To its credit, America to Me (ATM) raises the issue of academic tracking, a century-old practice aimed to accelerate the learning of all students. At OPRF High School, this means students experience either transitions, college preparatory, honors or advanced placement (AP) curriculums — an arrangement that is replete with racial inequities. Yet rather than giving any significant time to research-based critiques of tracking, ATM defers to former interim principal Don Vogel’s claim that the community would not accept any changes, implying change means dumping honors and AP courses.

Tracking continues here and elsewhere, to a great degree driven by white fears, racial stereotypes, and distorted beliefs about student merit and ability. The tracking status quo also feeds on what Amanda Lewis and John Diamond call “opportunity hoarding” in their much-studied and locally-discussed book, Despite the Best Intentions (2015). But rather than going deeper into the racial inequities of curriculum tracking, ATM plows forward, accepting the dominant culture’s prevailing beliefs. This all happens while many in the community including teachers, board members, parents and students meet at school to unpack the history and rationale around tracking and consider alternatives while reading Carol Burris’ book On the Same Track (2014).

Dan Haley, editor of Wednesday Journal, in a key scene points to what community advocates for change throughout 2016 were asserting — that OPRF is stuck in racially inequitable practices other districts have abandoned. Nonetheless, ATM chooses not to share with any detail how districts like Evanston High School have heeded the compelling research on the racial inequities of curriculum tracking. Instead the series defaults to a historic system of inequity so many at OPRF defend and hold dearly — results be damned.

They needed to go no further than OPRF’s own quantitative and qualitative research. A fuller look at the charts and graphs of Director of Research and Assessment Amy Hill’s 2016 report on tracking, and the district’s Blueprint Assessment (2011), available online, could reveal much to viewers. As Hill’s charts on tracking make clear, there is little, if any, upward academic mobility from lower tracks to more academically demanding tracks, and student achievement in lower tracks flat-lines over their four years at OPRF. 

As research supports, and some teachers in ATM argue, tracking at OPRF fosters racially segregated learning that is intensified by “white flight” from the college prep track to the honors track.

A look at respected national research could more fully inform viewers. In literacy education, for example, tracking has one of the lowest impacts on overall student achievement, actually having a negative impact (Hattie, 2012). In mathematics education, tracking diminishes the learning and academic future of low-tracked students, with inequitable disparities in learning opportunities and achievement tied to a student’s race, and socio-economic status (NCTM, 2018). At schools like Evanston, “de-tracking” has not ended honors and AP courses. In fact all students, especially students of color, show increased presence and success in these classes (Bavis, 2016).

In the wake of ATM, and in light of what we know from our own and national research, we support District 200 teachers developing a more racially equitable freshman curriculum as proposed in the current strategic plan. Securing equitable opportunities for all students challenges our community to examine entrenched beliefs and to act differently. An essential first step is for families who have benefitted from the status quo to face prevailing fears that any changes in curriculum tracking diminishes OPRF. If that makes us uncomfortable, we need to embrace that discomfort. As student Charles Donalson counseled participants at the New York Times ATM Town Hall — comfort and change do not and cannot live in the same house.

John Duffy is chairperson of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE).

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