By Ken Trainor
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.
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.
Answer Book 2019
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.
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