Dear Dr. Pruitt-Adams and Mr. Johnson,

I attended the Sept. 18 community information session on the updated curriculum. During the event, it became clear that the changes are not the right plan, and I’m writing to explain why. This is an “open” letter I am sharing with others to further the community’s discussion.

Before I begin, I want to express appreciation for your efforts to address the racial achievement gap. It is an important but difficult challenge. I appreciate that your hearts are in the right place.

However, good intentions are not enough. The plan is problematic for several reasons: 

1. The district doesn’t seem to be addressing the underlying causes of the achievement gap. The data presented suggests that the two drivers of the achievement gap are (1) things that happens before students enter high school, as evidenced by an achievement gap in test scores of students entering high school, and (2) the college prep classes aren’t working well, as evidenced by the gap widening over time. Despite this data, the plan isn’t directly addressing either of these issues. Instead, the plan is to blow up what is currently working: the honors classes. 

2. The district’s research on the problem and solution is very poor. The district’s communication ignores the large body of research saying that plans like these hurt top students. Further, significant research exists that similar plans hurt all students by not providing anyone a curriculum geared toward them. It seems misleading that the plan only cites studies suggesting that similar approaches have worked. I have a summary of some of the academic research that similar approaches have failed. 

3. The logic behind describing this change as providing “access” is weak. If the issue was truly access, then providing students more choice in enrolling in the honors track would solve the problem. But as noted during the community session, choice is unlikely to result in more racially equal outcomes. Ironically, the plan for “earned honors” is still one of choice. 

4. Analysis of the data on Models of Science class is so poor that it damages the district’s credibility. The Models of Science course is a relatively new course that doesn’t have honors tracks, but allows “earned honors,” giving students the opportunity to get the honors designation by doing extra work. The district cites strong performance of Models of Science students; however, those results are likely driven by an above-average caliber of the students taking the course — Models of Science students probably are above average because the class has a math prerequisite. Of course their performance was good. Further, the “evidence” only focused on the subset of Models of Science students who later take AP biology.  

5. The district is unprepared to execute the plan well. It was discussed that the teachers are asking for more training on “differentiation” — teaching classes with students of different levels of ability and motivation. It’s great to provide that training. But given that teachers already need improvement in differentiated instruction, it is a recipe for failure to make a change that requires teachers to be exceptional at differentiated instruction. This makes it likely that the plan will hurt students of all abilities and ethnicities. 

6. The district isn’t taking responsibility for poor communication with the community. One of the audience questions was about why the plan blindsided parents, and another comment was that leadership at the feeder school districts also seemed surprised. Supt. Pruitt-Adams basically said it was the community’s fault for not being aware that this change was being planned. Ummm, no. There should have been community information sessions like this before the change was decided. We deserve better communication during the deliberations of such a major change.

7. There is a lot of confusion about whether this change is just for freshmen or will be phased in to other years. I was at the community meeting and heard clear statements that the change only applies to freshmen, and also that the curriculum for all other years would be reviewed in the future. If a similar plan will be considered beyond freshman year, the district needs to be upfront about it. Given the way the plan for freshmen has been rolled out, I imagine you can understand why the community is concerned about future plans. 

8. The plan could be incredibly damaging to our community. Even if the district is right that the plan won’t make anyone worse off — which there are a lot of reasons to doubt — the fact that so many people believe they are worse off damages our community by pitting different factions against each other. I know this is not your intent, but it is happening. Nearly everyone in Oak Park and River Forest used to support the equity agenda, including our willingness to pay very high tax rates to make it happen. Now people are wondering, “If this plan is how we address the equity agenda, is the equity agenda doing more harm than good?” Further, top students who want to be in honors track classes will become resentful that this experience is being taken from them due to racial issues, potentially creating resentment and damaging race relations. I know the intent is not to take away the honors class experience, but that is what is happening, and the community knows it (why else would so many people show up to the community meeting so unhappy with your plan?). It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to destroy what works for one group of students to do an experiment that might help another group (which research suggests might actually hurt all groups). I know the district’s intent is to improve the community, but the plan is doing the opposite.

You’re trying to solve a difficult and important problem, and the community appreciates your efforts. But we need a plan based on sound science about existing practice — no experiments, please. In the spirit of moving forward, I suggest five solutions to consider:

 Slow down the current plan. There should be a period for community input and deliberation about the plan before a decision is made. 

 Research the source of the problem better. Is the OPRF High School achievement gap and patterns of honors track enrollment purely driven by race, or are there other underlying factors such as parental education and income? If we want to close the gap, we need to know why it exists. 

Work with the feeder school districts to address the issue before students enter high school. The data says that much of the achievement gap starts before high school. 

Fix the college prep classes. The evidence I’ve seen seems to point to those classes having a lot of room for improvement. 

Unwind the current plan altogether. 

The current plan may have seemed compelling at the time it was created, but new information and perspectives are being revealed, and I hope you’ll agree that the district needs to make adjustments. 

Eric Friedman is a resident of Oak Park.

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