I may be testing the editor’s patience and the subscribers’ appetite for yet more words about the achievement gap, but I have a strong suspicion the topic will be with us for months and maybe years to come-and it will haunt us if we do not address it wisely.
The gap is one of the most wrenching and soul-testing of problems, and thus far we have addressed it as if our hands were tied or our tongues were cut out of our mouths. It has become one of those “untouchable” topics on which we have written many letters, but, unfortunately, they are written within limits of dissent that are unspoken but well-understood.
In any era of intolerance, such as a red scare, a witch hunt, or an inquisition, the acceptable points of view are clear, and anyone who openly opposes them is self-evidently treasonous, heathen-or in our Oak Park context-racist. In times like these, most citizens view the prevailing concern (eg., the achievement gap) to be too urgent an issue to entertain the quaint notion that there may be more than one side to the story.
You can perform your own test of whether we have the classic symptoms of intolerance. Start with the experience of our opinion leaders with impeccable credentials in matters of diversity. When the Wednesday Journal made a decision to print an unpopular letter to the editor and a picture of an accused student, our citizenry attacked the editors for failing to perform a newly discovered responsibility-fact-checking letters. Rather than defend their position, the publisher and a lead editor became critics of themselves, piling on the self-criticism faster than their critics could.
Or consider the recent decision of the high school board of education to dismiss the first set of candidates and accede to demands that the candidates for the superintendency include some blacks. If selecting candidates by race does not violate our civil rights laws, which were clearly designed to prevent race-based decisions, it certainly violates their spirit.
Is there evidence that anyone in the community with stature will openly question the consensus view? One recent letter by an African-American parent made the bold suggestion that black parents consider their own contribution to the gap, but the author asked the paper to withhold his or her name. If blacks cannot speak honestly to blacks without fear, what are the chances for honest communication between blacks and whites?
Roberta Raymond, the longstanding leader of the village’s successful integration plan, invested her credibility in a 12-point plan to reduce the gap [‘What if’ we all tried to solve the achievement gap, LifeLines, Nov. 15]. But she never mentioned black students as participants in any of the 12 initiatives. It is a perverse view of education that suggests academic performance can be improved without the initiative, energy and intelligence of the students. Black students have clearly become a protected class in this discussion about their future, and even Raymond avoided the controversial suggestion that they could have a hand in their success.
Does all of this really matter? After all, Oak Park is a speck on the map, and no one is being burned at the stake or losing a job. It only matters if the citizens truly value their village’s openness to differences-not only in skin color, but also in substance of opinion.
I am waiting for signs that there is still enough oxygen in the air to permit voices of dissension. When they speak, all of us will recognize them: A citizen will appear before the school board to question the tilting of the hiring of a superintendent to the future performance of a select group of students, or the editor of the high school student newspaper will openly defend the imperative of a paper to print unpopular letters submitted by its readers, or a black parent will speak up and say that the achievement gap cannot be fixed until the black students decide that they, too, have a role in fixing it.
When these thoughts acquire a voice, they may not be correct, but at least they will have been heard.
Until then, we will continue our dialogue without the respect for differences that we claim to value, the very same differences that may be the seedbed of the solution we are seeking.
Editor’s note: Not only do letters about the academic achievement gap not test our patience, we openly encourage them-even those that might be deemed “politically incorrect.”