Over the past three years, after talking to hundreds of teachers and parents, I have come to a conclusion about the achievement gap, which differs from the one that I formed during my 16-year teaching career at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I believed that many black students were treated differently as a group because of an institutionalized system of lower expectations.
While I still believe that this observation is accurate, a different point of view that leads to a somewhat different set of conclusions is more useful. What I missed was that equivalent numbers of white students are being treated (or ignored) in similar ways, and that they become invisible when we view things through our customary lens of racial equity.
Before I can talk about what I think we are doing wrong, it is necessary to describe what we are doing right.
We are, arguably, one of the best high schools in the United States at meeting the diverse needs of academically skilled students. For the academic upper third of our student body, it would be quite difficult to find another high school with more to offer these students, regardless of their race. It is this fact that forms the basis for our reputation as a “good school.”
It is this reputation, combined with those of the public elementary school districts, that form the foundation of our residential real estate values — some of the soundest in Illinois. During the past three terrible years, our residential property owners have been among the most fortunate in the country.
And why are we in this position? The answer is simple: Our school districts have responded to the requests and demands of those parents and taxpayers who are the most effective, the most tenacious and the most organized in expressing their desires for their educational systems. It is no coincidence that they also tend to be the parents of the highest academic achievers.
Incidentally, our special education programs also have the same high reputation, for the same reasons: Our parents who have the need for such programs are very good at working to get what they need for their children. And is this not what is needed in a democracy? How can you blame teachers, administrators and school board members for giving parents and taxpayers what they ask for?
So what’s wrong with this picture? In a nutshell, we concentrate so intensely on meeting the needs of our highest achieving students that we overlook the necessity for expending just as much time, energy and resources in meeting the different needs of our average and below average achievers.
There are few voices, organized or otherwise, to speak for the needs of “average” or “below average” kids. And what would you expect in a community where “all of the children are above average?” We allocate our greatest resource in an unfair manner: the expression of high expectations. We allocate our second greatest resource (money) in ways that benefit the highest academic achievers to a much greater extent than their lower-achieving counterparts. We show no real urgency to deal directly with the problems of poor reading skills, in spite of the annual reminders that we receive from the state. We produce too little data that is specific enough, and accessible enough, to allow ourselves to evaluate our assumptions or our effectiveness. Our reputation has enticed many families to move into our community, with the expectations that their kids will benefit in ways that our reputation suggests; yet, many whose kids are not top performers feel betrayed, and remain silent in their disappointment.
If the overwhelming reaction to what I have written here is negative, or even worse, we get dead silence, then perhaps I would be wise to drop the issue. If, on the other hand, what I have said has a sufficient ring of truth that is acknowledged by enough people, then there would be good reason to start a process of genuine evaluation of these claims and ideas. I hope that readers will consider these issues important enough to share their reactions. You can do so publicly with the Wednesday Journal (email@example.com), semi-publicly with your District 200 board members (firstname.lastname@example.org) or privately with me (email@example.com).
Ralph Lee is a 32-year Oak Park resident, a member of the OPRF board of education and a retired 16-year teacher at the high school.