A Heated Debate Over ‘Educational Equity’ Erupts in Stamford Schools’ Policy Committee

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STAMFORD — A heated debate regarding the definition of “educational equity” erupted at a Board of Education Policy Committee last week when the committee chair characterized several proposed and adopted practices governing grading and instruction as “lowering standards” and asked that the committee revise its current policy. 

Committee Chair Becky Hamman told fellow board members that she had been in discussions with district teachers, and that she had grown concerned about some of the practices the district had proposed or was implementing on a limited basis. 

Included in that list were practices like eliminating midterms and finals, ending “tracking,” raising the lowest grade from zero to 50, and removing chronic lateness and absence as reason for failing classes.

“There is no trust in the district, or very little trust, and these teachers are concerned about implementing regulations that may be put into place,” said Hamman. 

The Educational Equity Policy, first put into place in 2021, defines educational equity as shrinking the achievement gap between students and eliminating any racial disparities in student achievement, while increasing overall student performance. 

Hamman’s changes would insert the word “accountability” into the definition and include the goal of “helping all students attain or exceed academic standards.” 

The district has not held midterms and finals since 2020 when they were canceled during the COVID pandemic, and in 2021 the district implemented a new grading system in 10 classrooms creating a 0-4 grading scale, eliminating the “super F,” or any grade below 50. In October, Executive Director for School Innovation Matthew Laskowski presented the board with a new approach to absenteeism, eliminating the loss of credit for chronic absenteeism and lateness.

In her presentation, Hamman cited a working paper by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas that found that a policy in North Carolina that allowed more lenient grading helped high-achievers but increased absenteeism in lower-achievers. 

Drew Denbaum, an English teacher at Westhill High School who spoke with CT Examiner, argued that the philosophy of granting special-education-like accommodations to underprivileged students, through practices like eliminating the need to study classic literature, dropping midterms and finals and allowing students to arrive late to school — practices he said were increasingly accepted across the country — actually harmed students.

“You are depriving them of the kind of stimulations and engagement and exposure to the world and what literature has to offer and what discipline has to offer and what sense of pride and personal growth that can come from reaching for goals and attaining those goals, as opposed to everyone gets a gold star and everyone is just as talented as anybody else,” said Denbaum. 

Denbaum said he also disagreed with the proposal to uncouple attendance from credit, arguing that students would see the new rules as doing away with the need to attend class.

“No matter what verbiage is laid on top of that policy, I think that’s what the kids are going to hear. And who’s going to be most hurt by that? The struggling students who need most to be in classes,” said Denbaum.

Kate Tobin, an SEA officer and a math teacher at Westhill, told CT Examiner that she felt the teachers’ perspective on the attendance proposal was about 50-50. She said that from her point of view, it was rare for students who didn’t come to class to pass the class anyway. 

“The kids who receive an F in my class for the year simply because they don’t do the work … are the ones who are never there. The kids who don’t come to class are the kids who fail, because of not doing work. They’re not doing work if they’re not there,” she said.

Tobin said she thought it was “a shame” that the district had eliminated midterms and finals, because the district talks about college and career readiness. In the workforce, she said, people have large projects that they have to complete on their own, and the week of midterms and week of finals the district used to have aligned with what colleges offer.

“I think removing that certainly hurts kids that are college bound,” she said.

She also said that making 50 the lowest grade rather than zero was just one way of giving students the opportunity to fix a bad grade. She said that personally, she prefers to have students redo an assignment so they can practice more — she said that making 50 the lowest grade could mean that a student could skip a bunch of assignments but still pass if he or she did well enough on the assignments he or she completed. 

“I think the important thing … is give your kids paths to fix their grade,” she said.  “Give kids a chance to fix their grades that’s reasonable and works for you.”

But a number of policy committee members pushed back strongly against Hamman’s presentation arguing that it lacked a basis in fact and that the study and articles cited were irrelevant.

Board member Jackie Pioli challenged Hamman’s assertion that the district was “lowering standards.” 

“That’s your opinion — that we’re lowering standards, because you don’t agree with a policy that passed two years ago,” said Pioli. 

Board member Versha Munshi-South also countered that “there’s nowhere written down” that the changes Hamman described had anything to do with the equity policy. 

“An equity and diversity policy is not about eliminating rigor,” said Munshi-South. 

Superintendent of Schools Tamu Lucero told Hamman that she did not believe the policy needed to be revised given that it was still new. Other board members also noted that there were no official regulations associated with the policy — Lucero said the regulations were still in draft form. 

Board Chair Jackie Heftman asked how Hamman could ask to revise the policy before there were regulations in place. 

“I think this whole conversation is a waste of our time,” said Heftman. “This policy was adopted two years ago, and if the board wants to monitor the policy, then it can do that.”

Ultimately, the committee decided to take no action.


This story has been updated with comments by Kate Tobin


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com