What is F.A.B?
F.A.B is a program focused on inspiring more people to pursue STEM careers. We do this by providing lessons and teaching materials to students and teachers.
Let’s Dive In!
At first glance, Massachusetts seems like it has figured out public education. We opened the first public school in 1635, passed the first law to make education compulsory in 1851, and 25 years ago, passed the MERA (Massachusetts Education Reform Act) which directed more funding to higher needs districts and set high expectations for what students needed to learn.
All of this paid off. Currently, in the U.S, MA is ranked #1 in education. Unfortunately, this success has not been felt by all of our students. If you are White and come from a higher-income family, it’s quite likely that you are reaping the benefits of a state with such a high-ranking education system. If you come from a lower-income family, you might be questioning how we got tagged #1.
If you dig into the numbers a little deeper, you will see that we seem to have two school systems with outcomes that are completely different depending on your race or family income level. In 2017, MA had the highest 8th-grade math NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), standardized test scores of any state. If you were to take a look at just the scores of Black and Latinx students, however, our ranking would drop down to the bottom 10% of all states in the US.
Sampling both 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math scores, we see that the percentage of Black and Latinx students that scored “Basic” or lower is twice as high as the score for White students. The same is true when we look at students from higher-income vs lower-income households. Students with lower-income families are twice as likely to have scored “Basic” or lower during these tests.
(These patterns are found in more than just the NAEP test scores, for a more in-depth look at the numbers, take a look here.)
We could go into depths about why this is a bad spot for our education system to be: from perpetuating inequality to limiting class mobility, to restricting access to the American dream based on the zip code you live in. I will skip this debate for now in favor of talking about why this happens and how we can begin to fix it.
Why does this happen? Like many systemic issues, there is no single issue that is the direct cause for this disparity. Let’s take a look at just the Boston Public School system for a minute. Boston has a huge housing segregation problem, including years of gentrification, gerrymandering, and redlining. Just take a 15-minute bike ride from the South End to Roxbury and this work is incredibly obvious. It may be unsurprising to learn that the top schools in BPS are located in the whitest districts, which means minority students are left with attending lower-tiered schools. The map below does a better job of illustrating this point than I could do with my own words.
To answer why schools are better in Whiter, higher-income areas, we need to take a look at a few things. First, let’s look at how school funding works. In MA, the formula for funding students is supposed to call for spending nearly $4000 more per student who comes from a low-income family. Unfortunately, districts don’t always fund their local schools according to this rule. Over time, the way the state has allocated funding for its students has changed. State legislators have added layers of funding criteria that do not take a community’s financial need into account.
The added funding was meant to help out all students in the state, but by helping all students, you miss the opportunity to target the students in most need of financial support. We got rid of careful, targeted, progressive funding, in exchange for a system that treats every student the same. Does it really make sense to send state education money to very wealthy communities that can afford to fund their own schools? That’s not an equitable system, it does nothing to lift up students with the most need.
Then there are teachers. Now don’t get me wrong, I love teachers, literally. Both my parents are teachers and I love them very much. I have a lot of respect for teachers who are working hard right now trying to provide the best education they can from behind a computer screen remotely or risking their lives to provide in-person education. That being said, teachers are humans, and humans are biased (myself and my parents included). For too long teachers have been trained to take a “race-blind” approach to teaching.
But treating everyone equally is both naive and counterproductive. It is naive because if teachers try to treat every student the same, their internal biases will show. Unintentionally, and en mass, this will lead teachers to behave in ways that are discriminatory. It is counterproductive because if you treat every student the same, you are not able to actively close the existing opportunity gap between students who are White and/or are in a high-income family and students who are Black and Latinx and/or are in a low-income family.
Teacher biases can come out in the classroom in a variety of ways, many of which are hard to directly measure. School suspension statistics on the other hand are quite clear. In 2016, the statewide suspension and expulsion rate for Black students was 9.3 percent! For Latinx students, the rate was 7.7 percent! For White students, the rate was only 2.7 percent. We can’t give students a great education if we are kicking them out of school. This is just a quantitative example. White Americans are used to others assimilating into our culture, and we tend to overreact when met with others with different cultures. As a country, we need to be better aware of these differences and check our own reactions and behavior. This type of training is necessary for teachers, who need to be fully equipped to teach a classroom with students from different cultures.
As a company, we are taught to look internally at our own diversity metrics, and strive to look like the communities we serve (we are actively working to improve on this ourselves). By doing so, we can create a better product and experience for our customers and catch anything that might otherwise get overlooked. Similarly, schools should strive to have teachers that reflect the demographics of their students.
Unfortunately, statewide only 8% of educators are people of color, while students of color make up 40% of the population. Students of color who have a same-race teacher are more likely to attend school regularly, perform higher on assessments, graduate from high school, and consider college. For white students, non-white teachers can help reduce bias.
What Can We Do?
Unfortunately, because of how severe housing segregation is in the state, there’s no easy reshuffling fix that will give students of color equal access to top-tier schools as White students. Top-tier schools are well-funded, have more resource allocation, more qualified and experienced teachers, and smaller class sizes, amongst other benefits. Any programs that can help fight against the forces of housing segregation, however, will help to address this issue.
Support Affordable Housing
We need to support more affordable housing initiatives, especially in more affluent neighborhoods. We should support access to affordable childcare so families do not have to move their children out of wealthier neighborhoods with better schools just to be able to afford to work. We need to support federal programs that help redistribute wealth in our country to make the wealth gap narrowed between the lowest income families and those in the middle class and upper class. This is not one of those “solve in the next few years” problems, unfortunately, but with focused effort, we can get there!
Advocate for More Funding
Thankfully there are other initiatives we can work on that can bring a more immediate impact. A new school funding bill was passed in 2019 that will help funnel more funding to schools in lower-income areas. The bill is called the (SOA) Student Opportunity Act and it infuses another $1.5 billion dollars into MA school districts over the next 7 years. It does so by providing more funding to school systems with higher percentages of low-income students and English language learners. This will once again revamp school funding to make it equitable, not just equal. This bill was passed with the help of the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership, and you can learn more about how they are helping make Massachusetts’ education system more equitable here.
Unfortunately because of COVID-19, school districts are facing budget cuts when education funding for our students is most important. It’s vital that we continue to fund our schools and we follow through with the funding proposed in SOA. If you want to help, you can write a letter to your state elected senator or representative advocating for fully funding SOA.
Support Our Teachers
And then there are teachers. It is really important that we educate our teachers to better understand how to teach with race in mind in their classrooms. Colin Rose, an assistant superintendent in charge of reducing racial inequities in Boston Public Schools, has been leading the charge in BPS to be more “race conscious” and less “race blind”. You can read more about the work he is doing here. Advocate for this work to be done in your local school district!
In addition to educating our teachers about race, we need to promote more people of color to become teachers in MA. Remember 40% of students are people of color, in our school system, but only 8% of teachers are! In addition to supporting legislation that aims to diversify teachers who enter our teaching pool, we can support programs like Generation Teach that want to ensure that all students have teachers and leaders who reflect the diversity of our country.
- Educate Yourself. Put on your own face mask before assisting others. Read up on this issue (the links in this article are a good start).
- Educate Elected Officials. Write letters to your elected officials advocating for fully funding SOA, Affordable housing, Affordable Childcare, and Wealth Distribution Initiatives
- Educate the Educators. Encourage your local schools to educate teachers on “race-conscious”, not “race-blind” education.
- Put It Into Action. Support legislation and organizations that aim to diversify teachers so students have teachers that look like them.
Massachusetts has been a leader in education since the beginning of this country’s history. We have made fantastic strides during all those years, but have also internalized the unaddressed discrimination that has plagued our country since its inception. We have the opportunity to truly earn that #1 spot for every student, regardless of race, native language, social class, or household income. Let’s strive to be the best!
Brady Knight I am a co-founder, I lead Spyce’s electrical projects, assist Luke in leading the Hardware team, help Lydia run DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) initiatives and lead the FAB program. I was planning on going into teaching after graduating college until I got wrapped up in Spyce. Instead, I throw my teaching passions into FAB and mentoring team members.