Whose back are you sitting on?

Opinion: Ken Trainor


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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible … except by getting off his back.

Leo Tolstoy

What Then Must We Do?


According to Wikipedia, What Then Must We Do? (sometimes translated as What Is to Be Done?) by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1886, describes the social conditions of Russia in his day. It contains the powerful quote above.

The title is based on a New Testament reference (Luke 3: 10-11): 

"'What should we do then?' the crowd asked. John [the Baptist] answered, 'Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.'"

Today we live in a time of even greater inequity — economic, racial, cultural, and educational. 

Those of us who enjoy a more privileged position in this deeply unequal society sit on someone's back, assuring ourselves and others that we feel sorry for them and wish to lighten their load by all means possible … except by getting off their back.

Just because someone else may be sitting on your back doesn't let you off the hook. It should make us all the more motivated to get people off everyone's back. It shouldn't convince you to do everything possible to preserve what little privilege you have.

That's where we are at the moment when it comes to educational equity in Oak Park. I've been listening to the achievement gap/educational equity discussion in this community for almost three decades now and it hasn't changed. Whenever someone suggests actually doing something to alter the status quo, the backlash begins: Whatever you do, don't disturb the educational advantages our privileged kids enjoy. If accommodating minority kids means dumbing down the honors track and hurting our kids' chances of getting into privileged colleges, forget it. That's the only reason we're in this community and willing to put up with these high taxes.

Or some variation thereof. Questionable assumptions to say the least. They put it in the most palatable terms possible: "Statistics show this won't work. Do you have stats to prove this will work? Why should we try something new if we aren't completely sure it will work? Yes, it would be nice to have more diversity in the honors program, but minority kids are just too far behind. The problems go back to early childhood. It's not fair to disadvantage our kids in order to advantage those kids. Equity is really just another word for mediocrity. It's their problem and their parents', not ours."

Short-sighted, narrowly focused and, frankly, self-centered. We've got ours and we're keeping it. The system isn't working for everyone, but it's working for some, so protect our kids at all cost. 

The cost is too high. 

The proposed curriculum experiment at OPRF High School removes the two-tier track of honors and college prep, for freshmen only, starting with the 2021-22 school year. The goal is to upgrade the all-inclusive single track, encourage more students to enter the honors track beginning in sophomore year, and permanently bump up the college prep track to a more challenging level for those who don't. 

Critics fear it will "dumb down" the curriculum too much for the top students. They see educational equity as a win-lose proposition. They need to widen their vision. It's actually a win-win proposition. The top students will still get into their elite colleges and they'll reap the benefits of greater diversity in their classrooms. They'll be more well-rounded. Think of the admissions essays they'll be able to write. 

Will it work? Well, what we're doing right now hasn't worked for decades, so don't we have a moral imperative to try something new? 

The school's motto, Ta Garista, "Those things that are best," needs to be expanded to "Those things that are best for as many as possible." Effectively, OPRF's motto has been "The most for the best" when it should be "The best for the most."

Last fall's docu-series, America to Me, exposed the lie: Underachieving minority kids aren't underachieving because they're not smart enough or because their parents don't care. These kids are smart — smart enough to do honors work. We just haven't figured out how to get more of them into honors classes. That's our failure as much as theirs. 

John Phelan, who wrote about this in last week's paper [More facts needed before changing the frosh curriculum, Viewpoints, Oct. 2], is a respected former president of an OPRF school board that didn't act — not successfully anyway. There were reasons: reluctant superintendents and administrations that didn't try hard enough, faculty members who didn't care enough, and parents who cared too much about protecting "their" honors program.

Not good enough. The system is set up for the few. It needs to be reset for the many. If you have a better idea than the frosh curriculum change, let's hear it. I haven't heard a single alternative so far. If you don't think public education needs to change at all, then you haven't been paying attention, which means you've disqualified yourself from the conversation.

The freshman experiment is one way to address the situation, not the only way. We should give it a try. Should we learn from Evanston Township what worked and why, what didn't and why not, as Phelan suggested? Sure. Should we find out if other school districts are having any success improving academic opportunity for minority students? Definitely. Maybe John Phelan will volunteer to do that for us. It would be a fine contribution. But we don't have to get every single duck in a row before we act. Don't make the perfect the enemy of the good. We've failed to act for too long.  

What white parents have been doing for too long, in effect, is sitting on the back of an education system and choking it and making it carry your kids, yet assuring yourself and others that you're sorry for underachieving students and wish to lighten their load by all means possible … except, of course, by setting up more opportunities for them to succeed.

What then must we do?

First, get off their backs. 

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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Reader Comments

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Vincent Ferrera from New York City  

Posted: October 14th, 2019 10:30 AM

The current system is the same one OPRFHS had 40 years ago when Oak Park was a lily-white community. If the new system had been proposed back then, it would have been rejected because it offers fewer opportunities for high achieving students to really distinguish themselves. Now that OP is (slightly) more integrated, the white community feels that it is appropriate to offer their new neighbors a system that whites would not have chosen for themselves, at a time when college admissions are more competitive than ever. Families with high-achieving students (regardless of race) may look elsewhere to meet their educational needs. I would.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: October 14th, 2019 9:07 AM

Ken Trainor is not only the one person I know to have lived thru Czarist Russia of 1886 and current Oak Park, and he worked for both newspapers that were controlled by authoritative governments that were in control at that time.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 9:15 PM

Mr. Trainor, you should continue studying the Gospel of Luke. Allow me to introduce you to Luke 12:13; "Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me." He replied to him, "Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?"

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 9:11 PM

Mr. Trainor, Why are you comparing 1886 Russia, to 2019 Oak Park? "Today we live in a time of even greater inequity ?" economic, racial, cultural, and educational. " Any journalist with any semblance of integrity would have some data to back up this statement.

Anna Johnson  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 3:41 PM

Ken, this is such a cheap shot at John Phelan. Mr. Phelan volunteered hours of his time to the district and has pushed for many equity measures. His editorial made the very fair point that, before making their decision, the district should have researched other districts who have tried detracking. To cheekily suggest that it is Mr. Phelan's job to do this research for the district is disgraceful. That's the job of district administrators ... or maybe that of a local journalist who claims to really care about this issue. I'm inclined to support this experiment, but the district's communication thus far has not inspired much confidence.

Teddy Sallad  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 10:29 AM

Marc- Do yourself a favor- stop reading K-K-KKen Trainor's myopic, self- serving musings.

Marc Martinez from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 11:24 PM

I was also shocked at the absurdity of Trainor's analogy. He believes that modern America is more unequal than Tsarist Russia! The 'we' that Tolstoy referred to were his fellow aristocrats. The line preceding Trainor's quote is "Otherwise, by most complex cunning and cruel devices, which have been elaborated through the ages, I have arranged for myself the condition of any owner of a magic purse, that is, a condition which enables me without ever doing any work, to compel hundreds and thousands of people to work for me-as I am doing; and I imagine that I pity people and wish to help them." Trainor then equates white parents that care about their children's education with these oppressors that exploited the peasants. It is reprehensible. His splenetic attack on the motives, goodwill, and morality of anyone that disagrees with him wholly undermines the few points he makes to persuade. He is clearly more interested in berating and demeaning than in persuading.

Marc Martinez from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 3:27 PM

I like Tom MacMillan's suggestions. I would add the same focus at D97. Maybe they could reduce the number of freshman that arrive less than fully prepared. This would include the summer between 8th grade and freshman year for anyone not fully prepared.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 11:13 AM

Better idea for curriculum change: 1. Mandatory summer school programs to help underachievers catch up with more class time. 2. Mandatory after school homework and extra study sessions, with teachers, for the same group. 3. Stop focusing on comparing one race vs another, it is not a competition. 4. Keep honors classes as they are, encourage everyone who can carry that load to participate. 5. Stop focusing on things like olympic pools and instead focus the money on more help for actual teaching.

John Duffy  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 9:58 AM

It is difficult to have racial amnesia about OPFHS history if you do not know our own school's evidence of systemic problems and calls to act. So, again, in support of Ken Trainor's perspective, I recommend that in some way we revisit the Learning Community Performance Gap Study of 2003, the Blueprint Assessment of 2011, the Hill reports on achievement disparities and the data on curriculum track experience tied to racial inequities in 2015 and 2016, as well as to the recent findings of teacher inquiry teams, and student focus groups which inform curriculum changes underway. The opponents of curriculum restructuring want absolute assurance that no students' needs will be overlooked and that the changes will do what they are intended to do. This is certainly a central aim of the design work underway. But like all previous history of school efforts from managed integration, instructional innovations and the multiple special programs aimed to address achievement disparities and opportunity to learn, there are no guarantees. What we do have at D 200, however, for the first time, is a dedication to ongoing honest dialogue, process and summative evaluation and a commitment to revision when evidence suggests a need. Now, I think that is a pretty strong assurance that reasonable people should be willing to live with.

John Duffy  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 9:56 AM

Ken--Thank you for your courageous and historically perceptive column on the too common, but fortunately not universal, sentiments and privileges great numbers of white residents have shown in responding to racial equity focused changes in our freshman curriculum structure at OPRFHS. You accurately and painfully describe how school board leaders and previous District administrators, and white opponents of equity center change have responded to anything approaching a systemic critique and need to act boldly. I thank you for your disturbing, but accurate understandings of historic resistance to change. I hope your justice minded writing gives other white community members, both men, women and students, the impetus to step forward to support OPRFHS evolving new freshman design. Prior to our most recent board leadership and current District administration, D 200 put major critical findings of systemic inequities and the need to act differently on the shelf. Outrageously, in the case of the Blueprint Assessment of 2011, key board members simply rejected its independent findings of our racially binary school culture in need of substantive changes. In this tradition in 2012 Superintendent Isoye hid the study from the hundreds of community members who undertook the Strategic Plan process aimed at addressing racial equity with new energy and resources. Opponents of curriculum reform today do offer an alternative to restructured curriculum. They urge the school not to mess with curriculum structure, but instead make our historic curriculum organization work better. This recommendation flies in the face of major findings of systemic inequities documented in repeated studies by and about OPRFHS, and in national literature. Parents new to the high school scene may or may not alter their opposition to the restructured freshman curriculum in the face of our own school's accumulated evidence for change, but they cannot pretend it does not exist.

Connie Moreland from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2019 7:38 AM

Absolutely agree. When that someone turns around and says "get off my back!" the white parents of Oak Park have the nerve to say "why so rude?". Recently a board member was blasted in the media for saying essentially that. Black parents do not even have a voice at the table. What do you think they would say? To the village board.... regarding equity you do nothing with your soft spoken words but allow everyone to carry you on their backs? What makes you a kind and decent politician?

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