A few weeks back, I reported on a surprisingly low rate of student growth in River Forest students prior to schools shuttering in March 2020. It appeared after the Educational Opportunity Project (EOP) at Stanford University updated their visualization tool to include more recent District 90 test scores (edopportunity.org). An index of -1.8%, or students learning slightly less in River Forest compared to the U.S. average, was unexpected and needed further investigation.
By definition, an index is a simplification and this one is averaging over six grades (3rd-8th) and 10 school years, 2008-2009 through 2017-2018. The index is sensitive to growth or change in average test scores over time, and insensitive to achievement or average test scores in any one year. Somewhere in this grand mean, something pulled the index into negative territory. The collaborative researchers at Stanford helped unpack and validate those 10 years of D90 results and what emerged is below.
A large part of the work the EOP does is stitching district test data together for the entire U.S. so it can be utilized by journalists, educators, policy-makers and parents to explore school effectiveness. They developed a handy tool for visualizing school effectiveness, and each district’s grade and year data are available to anyone. Below is a plot of 10 years of River Forest math and English language arts average scores, the scores that produced the unusually low learning rate. Each value is an average of grades three through eight for the year. For example, a value of 3.0 indicates students in grades three through eight are, on average, scoring three grades higher than the national average, 2.0 two grades higher, etc.
The trend for math is favorable and relatively stable until 2017 when there are two consecutive years with decline. English language arts scores soar, with more than a full grade of growth between 2013 and 2017. Then something abrupt happens that coincides with D90’s implementation of The Crosswalk, the district’s Vision for Equity initiative that involved a range of activities aimed at reducing the racial predictability of achievement. Two changes in particular included adopting an alternate theory for how students learn, and the other, adopting new K-8 grade curricula that align with the alternate theory.
The new math and English language arts curricula are illustrative of the changes. According to the National Center for Education Evaluation, whereas the teacher’s role in the former math curriculum (Math Expressions) was to explain, model and facilitate the production of ideas, the new curriculum (Investigations) relies on the student production of ideas. The new ELA curriculum is from the controversial Lucy Calkins. Instead of teaching the 44 phonemes used to decode or sound out words, early readers learn to identify words by relying on context or pictures, sentence structure and other factors. Classroom libraries and books of choice have replaced leveled reading materials designed to target appropriate challenge and resulting growth. The teaching theory and curricula are new to River Forest, but these concepts have been in the crosshairs of debate for decades, and it is unclear if the changes in River Forest are helping close a gap or creating new ones.
The math curriculum Investigations was proven to reduce achievement compared to Math Expressions, and certain states have banned the Lucy Calkins curriculum. In 2019, River Forest’s Roosevelt Middle School teachers shared their own opinion, downgrading Instructional Leadership to the bottom 8th percentile in the state of Illinois’ 5 Essentials Survey.
What you have read so far is investigative journalism — you know, an activity that operates above Facebook and below the police. Its aim is increasing awareness and understanding, holding people and organizations accountable, and it is mostly missing in River Forest. What comes next is why you find my column just in front of the obituaries.
I was inspired recently by the words of a woman (Alice Dreger) who articulated the differences between an activist, an intellectual and the Bahama Nuthatch of personality types: the activist-intellectual. This rare bird is attracted to difficult problems, relentless in the pursuit of truth, apolitical and out to make things better. Perhaps most unique, they are not driven by a conventional reward system, she says.
As a community, we can look closely at the changes to curriculum and instruction and the corresponding decline in student test scores and do at least three things: A few will hurl insults, cry foul, and press on. Some will quietly gather facts and make appropriate changes best for their family. And if the information presented here is false, and changes to curriculum and instruction are not connected to school decline, then would the feathered friends of River Forest please fly forward, involve the entire community, and provide an alternative explanation?