Terry Dean’s excellent article on the continuing racial achievement gap in Oak Park public schools [Dist. 97 and 200 aim for “gap” alliance, News Sept. 6] raises several troubling issues.
1) Why are programs designed to help eradicate the gap not systematically evaluated by our public school districts?
This question is particularly relevant because a report released in May 2003, The Learning Community Performing Gap, by a collaborative team of researchers from Oak Park and River Forest High School and the Oak Park community strongly recommended that evaluative data on gap-related interventions be collected and analyzed. This report acknowledged that the high school had implemented a myriad programs over several years, but it argued that without proper evaluation, such programs were unlikely to reap many benefits for underachieving black students.
What has happened to the call for systematic evaluation? Why hasn’t significant progress been made on this front over the last three years? Perhaps journalist Terry Dean can illuminate this point in a follow-up article.
2) District 97 Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Kevin Anderson is quoted as saying that the high school “loses track” of students after their freshman year (p. 13).
This statement calls into question how dedicated OPRF is to their number one goal of closing the gap. A high school education is four years. If students become anonymous to the institution after their first year, how can underachieving and struggling students truly be helped?
3) Dean’s article reports that national research finds that many factors cause the gap. However he points out that Oak Park officials acknowledge that teachers have a difficult time accepting the issue of teacher bias as one of the causative factors.
Dean also indicates that both districts 97 and 200 have received complaints from some parents alleging teacher bias. The lack of faculty acceptance toward the causative factor of teacher bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is not surprising. As Anderson says, teachers are sensitive to this criticism “because no one wants to be accused of treating a child badly” (p. 13). Although most teachers are surely dedicated toward their craft and their immense responsibilities, a lack of faculty ownership of being one leg of a complex problem impedes progress on closing the gap. Until the majority of teachers are willing to buy into the idea that their practices and relational skills may need to be reshaped in some integral ways when working in a racially diverse setting, any real achievement in eradicating the gap will likely remain limited.
As a sociologist, I have examined race-related challenges that exist in Oak Park. In 1997 I completed a qualitatively- based study on the racial achievement gap problem at OPRF. This study is still relevant as it provides many examples of the kinds of challenges black students face as they make their way through the high school. It can be found at the Oak Park Public Library under my name.
In 2007, I will likely release another study on racial issues impacting Oak Park. One finding from my dissertation research, also qualitatively-based, is relevant to the following discussion. As residents discussed causative factors of the racial achievement gap, I found a “perspective gap” appeared to exist between white and black residents. While blacks indicated that many factors cause the gap, including teacher stereotyping and bias, weak parental involvement, and negative student attitudes, whites gave little credence to issues of faculty bias or discriminatory treatment. This perspective gap is similar to what national polling finds when examining racial attitudes: Higher percentages of whites than blacks believe that racism and discrimination are not major causes of societal inequities that remain among the races.
It may be that the racial achievement gap will remain a problem as long as white residents, white faculty (which make up the majority of teachers in Oak Park), and white-controlled institutions are reluctant to believe that racial discrimination, stereotyping, and bias still affect present day educational outcomes.
It is likely hard to summon up the spiritual will to do all that it takes to rectify a critical problem if blame for the problem is only placed on those directly suffering the consequences. As a sociologist, I urge everyone to take a broader approach to the problem of the gap.
Society is complex and so is the gap. All groups must take ownership of the problem if there truly is a desire to resolve it.