Carl Spight, one of the architects of “The Learning Community Performance Gap,” a 2003 report that analyzed racial disparities at Oak Park and River Forest High School, was frank in his assessment of the work nearly 20 years later.
“It’s a difficult and cold read now in 2021,” Spight told District 200 board members during a discussion about the report held at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 11. “It is a gumbo best served warm and now, of course, it is quite cold.”
But while the report is outdated, much of its content remain salient, Spight said, because the underlying issues the report addressed — including race-based disparities in everything from disciplinary infractions to academic performance — are still very much alive at OPRF.
“The performance gap is systemic and suggests two communities exist at OPRF — ‘one for white students that places them at ‘academic promise,’ and one for African American students that places them ‘at academic risk,’” said Lincoln Chandler, a strategy consultant who presented some of the major findings of the Performance Gap report to the board.
The board was reviewing the document as part of the mandated professional development process the board implemented to deepen its understanding “of how policy impacts racial equity,” according to a board memo.
Spight’s assessment takes on added importance now that D200 has new board members and a new, incoming superintendent in Greg Johnson, who will succeed outgoing Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams when she retires at the end of the school year.
During the meeting, which took place before the April 6 school board election, Spight said that, while the 2003 Performance Gap report has aged, another book, “Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools” by John B. Diamond and Amanda E. Lewis, makes similar points in a more engaging way.
Spight said the 2015 book “affirms and reinforces, and perhaps better articulates many points we made in the 2003 document,” adding that the book “should be something that new board members ought to be required to read, in association perhaps, with the 2003 document.”
Spight then weighed in on the district’s recent progress in confronting systemic racism at the high school. In the early 1990s, Spight, who has a Ph.D. in plasma physics from Princeton, chaired the discipline study team that “established definitively that there is a discipline gap” at OPRF.
His wife, Marsha, co-founded African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership and Education (also known as the APPLE Parent Organization) in the late 1990s. But since 2009, when he left his position as a part-time staff researcher at OPRF out of frustration with the school administration, Spight has been an outside observer of the changes happening at the high school.
“OPRF has been sadly and disturbingly capable of making disastrous choices in board members, superintendents and administrators chosen by superintendents and affirmed by boards,” he said, adding that these choices are an important reason why the school is still dealing with racial problems from 20 years ago.
In recent years, however, Spight has seen signs for optimism, particularly in curriculum and administrative personnel.
“The flag of equity at OPRF has been in 2021 squarely placed in the arena of de-tracking the freshman curriculum and in the battle of implementation that has been engaged in that de-tracking [effort],” he said, referencing the district’s plans to end the practice of dividing freshmen into college placement and honors curriculum levels in most courses.
“The good news,” Spight said, is that OPRF has “skilled” and “properly placed” administrators in Greg Johnson, currently D200’s assistant superintendent, and Laurie Fiorenza, the district’s director of student learning.
Spight called Johnson and Fiorenza “exemplary administrators for the task at hand,” a rather serendipitous remark, given that Johnson would be named the district’s next superintendent roughly a month later.
That’s also a very powerful endorsement and seal of approval, which begs the question of what role it may have played in Johnson landing the top job.
What matters even more, many board members indicated during the March meeting, is how the high school follows through on its stated commitment to racial equity.
The problem, said member Tom Cofsky — who at the time was running for reelection, a bid he ultimately won — is not resources.
“Our district hasn’t been shy on the resource front,” Cofsky said. “Since 2003, we have spent significant money, more than [the Consumer Price Index] and there’s data there. So, it’s not that we haven’t ponied up for resources. The question is, ‘Are the resources we’re using delivering the results we need?’ And based on the discussion we’re having today, the answer is, ‘No.’”
For board member Gina Harris, the problem has been that the district has historically failed to acknowledge “the beliefs and behaviors” that arise from “white supremacy culture and ideology” as normative.
“I don’t think we attack those in a more systemic way and in order to attack them in a more systemic way, we have to acknowledge [those beliefs and behaviors] as norms in our spaces,” Harris said. “We don’t acknowledge them as norms in our spaces.”
Chandler said some particular areas of historical weakness at OPRF highlighted in the Learning Gap report include the lack of “evidence-based research techniques,” a lack of “measurable goals,” more “accurate and reliable means of measurement, even when goals are identified,” and plans “for reflection and judgment of their effectiveness.”
Now former board member Jackie Moore said the 2003 report and the March 11 discussion raised “a lot more questions than solutions.”
But there has been progress, said board member Ralph Martire.
“The good news is our board is taking a step to implement policies at the board level that would require any proposal put forth by the administration addressing racial inequity to be evidence-based, have identifiable measures and be reported back at regular intervals to the board, so we can evaluate them against these measures to determine whether a course correction is needed,” he said.
There are limits, though, even to that very measured and judicious approach, said George Bailey, a literature professor who also helped draft the 2003 Learning Gap report and who, along with Spight, appeared virtually during the March 11 discussion.
Bailey indicated that the new board and administration may soon walk right up to the edge of those limits as it works to make freshman de-tracking a material reality.
“I think that sometimes rationality gets you in the weeds and is highly overrated,” Bailey said. “So, I believe in research-based mishmash, but I also believe that you have to spice it up with some intuition.
“For example, we know that a lot of parents in affluent neighborhoods think that equity means we’re going to dumb down the curriculum at this high school. We know that and you can’t talk about that rationally or authoritatively. Sometimes you have to get down to where people are and it means going down in that hole with them, in the dark with them, and asking them to go down in that hole with us, because it’s a hole we’re in and we need to go down in that hole together.”You can read the full Learning Gap report here: https://bit.ly/2Q8gE4C.