Equity in education must remain a priority

Opinion: Columns

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John Duffy

Two years ago in opposing a yes vote on the District 97 tax referendum, the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park (BCC) in various statements about teachers, test scores and salaries echoed the attacks on teachers that were blasted across the American media by corporate interests who have funded and promoted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The council blamed our teachers for schools not meeting Annual Yearly Progress under NCLB, proposed quicker teacher firings, substantially larger class sizes for increased productivity, and even merit pay as a way to higher test scores.

Fortunately, D97 leaders understand that teachers get better when they work together, learn from each other, and have rich, varied and ongoing professional development. Improving teaching, combined with building trusting relationships between teachers, administrators, parents and the community, are keys to how schools get better, not through threats to teachers and labor policies like the ones proposed by the BCC.

Many of us live in Oak Park because our schools have great strengths with most students demonstrating success. Nonetheless, a serious ongoing challenge persists: How do we increase success for all students regardless of their class and racial background? Without a continuing full commitment to racial and class equity in learning as a central component of our work in D97, CCSS and the next round of "new and improved" tests will do little to change the American education divide or the "learning community performance gap" as the 2003 OPRF High School study called our historic challenge.

Proponents of CCSS look at our diverse communities and others across the land through a very different and narrow lens. They ignore significant constraints that poverty and gross inequality in school resources contribute in creating a very uneven playing field for students. We cannot simply adopt a "no excuses" mantra that ignores ever-widening economic inequalities.

Today, the U.S. has the largest percentage of childhood poverty among industrialized democracies and ranks 23rd out of 25 nations in education equity, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To our credit in Oak Park and River Forest, our school boards and the BCC, with the visionary leadership of the Collaborative for Early Childhood Education, understand the importance of not running and hiding from these harsh realities. Improving the life situations of children before they walk into school and enriching teaching and learning need equal attention — where this happens, we will more likely find significant gains for student learning.

One final point is important in challenging the CCSS claim that uniform standards are the key to national education success: There is no evidence to support this assertion. Both states and nations with strong or weak standards provide direct lessons to learn from — weak-standard nations and states do well and do poorly; strong-standard nations and states have the same non-predictable pattern; some do well, some don't. Rather than seeing Common Core as the solution that will deliver excellent outcomes for all, D97 needs to draw on its own unique history.

Historically, D97 has openly confronted the racial divide that has plagued American society for generations. With leadership from curriculum director Mary Schneider in collaboration with the Illinois Writing Project in the 1980s, the district pioneered dynamic, student-centered, inclusive approaches to literacy. In 1990, the district's strategic plan pledged to ensure racially integrated learning and sponsored professional development that targeted equity in learning for all students. These goals followed and were inspired by a widespread demand just a few years earlier by teachers and citizens to not allow our children to be isolated by race or by learning needs into separate classrooms.

In 1999, under Supt. Jack Fagan's leadership, D97 was an original member of the Minority Student Achievement Network. Then in 2001, following the Oak Park Task Force on Diversity Summit, D97 pledged to allocate extra resources to address racial equity and student success in schools where those needs were greater.

Today, our historic dialog and actions around race and schools remain vital. In moving forward, we need to be aware of the questionable promises, methods, and consequences that inform the development of CCSS. In the meantime, let us take from the Common Core those things that we believe will better ensure student learning and that support our vision as a community committed to diversity and racial equity.

John Duffy is a member of the OP-RF Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE).

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Posted: May 15th, 2013 2:39 PM

I disagree with you on this one. We need clearly stated expectations for what will be taught - and assessments of progress. Interim assessments look at what kids are learning and give feedback to teachers so that they can adjust their teaching strategies if necessary. But that is the catch - we have too many teachers who don't want to be held accountable for anything but collecting their paycheck. D97 has a great arts program - but we need them to be teaching reading and math as well.

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