Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


How many school systems can boast of publishing their own book?

A veritable in-crowd from Arlington’s education establishment earned joint authors’ credit this year with release of “Gaining on the Gap: Changing Hearts, Minds and Practice,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.

The challenge of boosting minority achievement in an affluent system stocked with tough customers is something I’ve been following since my kids entered Arlington schools 20 years ago. I’m pleased to see our locals get national attention.

At the center of the project is Rob Smith, who was Arlington’s superintendent from 1997-2009 and is now associate professor of education leadership at George Mason University. The book recounts his vow, during his job interview with school board member Libby Garvey, to disprove the assumption one can predict how a child will do by his racial or ethnic background.

I watched Smith make a splash in 1999 when he joined 14 other superintendents from around the country to launch the Minority Student Achievement Network. Its plan was to track and publish data on the achievement gap among blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites. Not just test scores, but uncomfortable stuff like suspensions and drop-out rates.

Leaders, Smith writes, should “admit they have a problem and put data front and center in a form that can be understood easily; measure and report progress consistently; make the goal of eliminating or narrowing gaps a priority for everyone in the organization; distribute resources equitably with an eye toward achieving the goal; and implement interventions that focus on key variables early and consistently.”

Credit for what would became Arlington’s remarkable progress is shared with co-authors Alvin Crawley, Cheryl Robinson and Timothy Cotman Jr., who occupy key positions in Arlington schools dealing with diversity. In a tone that avoids self-congratulation, they write of how they went about achieving the impressive stats: Percentages of all students passing the state Standards of Learning exams jumped, with blacks and Hispanics marching up steadily from the 40th percentile up past the 80th.

But the soul of “Gaining on the Gap” comes from co-authors Marty Swaim (a retired Arlington teacher) and Palma Strand (a law professor and activist Arlington parent). Several years ago I participated in book discussions these two ran on cultural bias. They take some brave positions, stressing the importance of “outing race” as a factor in school communications.

They know that in today’s competitive economy, not every parent warms to the priority of spreading achievement more widely, perhaps for fear of disadvantaging one’s own children. Yet Arlington’s surveys found that two-thirds of teachers and parents and a majority in the overall community see closing the gaps as schools’ responsibility.

Strand writes of “fixing the system, not the kids,” addressing “the fears whites have of being accused of being racist and the fears people of color have of being hurt.”

Swain discusses practical cultural differences, noting, for example, that Latino parents may get offended if a teacher fails to open a meeting with some disarming small talk.

As if the book needed more of an Arlington imprimatur, a cover blurb was provided by Larry Cuban, who ran Arlington schools in the ‘70s, and by Daniel Domenech, who now heads the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators.

An afterword by current superintendent Patrick Murphy makes it plain: The movement to close the achievement gap carries on.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com