The Equity Institute Seeks to Hide Student Surveys in Portsmouth

In September, Anchor Rising reported on the hiring of the Equity Institute “to conduct an Equity Root Cause Analysis” in the Portsmouth school system.  Two weeks ago, an email from Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy informed parents that:

The Equity Institute conducted several community feedback sessions over the past few weeks and is now ready to begin the data collection phase. Part of this collection will involve surveys for students in grades 3 through 12.

The email provided two links, the first allows parents to opt their children out of the data-collection process.  The second link is to a screening form to request the survey.  A note at the bottom of the opt-out page and the top of the request page informs parents that federal law requires that they have “the right to review a copy of the questions asked of or materials that will be used with students.”

The level of secrecy surrounding the surveys gives reason to believe that without an explicit law, the surveys might be conducted in a completely non-transparent fashion, even hidden from families.

Parents who request the survey for review receive a PDF covered in multiple watermarks showing their names and email addresses, presumably to discourage sharing.  A note in the footer of each page asserts copyright privileges and states that “no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of The Equity Institute.”

Why the aggressive secrecy around a blank survey?  After all, the purpose is to collect information that will inform an “equity analysis,” which is being conducted explicitly toward fulfillment of the public school department’s duly adopted strategic plan.  This is a public process handed under the auspices of the local government.  For taxpayers and voters to evaluate whether public resources are being well spent and whether their elected officials are adequately performing their representative duties, the public must have access to source materials.

Presumably, the Equity Institute and school administration are concerned that some members of the community might object to the nature of the questions.  For example, the third question, after requesting the student’s email address and grade level, is:

How would you describe yourself?

[] Girl
[] Gender non-conforming
[] Boy
[] Transgender
[] I don’t want to say
[] Other – Write In:

Apart from wondering why “Boy” would be only the third gender on the list, members of the public might question whether casual presentation of these concepts in a school setting is appropriate for children as young as eight.

The next two questions are about the student’s languages and race.  Unlike the gender question, the race question is in alphabetical order, starting with “Asian,” which allows the survey to put “White” last, after “Two or more races,” although 87% of students in Portsmouth are White.  This suggests that the Equity Institute rearranged the order of genders explicitly so that “Boy” would not be first.

The second page of the survey includes short-answer and yes/no questions about things students like or would change about their schools, as well as questions one might expect for an “equity analysis.”  For example, students are asked whether they “learn about different places, people, and cultures” and whether they have teachers of “different backgrounds,” mainly meaning identity categories.

The next page starts with a yes/no table to answer the question, “Have your teachers shared stories in the classroom,” about various subjects:

  • Race (Ex: Black, Native American, White)
  • Ethnicity (Ex: Dominican, Italian, Chinese)
  • Gender (Ex: Girl, Boy, Nonbinary)
  • Religion (Ex: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism)

This table is followed with questions probing whether children feel comfortable being themselves and are happy at school, as well as about fairness and treatment of all students.  One question asks, “Do you know what to do if something doesn’t feel right in your classroom?”

The last page gives students the opportunity to put academic and organizational priorities in rank order, as “principal for a day”.

Some of the content in the survey is clearly not objectionable, although parents and other stakeholders might question whether it is appropriate for the school department to allow a private company to collect and retain personal information (including email addresses).  This question is especially relevant because the Equity Institute does not appear to fall under any special regulatory guidelines protecting privacy, as with healthcare providers.

The level of secrecy and implicit threat against sharing, however, suggest that the company and the school administration know they are skirting a line, whether legal, moral, or political.  One needn’t be a parent in the district to point out that a secretive impulse in government agencies is usually a sign that something that something shouldn’t be done.

Emails to Superintendent Kenworthy and Equity Institute CEO Karla Vigil requesting comment received no response by the time of publication.

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9 days ago

[…] the course of my inquiries about the Equity Institute’s activities in the Portsmouth school system, I received this […]

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