Close district's racial achievement gap by supporting students, teachers

I want to thank the Tribune for covering Courageous Conversations and, particularly, parents’ concerns about the program

(Courageous Conversations: Parents say policy fails in practice, Jan. 16).

It’s great that Portland Public Schools is prioritizing equity and putting so much into a program that claims to serve as a “strategy for school systems and other educational organizations to address racial disparities.”

But when we’re talking about more than $2.4 million already given to the Pacific Educational Group to train staff in these conversations, one must ask, are Courageous Conversations themselves enough to concretely address the issue of equity in education? Or is the district just spending money to talk about it?

If the goal of the program is to “rais(e) achievement for all kids,” as district spokeswoman Erin Barnett is quoted as saying, it’s worth looking at what other possible measures have been proven to do this.

For example, numerous studies have shown that reducing class size results in improved student performance in every way that can be measured, including higher test scores, better grades and improved attendance.

But while reducing class size has a positive effect on all students, it has shown to have a disproportionately positive affect on students of color. This implies that reducing class size is a concrete way to narrow the racial achievement gap among students. Studies also show that overwhelmingly “schools (with) high numbers of minority students are more likely to feature large classes of over 25 students.”

The Portland Association of Teachers’ latest contract proposal prioritizes the issue of reduced class size by adding teachers and clearly shows that this is something the district can afford, leaving one to wonder, why aren’t they doing so?

Racism and racial disparity does not just come from a few people with bad ideas — it is institutional. This means that addressing the issue must get at the root, or the material source, of the problem that has led to the disparity.

Schools in the Jefferson cluster are continually underfunded and closed down — Jefferson being the only majority black high school in all of Oregon — and that leaves students in classes of more than 40 students and unable to get into the classes they need to graduate. It seems like a clear first step in addressing the effects of systemic racism in our schools would be to give schools in communities with the most students of racial/ethnic minorities — and where students come from families that are the most in need, making them less able to provide additional assistance to children once they leave the classroom — the resources they need to succeed.

If PPS cares about the issue of equity, it should prioritize putting money into resources that directly impact students of color and in need, not simply into programs that allow administrators and staff to talk about how the disparity affects them.

Since reducing class size is the easiest, most effective way to raise achievement of all students and diminish the racial achievement gap, the clearest first step that the district should take if it wants to be truly “courageous” is to give the Portland Association of Teachers the contract the teachers’ union has proposed.

Because teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, supporting students — especially students of color — has to begin by supporting their teachers.

PPS, settle the contract. Give Portland students the schools they deserve.

Sarah Levy is a Southwest Portland resident.

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