For too long, Oak Park and River Forest High School, like secondary schools across the country, has restricted access to advanced courses to a select group of students. This has led Black and Latinx students to be underrepresented in advanced coursework at OPRF, which in turn denies them high-level preparation for their lives after high school. This initial decision is made when a student is 14 years old, in their freshman year of high school. And this decision — whether a student enrolls in honors or not — affects their access to educational opportunities throughout their lives.
The OPRF school board is about to vote on whether to allow all freshman students access to the honors curriculum by detracking most freshman classes. This is not a rushed decision. It is the culmination of four years of work by OPRF staff and community groups to review research, investigate how that research connects to the conditions at OPRF, and plan and deliver professional learning to teachers. They are now ready to implement, which requires only this final vote.
Unfortunately, there are still those in our community who believe that not all freshmen can learn at an honors level. They believe we should continue the system of tracking that results in unequal opportunities for students. They believe that nothing better is possible. This is not true. Research, teacher professional organizations, and local teacher experience affirm it: OPRF’s freshman restructuring will benefit the students of our community.
Research across a range of years has demonstrated that detracking supports students and that tracking is rife with equity issues:
Researchers from Northwestern and Duke find that tracking shows no academic benefits for students at any performance level. (Steenbergen-Hu et. al. 2016)
“Tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative effects on equity outcomes,” says renowned education researcher John Hattie (2008).
“There is a pedagogical value inherent in having multiple vantage points represented in classrooms,” researchers from Teachers College Columbia declare. “It allows for positive academic outcomes for all students exposed to these diverse viewpoints.” (Wells, Fox & Cordova-Cobo 2016)
Numerous teacher professional organizations and education experts emphasize the need to abandon tracking:
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics asserts that “traditional tracking practices have consistently disadvantaged groups of students by relegating them to low-level mathematics classes.”
The National Council of Teachers of English declares: “We believe that students must be granted equitable access to educational settings that build on the strengths of students [and] expand the capacity of learners.”
The Civil Rights Framework from the NAACP and other civil rights organizations states that “the practice of tracking students by perceived ability is a major civil rights obstacle.”
Local experience confirms that tracking does not work for students at OPRF:
Teacher equity evaluations of freshman courses found major inequities in opportunity to learn for students in the college prep track, even though the students in college prep and honors tracks had comparable achievement on the PSAT 8-9 and the OPRFHS Star assessment data.
Based on teacher analysis of these same assessments, college prep and honors courses actually contain mixes of student achievement and preparation, contrary to the assumption that the student groups demonstrate widely different performance.
We cannot afford to sideline large numbers of students from the next generation. And we adults should not be deciding which students are capable of academic achievement and which are not when they are only 14 years old. This is the moment for our school board to uphold their espoused commitment to equity. This is the moment for the board to approve freshman restructuring for the students of Oak Park and River Forest.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.