American schools have been struggling for decades — and should have been struggling since their inception — to properly educate black and Latinx students. Oak Park and River Forest High School, like many suburban high schools with sizable black and Latinx populations, has been discussing this issue for years as part of a push for educational equity.
This past summer, school administrators rolled out the district’s plans for restructuring their freshman curriculum to combine the Honors track, where mostly white students are found, with the less rigorous College Prep track, where black and Latinx students are over-represented. The district is planning to implement the new curriculum in the fall of 2021, so halfway through the planning year seems like a good point to take stock.
Research has demonstrated that a de-tracked curriculum, with proper training and support for teachers, can improve the performance of students who were formerly tracked into the less rigorous curriculum and at the same time maintain the performance of students who were tracked into the rigorous curriculum. According to a study by Burris, Wiley, Welner, and Murphy, “A well-executed detracking reform can help increasing numbers of students reach state and world-class standards without adversely affecting high-achieving students.” Evanston Township High School has been held up as an example of a school that has detracked successfully, with students in the combined curriculum increasing their ACT scores, Advanced Placement participation, and Advanced Placement success.
Oak Park has made the case for restructuring, but many middle-class white parents are skeptical. They worry that their child’s performance will decrease because he or she is being put into a class with “lower-performing kids” who might “affect the classroom environment.” These judgments are wrong on two counts. First, although as parents we must care about our own children, we must not care only about our own children.
Especially when thinking about racial inequity, white middle-class parents must be willing to tolerate some risk in making changes that will benefit people of color who are the primary recipients of harm in the current system. Second, test scores are not the only, or even best, metric on which to evaluate a student’s schooling. Defining success narrowly according to student achievement on standardized tests necessarily devalues every child’s experience.
This is not to say that we should detrack primarily because white people benefit from it. The primary motivation for addressing inequities must be to stop and reverse the harm being done to people of color. But it is to say that white people cannot do the work of anti-racism just because we believe it will benefit others. White people need to work toward being anti-racist both because it is the right thing to do for others and because we ourselves are also damaged by white supremacy. When any child is valued according to their ability to produce narrow, analytical reasoning in a sterile testing environment, that child’s life is diminished.
We human beings contain so much, and we need to value all of it — from narrow, analytical reasoning to broad, creative thinking, everything between, and everything outside. And the schooling we provide to our young people should demonstrate and cultivate what we value.
I cannot guarantee that the specific plan OPRF High School is creating will do this, but we need to start the change somewhere. The plan has the right research backing and is moving forward in a spirit of learning and growth. Staying where we are is a recipe for stagnation and inequity, and moving forward will allow us to work toward greater educational equity for all of our children.
I ask my fellow white Oak Parkers to support this plan and the growth and values that come with learning from our mistakes. It is this willingness to try, fail, and learn that will enable us to fulfill the promise of American education — to educate black students, Latinx students, Asian students, white students, and students of all races to the level they deserve.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.