Regulations May Inadvertently Hurt Students in Stamford Public Schools

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To the Editor:

At the Board of Education Policy Committee meeting on November 14th, Dr. Rebecca Hamman, who is the chairperson of the committee, attempted to engage other members in a discussion about changes to the board’s policy definition of educational equity. From what I saw in her presentation, the main change she proposed was to add the words “accountability” and “standards” to the definition. Instead of engaging in a discussion, other members of the board excoriated Dr. Hamman. Her sins, apparently, were rooted in her concern that proposed regulations tied to equity policy, including delinking attendance from earning credit and making 50 the lowest possible grade teachers can give students (even for no work at all), might actually harm struggling students instead of helping them. Ms. Pioli said the presentation was “insulting” and maintained that research referred to by Dr. Hamman was “irrelevant to Stamford.” Ms. Munshi-South joined Ms. Pioli in that criticism, even denying that these issues were connected to equity policy, despite the fact that the superintendent and other officials downtown have done so themselves, to the board and in direct communication with the public. Mr. Esses and Ms. Heftman called the discussion Dr. Hamman was trying to elicit “a waste of time.” The research mentioned by Dr. Hamman was written about in the New York Times and the Stamford Advocate, and it focused on teacher frustration around the country that grade inflation, chronic absenteeism, and a general loss of student accountability are happening at the same time that graduation rates are rising, not because of improved student performance, but by effectively lowering standards and student accountability. Members of the committee seemed unwilling to consider that these results around the country should raise concerns about proposed regulations that are publicly under consideration by the superintendent.  

The main takeaway, I believe, is that these policy regulations may actually hurt the struggling students they are designed to help. The uproar about adding “accountability” and “standards” to the definition of educational equity should be alarming to everyone in Stamford Public Schools. Teacher concerns should be heeded, not summarily rejected, and troubling trends across the country are undoubtedly relevant to Stamford, despite the protestations of board members. The challenge of helping all students is daunting, especially when so many of them enter classes with disparate levels of readiness and individual needs, but they are all capable of growth. As an English teacher, I focus on higher order thinking and personal connection to themes in great works of literature, and all students are capable of doing that, especially once they know that I truly value their opinions and life experience, even if they have never “done well” in English class before. (Reading and writing skills, I have found, tend to improve with student engagement that results from a deepening sense of accomplishment and self-actualization.) The challenge, I imagine, is even tougher for high school teachers of other subjects (especially math and science) because step-by-step progress is inexorably based on prior learning. 

All Dr. Hamman attempted to do was bring these concerns to the attention of the board before such regulations are put into effect, and before our struggling students may be inadvertently harmed instead of helped by well-meaning administrators and board members. Dr. Hamman should be applauded for her efforts, not condemned. As a dedicated member of the Stamford Public School community, I urge board members, Central Office officials, parents, teachers, and students to heed warnings from across the country that some policies and regulations designed in the name of educational equity may, in fact, be counterproductive, and hurt the very students we all want to help.

Drew Denbaum is an English teacher at Westhill High School, an SPS Teacher of the Year Finalist, and an SPS Spotlight Award winner.