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Q&A: Malcolm Cawthorne on the METCO program, testing and the culture of Brookline schools

Malcolm Cawthorne, METCO director for the Public Schools of Brookline. Photo by Sam Mintz
November 6, 2023

Malcolm Cawthorne has seen the Brookline Public Schools from all angles: as a student, teacher and now an administrator. As Brookline’s METCO director, he leads the town’s participation in a voluntary desegregation program operating since 1966 to bring students from Boston to suburban schools. Through METCO – the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity – about 300 mostly Black and Hispanic students a year from Boston attend public schools in Brookline.

Cawthorne grew up in Brookline and is a graduate of what was then the Edward Devotion School (now Florida Ruffin Ridley School) and Brookline High School. In an interview with Brookline.News, Cawthorne said METCO is valuable both for the Boston students and their Brookline classmates and teachers. Cawthorne also spoke about testing and the culture in Brookline schools.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Brookline.News: You’ve been involved in the Brookline school district as a teacher and employee since 1998, and as a student before that. What changes have you seen in that time?

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Malcolm Cawthorne: It was a very different world. Things have changed. I think the most glaring thing in the hyper-modern era is Covid really changed a lot of things.

But I was in a kindergarten classroom last week, and it looked pretty similar to when I went to kindergarten in Brookline. Kids were playing with blocks and manipulative toys and PlayDough.

I have a lot of friends and alums who say ‘Oh, the kids are so different.’ Yes, they have a lot of new toys, there’s a lot of new gadgets. But a 16-year-old is a 16-year-old.

Brookline.News: You’re now in your second year as METCO director. What was it like to come into this position and what have you learned since starting the job?

Cawthorne: One of the first things I learned in this position was just how valuable it is for families and young kids to be in METCO. There are a bunch of ways METCO districts bring kids and families in. Here in Brookline, we do interviews. I was talking to a lot of families of 4 and 5- year-olds who really saw METCO as an opportunity for a strong future, regardless of family background. For some, it was an opportunity to change their family outcomes, for others to kind of maintain it.

That value was something I probably knew intellectually, but I got to see it and emotionally connect to it. For me, that’s always an important motivator in my work. How do I honor those families?

Brookline.News: How do you conceive of the role of METCO in the Brookline schools?

Cawthorne: I oversee a program that we’re trying to rebrand. That goes to 1966, it was originally branded as a desegregation program. The current CEO has talked a lot about being an anti-racist program, which is a cultural shift.

I tend to think of METCO as a program that really is a two-way exchange. Kids can go into suburban districts where they have less racial diversity. This is a way to actually learn in the best and most diverse learning environment. So I always try to stress to my families that yes, this is an opportunity for you. But you are also bringing great things with you. This isn’t a one-way street. Brookline needs you. Without you, they don’t have diverse stories, diverse experiences.

This is a historical program. At this stage, it’s older than most of us. We do have some families who talk about their kids being the third generation of METCO, who have grandparents who went through.

So you’re stepping into a historical program, and that makes you great, and I want you to honor that. Honor the fact that this is a part of the civil rights fight, certainly for desegregation and integration, but also I think for educational equity. And I want my families and kids to know that.

Brookline.News: The most recent MCAS scores showed a large gap by race that persists in Brookline schools. Do you think test scores are a good way to measure achievement?

Cawthorne: I am, in a lot of ways, an anti-testing person. I think the data says exactly what it’s designed to say, and I don’t think it necessarily correlates to school success or student success. I don’t think standardized tests are actually designed to really show student achievement most of the time.

Those things came out of the eugenics movement. We’ve never really quite dealt with that. They very purposefully created tests to differentiate. So I think that says what it says. When I hear about those numbers, my normal thing is to challenge the test.

One of the things I really get upset around is this concept of learning loss. We only think about that in a highly academic setting like MCAS, instead of thinking about what kids actually learn.

I had a student at the high school, and when Covid hit, their mother was a nurse. The student had to stay home with their special needs brother, and help him get on Zoom and stuff. And so yeah, their work suffered at the high school. But that doesn’t mean that person suffered learning loss. Especially when, after that period, that person openly talked about wanting to be a special education teacher. And it seems like there’s almost no room for that. There’s no room to actually capture what that time meant, and what that person learned.

So I think, sure, those scores are lower than they’ve been. So it looks like, in particular, black and brown kids are doing worse than before. That’s way too easy to say. I feel like we should know better.

Brookline.News: So recognizing the flaws of using test scores, how do you try to measure the success of students in the METCO program?

Cawthorne: I never really worried if a kid was in honors, or AP, or college prep courses. I’m much more worried about a kid being in the correct place and doing well. And if they’re doing well in a standard class, and it’s easy for them, yes, we should move that kid to honors because they clearly need something else that’s challenging. But I don’t want to get bound into shoving these kids into AP classes because we need more representation.

I want to know what their classroom success is and then monitor if they’re at the appropriate level.

And then we try to track, what is their dignified step after they leave BHS?

We had two kids in our class last year that are at Ivy League schools right now. Other kids got full academic rides to BC and other places. A girl who’s a junior at MIT. And other kids who have gotten into some really fine schools.

Brookline.News: What do you hear from METCO students about the culture of Brookline schools, separate from the academics? Do they feel welcomed and supported?

Cawthorne: I don’t want to be too sweepingly broad, because the reality is that a lot of METCO kids experience Brookline differently, depending on who they are and what they’re interested in.

There are some kids for whom being in METCO is a very pragmatic, facilitated, functional thing. I go to school, and I go back to my neighborhood. And then there are other kids who really function as part of the community. They spend all their time there, they go back home because that’s where their stuff is.

Those are the two extremes, and I’ve seen kids on both of them.

There are some things I’m trying to change in the school culture.

There’s a schoolwide survey, Panorama. It used a term I struggle with, this idea of “grit.” One of the things they were asking to determine if kids had grit was if they met with teachers before or after school.

And I said, “Well, you just wiped out all the METCO kids.” They don’t have grit under that measurement. They have to get on a bus. They’re not coming before school, they’re not coming after school.

You didn’t ask the question about who’s waking up at 5 a.m. to go meet the bus in all kinds of weather.

Brookline.News: Last time you and I spoke, it was about the educational equity office and the departure of director Jenee Uttaro. What do you think about the direction the office is heading in now?

Cawthorne: It needs more resources, frankly.

One of my biggest complaints about that position is that it asks that person to face too many fronts. It would be one thing if the job was just to increase the diversity in staff, and to provide professional development. But she’s also supposed to do stuff with students and with school leaders, and then also with the community. I just don’t know how one person does all that.

We created that DEI job quite hastily. So now we have this position that kind of looks right. But we’ve never really gone back in to assess what we would need to make it work.

I think we’ve hired really good people. But I worry about being able to do a job that is designed without all it needs.