I'd like to take up Ralph Lee on his offer for more discussion on the achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School [Taking another look at the achievement gap at OPRF, Viewpoints, Dec 1].
I believe that Lee is onto something and suggest that the malaise he describes is not limited to the lower tracks. There are many pockets of excellence at OPRF — our experience has yielded many gifted and extraordinarily generous teachers who deliver rigourous, first-rate courses. Large gaps exist, however, even among the honors classes.
What Lee observes in the middle and lower tracks (and in more honors courses than one might expect) is a disconnect between what the state defines as "college ready," and that which is actually taught to some students. The solution, however, is not to stop demanding excellence from honors courses or to divert resources and attention from the honors tracks, but instead, to raise expectations throughout all three tracks.
For example, I recently took a practice PSAT and an ACT with a writing component. I was shocked at the disparity between how much grammar, writing and reading are tested in those tests, and what I and numerous other parents sometimes see coming home by way of homework assignments from the high school — regardless of the "track."
Parents may want to take a practice test or two and then review their own students' homework in the next few months: How many papers was he or she assigned last week (and not just in English class)? Last month? Last year? Were these papers complex or simple? Did they involve more than two pages? Was the grammar taught and corrected? Were papers, or other assignments, returned immediately and with comments — or weeks later and with just a numerical grade on top? Were papers assigned across your child's curriculum?
Solving these problems must involve asking more of absolutely everybody: our own children, parents, administrators (particularly department chairs), teachers and board members, as well as taxpayers, who will soon be voting on four high school board positions and the District 97 referendum.
The OPRF culture of high expectations and the pockets of great teaching should be made available to all students, i.e., among and between departments, as well as throughout all three tracks.
Raising expectations of everyone, parents included, would be a good start. Parents must do their part. Teachers can't teach kids when one-third of a classroom shows up unprepared or late. Parents must vocally and enthusiastically support administrative efforts that ask much more of our students and some teachers. One terrific example is the fine work by Principal Nate Rouse and others instituting the new tardy policy — notwithstanding a fairly raucous chorus of protest by students and even, surprisingly, some parents.
So, kudos to you, Mr. Lee, for fully engaging in this conversation. I encourage you and other board members to insist on obtaining data, including the number of OPRF graduates who are placed in college into remedial English or math. I encourage further statistical analysis of which students are "college ready," and in which subjects, after four years. The board should aggressively support administrative chairs and teachers who demand more of themselves, their colleagues and their students, regardless of track. Illinois just eliminated writing testing for all grades except the 11th, prompting the worry that "that which is not tested will not be taught." Thus, middle school parents should be concerned about these issues, too.
We can do better with the bounty of our existing resources. If everyone gives more, and all parties contribute and cooperate with a minimum of fuss, we can see meaningful change soon.
River Forest resident Cathaleen Roach has two sons at OPRF. She and her six siblings graduated from the high school "in another century."
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