledged the possible disparities in circumstances between the two groups.
Dr. Ben Drati, SMMUSD Superintendent, admitted efforts had been made over the years, but added, "They haven't garnered the results we want to see."
Regarding the similar disparity in discipline measures needed to be taken against minority students as opposed to non-minorities, Restorative Justice Coordinator Robert Howard remarked, "That data point [over-suspension of students of color] makes us think there's something wrong with those kids. We don't think of ourselves as responsible."
The solution, according to Drati and his highly paid staff, is to "go beyond academics" and address the insidious racism in our institution. This does not mean attacking the easy stuff, like burning crosses or calling people derogatory names, Drati explained, but tackling the bigger challenge of racism, "the substance we carry in ourselves."
Therefore, the school district's administrators have taken the following steps:
Embedded the 20 Social Justice Standards created by Teaching Tolerance, an organization created by the Southern Poverty Law Center, into the school curriculum for K-12.
Work to hire teachers racially representative of the student and community population
Giving teachers anti-bias training to "understand the racism we've been internalizing for years."
Adopted a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in February, which is to be the culmination of a social justice project worked on throughout the school year
Created a resource webpage for parents and teachers so they can find material to help them talk about the lifelong journey of antiracism
In addition, Antonio Shelton, principal at santa monica high school proposed the creation of "affinity groups," consisting of racially and ethnically segregated students, so they can "talk through things within their own culture." Shelton admitted that not everyone will agree with this approach. "I ask you to trust the process," he said. "Keep the negativity or put it somewhere else. We need positivity. Trust the process. That's all we're asking."
During the three hours of presentation, it was clear that more than the achievement gap had prompted this outpouring of concern about racism in the school district, a school district long run by some of the most socially conscious administrators and teachers in the world, a school district with long-running programs to aid minority students.
George Floyd and his alleged murder were invoked several times.
Drati said Floyd's violent death "awakened us to things that have always been there. For the first time, the world saw things." Drati noted that Ibram Kendi's book, How to be an Antiracist is sold out because "people want to understand." Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jacqueline Mora said, "the catalyst for this work was the killing of George Floyd." This "created a "greater awareness of realities for our black families."
Several times during the meeting, administrators repeated the theme of wanting to move the school "beyond social justice" and transforming it into "antiracist."
Ironically, another theme repeated through the meeting was the idea of helping students become critical thinkers. If this is a desired goal, it will not happen under the guidance of this group of people, either the staff who cooked up this reaction to Floyd's death and an achievement gap (perhaps not as disconnected as one would imagine given the level of fentanyl in Floyd's body) nor the board who demanded this work.
To conclude racial bias from data showing disparity in test scores between white/Asian and minority students is a prime example of lack of critical thinking. How do the facts necessarily lead to the deduction? They could - but they certainly don't have to. Many other factors could be at play besides the alleged racism of the Santa Monica school system. Of course, if some further evidence should turn up that makes a strong connection between racially differentiated behavior toward minority students and lower test scores, that should assuredly be addressed. But so far, no such connection has ever been made. Instead, what has been made are unfounded assumptions: if minorities score lower on tests, then there must be racism against the minorities involved.
In fact, Santa Monica's school district and many other parts of the country have indeed operated for years under the assumption that racism must lie behind the achievement gap between whites/Asians and minorities. Since all efforts to eliminate this racism has not led to a narrowing of the achievement gap, the latest conclusion is that the racism we have been fighting must not be something we can visibly see or measure. It must be something hidden deep within ourselves, something invisible we had not previously realized was shaping our teachers' and students' behavior toward the lower performing minority students. Only by addressing this hidden, insidious racism and rooting it out can we lift the test scores of the lower-achieving minority students.
The idea of actually examining the practices and policies of schools that have succeeded in producing high-performing minority students does not cross the minds of our school officials.
No, these are not the individuals who are going to teach any of our students - of any race - critical thinking skills.
Thomas Sowell, economist and race scholar, studied and writes about schools that actually have produced high-achieving minority students. He concluded that it did not matter if such schools were well-funded or not, private or public, secular or religious. What they had in common were parents who let their children know "they were expected to learn and behave themselves." The other key ingredient was that the children needed to work. But "Work seems to be the only four-letter word that cannot be used in public today," Sowell sardonically notes.
For teachers and administrators who want to keep their jobs, the idea of pointing at the students themselves as the only possible agents of their own improvement is an idea that is strictly verboten. Until they are willing to admit this uncomfortable truth, the achievement gap will persist and minority students will not thrive - unless they should come to this conclusion, as some do, on their own.