For more than 20 years, the number one goal of the District 200 Board of Education at OPRF High School has been to close the achievement gap. In 1996, for example, we launched a 10-year project to eliminate the gap. The superintendent at the time told the faculty, “Failure is not an option.”
Yet by 2006, the dramatic gap remained, as it does today. Although we have seen significant positive developments for minority students at the school (a better sense of belonging, a more sensitive staff with better skills in diversity education, an administration informed by the research findings of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), many examples of dramatic individual student turnarounds, and better clarity about the importance and use of the discipline system when it comes to academic performance, to name a few areas of progress), there is little, if any, quantifiable evidence, despite the efforts that have been made and the money spent, that the gap has been narrowed.
From my perspective as English Division Chair from 2002 until I retired in 2010, I observed one particularly telling phenomenon that can help explain why the gap is so stubborn and unlikely to be closed for a long, long time. I call that phenomenon the “Majority Student Achievement Network,” which works powerfully and insidiously — but with no one to blame — against the purposes of the actual MSAN and the gap-closing efforts of OPRF.
One of my jobs as an academic division head was to place each of the approximately 800 incoming freshmen on the appropriate ability level track: Transitions, College Prep, or Honors. Placement is a sensitive and consequential decision, and I saw getting it right as one of my most important tasks. In reaching a decision on what level to recommend, I considered standardized test scores in Reading and English, eighth-grade teacher input, writing samples on occasion, and in borderline cases a conference with my counterpart in the History Division, who was placing the same students based on very similar criteria.
Although such placement is an imperfect science, I developed some skill at the practice. Nevertheless, every year a significant number of parents decided that I had made an error in the case of their child, or at least they decided to override my recommendation. These pairs (usually) of parents, who insisted on elevating their students’ placement from College Prep to Honors (the district’s policy is that parents have the final word on placement), numbered about 30-40 per year and virtually all of them were white.
Of course, they were not part of an organized network of white parents. Their networking was strictly informal. Most of them did not know the other overriders, and they had no idea that they were part of anything larger than a family effort to help their child succeed in school at the highest level possible in order to compete well in four years for college admission.
I could tell they were usually college graduates and successful professionals, had spent a good amount of the previous 10-plus years chatting with other parents about their kids, and knew schools and how to work with them. In short, they were exemplary citizens of the majority culture.
Even though this informal, unintentional, unorganized, unfunded, and essentially unconscious of itself Majority Network might seem weaker in constitution and effectiveness than the actual and opposite Minority Network with all of its formality, professionalism, institutional solidity, and financial support, the former is considerably stronger than the latter. Perhaps the best way to see their relative strength is to look at the Project Scholar program at OPRF.
MSAN’s research suggests that minority students are particularly successful in educational situations in which they are challenged with high expectations by teachers exhibiting deep caring for the students. The Project Scholar program in English (there’s also P.S. in math and science) institutionalized such features by placing up to 20 selected students (mostly minority), who would not otherwise have been placed on the Honors level, in freshman Honors English with an extra period each day of practice and tutorial time with the student’s English teacher. Although expensive to the district, and requiring the student to sacrifice one registration to be part of it, the program worked well, with a high percentage of students succeeding in their P.S. Honors class freshman year and staying on the Honors track in that subject for the subsequent three years.
The other, unofficial MSAN, though, has been more effective in its completely non-organized non-program. Without cost to the school, and with no registration sacrificed by the student, these white parents achieved honors placement for their students, provided them with academic support in the form of tutoring or extra homework help at home, and often watched their students succeed with a grade of B or better. One goal of P.S. was to increase the percentage of minority students taking Honors classes. The Majority Student Achievement Network version of P.S., pushing an extra 30-40 white students into Honors English each year, effectively offset the gap-closing accomplishments of the real P.S.
The Project Scholar story — including the invisible element of the other MSAN — demonstrates part of the reason why closing the gap is such a recalcitrant problem. We live in an extremely stratified society with savage inequalities that evidence suggests are growing much worse. We may all devoutly wish we could close the gap, and we should certainly do all we can to make opportunities and outcomes more equal and fair, but we should also recognize that because of factors as rigid and deterministic as physical reality, the project is nothing short of social and economic revolution on a level never achieved in human history, and we should approach the effort with our eyes open wide. All too often, critics suggest that the solution is much simpler than it is.
Incidentally, I heard recently that the school’s successful Project Scholar program has been discontinued. Without question, the majority culture’s version of P.S. is still going strong.
Steve Gevinson is a former English instructor at OPRF High School and a former chair of the English Division.