By John Hubbuch
Those of us of a certain age will recall the short fable written by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who trick the emperor to buy a new suit that they claim is invisible only to the stupid or unfit. The weavers make no clothes at all, but the citizenry say nothing as the emperor parades before his subject lest they be deemed stupid or unworthy. Finally, a child cries out that the emperor isn't really wearing anything at all.
When it comes to the high school's decades of unsuccessful efforts to close a racial gap in student achievement, I must confess to feeling like the child in this story. As the school year begins, OPRF has launched yet another plan to "mind the gap," including the creation of a new position, director of equity and success, who will be tasked with implementing the district's first racial equity policy. This time the District 200 Board of Education is serious.
Never mind the sizeable majority of teachers, parents, students and educational researchers who know that the gaps in student performance are manifest at early ages. These gaps tend to persist throughout elementary school and strongly influence high school performance. Like a marathon, if you are behind at the 10-mile mark, it is unlikely you will catch up no matter what your skin color.
Never mind that President Clinton (Goals 2000/1994), President Bush (No Child Left Behind/2002) and President Obama (Race To The Top/2009) prioritized closing this gap with only limited success.
And never mind that Oak Park and River Forest High School for more than a quarter of a century has pursued strategies of high expectations, cultural congruence in instruction, teaching strategies to promote meaningful participation, smaller class size, higher teacher quality, and summer enrichment among others. Yet this pernicious problem continues.
So like the child in the story all of this seems pretty obvious, yet almost every newly elected school board sounds a clarion call that this time things will be different. It reminds me of World War I trench warfare, keep charging forward again and again, with very limited success.
I'm afraid I'll never get it. So I have shifted my focus as to just why this particular paradigm of futility exists.
I believe there is a significant gap between the community and the elected school boards. Most of the teachers and parents never fully buy in to the transformative plans of the boards. Their everyday experience tells them that by ninth grade it is unlikely a big diverse public high school can do what no other big diverse public high school has ever done.
But the real problem here is the very complicated, emotional role race and racism plays in all this. There is a significant disconnect between elected boards and the citizenry. Very few people vote in D200 elections unless taxes are involved. Your kids are there for only four years. As a result, only motivated voters participate in these elections. Idealistic candidates campaign on platforms that emphasize they will somehow accomplish what prior equally zealous board members failed to do. The faint but pervasive odor of moral superiority wafts over the discussion.
No candidate will campaign on the perspective offered in this column today lest he be called stupid or unfit or, worse, a racist. As a result, the elected school board officials believe they have a mandate for change. But they don't. They just have their own good intentions and the support of a cadre of well-intentioned idealists. The rest of the community is afraid of being called racist, or are simply indifferent to what goes on at the high school. Most of the parents at the high school are more interested in their kids getting into college, not getting bullied, or the pernicious influence of social media than capturing unicorns.
Don't get me wrong. The gap between the achievement of minority students at OPRF High School is real and worthy of the community's attention and concern. But the gap between the expectations of the school board and the teachers, parents, and community on this issue is just as real.
Answer Book 2019
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