September 16, 2020

Stressing the Importance of Supporting Equity Initiatives in Our Public Schools

To the Editor: 

As the nation grapples with issues of equity and racial and economic justice, it is important to recognize gains even as we acknowledge ongoing challenges. As someone who researches and teaches education policy, I am particularly focused on how these issues play out in our public schools.

Unlike most New Jersey school districts, which are highly segregated by income and race, Princeton Public Schools are very diverse, with students from greatly varied backgrounds including wealthy and highly-educated families as well as students who are low-income, undocumented, and do not speak English. Because of this diversity, our students start school at very different levels of knowledge, as reflected in the gaps in standardized test scores between our more and less privileged students. It is a mistake to blame our schools for those gaps. They are a reflection of who attends the schools, not whether those schools are effectively educating our students. To eliminate the gaps, we would have to eliminate the diversity and mirror the homogeneity of privilege that describes most affluent communities. 

If absolute test scores do not tell us anything about the quality of our schools, what does? Although there is no perfect metric, the NJ Department of Education and education researchers look at the change in students’ standardized test scores year to year to evaluate how much they are learning, a concept referred to as student growth. The NJ Department of Education’s latest school performance report (available on both the district’s and state’s websites), indicates that Princeton students are substantially outperforming their peers across the state in student growth rates.

Princeton Public Schools’ median English and math growth rates exceed those of the rest of the state for every subgroup of students, including low income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, LatinX, Black, Asian, bi/multi-racial, and white students. Even more impressive is the fact that with very few exceptions, the subgroup growth rates are comparable to or exceed those of whites, who are usually among the more privileged students.

The exceptions are both English and math growth rates for Black students and math growth rates for low income students and students with disabilities, which exceed those of their peers across the state but lag the white students within our district. Those are critical gaps that must be addressed.

The district has acknowledged and taken steps to address these gaps by conducting the 2018 equity audit and the forthcoming special education audit and by implementing the subsequent recommendations, such as hiring more teachers of color, adopting restorative discipline practices and a racial literacy curriculum, providing training in culturally responsive teaching, providing free pre-K and offering it to more families, and implementing the dual-language immersion program.

These programs require resources and continued community support. As a taxpayer, PPS parent, and education policy scholar, I cannot imagine a more worthy use of our tax dollars.

Julia Sass Rubin
Jefferson Road
The writer is a professor of public policy at Rutgers University