Part 10: RACE AND EDUCATION IN OAK PARK  

The years from 2001 to 2011 elicited strong, critical research at OPRF High School — the Learning Community Performance Gap Study (LCPGS) and the Blueprint Assessment. These compelling studies became keystone documents for confronting the cultural and structural racial inequities in D200. 

The performance gap study

The LCPGS (2003) was a rigorous quantitative and qualitative investigation and recommendations prepared by a team of District 200 administrators, together with Dr. Carl Spight, a former president of APPLE and an independent consultant for statistical analysis, and Theodore Manley, a sociology professor from DePaul University. The study’s findings were deeply concerning but reflective of the ongoing structural and cultural barriers that students of color faced at OPRF.

After over two years of work the LCPGS team declared boldly: “There is a systemic learning community performance gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School. The learning community performance gap suggests that two communities exist at the high school — one for White students that places them ‘at academic promise’ and one for African-American students that places them ‘at academic risk.’”

Dr. Carl Spight

The learning community performance gap was exacerbated by differential outcomes in the success rates for African-American and white students in accelerated/honors, college preparatory, basic, and transition curriculum tracks. On average, no matter what courses African-American students took, there was a close to 1-point difference in weighted GPA, with white students consistently receiving mostly A’s and B’s in all curriculum tracks. Mean white student weighted GPA was 3.29 compared to 2.31 for Black students. Most startling was the fact that for white and Black students with similar standardized test scores, and similar honors course taking, the overall GPA gap remained. Concerns about this anomaly and the bifurcated quality of learning opportunity in various tracks would later be a primary finding in the 2011 Blueprint Assessment. 

Interviews with a representative cross section of African-American students confirmed the LCPGS’ core hypotheses about Black student success. It occurred when students: 

1) “found school (peers, teachers, staff, administration) to be a safe and reinforcing environment,” 

2) experienced at home a valuing of high achievement and family resources invested in success, 

3) associated with peers of all backgrounds “who value and invest in such achievement,” 

4) utilized academic support services within and outside of school, and 

5) had strong supportive interactions with teachers and counselors. 

A sixth hypothesis, perhaps the most revealing and insightful, was that Black student success was enhanced when they successfully negotiated the “triple quandary” that African-American children encountered in life but especially in integrated schools like OPRF.

The triple quandary

Using the triple quandary model of the Black historical experience and existing racial identity development models, the LCPGS concluded that Black students who were able to successfully negotiate the adverse social forces impacting their lives succeeded more at OPRF but still had the weighted GPA gap. 

The first quandary facing African-American students was the “Mainstream (White) Experience” where assimilation is seen as desirable by the dominant culture, but may be perceived by people of color as “conformity to a set of rules forced and applied unevenly and typically to keep them behind.” 

A second quandary was the “Minority Experience of being exposed to a set of culturally, politically, socially and economically oppressive conditions that have reduced African-American life chances.” 

The third quandary was the “Black cultural experience,” which represented the coping strategies and complex ways African Americans “negotiate mainstream (White) experiences by internalizing only those rules and cultural values that lead to success.” LCPGS researchers labeled this identity disposition as one of “negotiated internalization.” This orientation and action included a set of skills, values, and beliefs referred to as biculturality — 78 percent of the more academically successful African-American students matched this theoretical profile.

Researchers also discovered a smaller subset of Black students possessing what they called a “non-negotiated internalization identity.” For various reasons, these students chose to reject the paths that more successful students followed. Twenty-two percent of the 53 interviewed students seemed to fit this identity, deciding to blend in and not call attention to themselves academically. They also tended to act out their Black identity in ways many faculty and staff saw as defiant and disruptive of authority, had disproportionate discipline encounters, and earned an average .70 lower weighted GPA than students in the internalization negotiated group. 

This revealing disparity and other critical findings drove equity advocates from APPLE in the first decade of this century to confront District 200 leaders over just what needed to done to bring about a more racially just and equitable school community — which is the subject of the next and final part of this series.

Key recommendations 

The LCPGS recognized numerous earlier and ongoing efforts to remedy achievement disparities, but faulted D200 for choosing, keeping, or abandoning programs without applying research and evaluation from outside and within D200. The study, as did activists in 1994, proposed a comprehensive review of discipline disparities to find ways to reduce student infractions. 

Researchers recommended substantial resources for instructional strategies like reading across the curriculum, approaches to discipline without alienation, forming new partnerships with African-American families, evaluating and redesigning of basic math classes, reviewing and possibly revising grading practices, and providing resources and support for the African American Faculty Advisory Council.

Four conclusions/recommendations of the LCPGS especially resonated with me. The study team rejected the popular myths that peer pressure about “acting white” accounted for achievement disparities. They also recommended school investment in addressing evidence that Black students experienced school as less safe and welcoming than white students. Researchers categorically rejected previous popular beliefs about Black students and family cultural deficits, instead embracing the social ethos that all students are at academic promise rather than academic risk. 

Most importantly, for understanding curriculum equity work today, the LCPGS recommended that a vigorous equity analysis determine what role D200 curriculum tracking may have in shaping school culture and achievement. That inquiry has become central to equity plans finally underway at OPRF with the Access for All freshman course restructuring.

Join the discussion on social media!