Taking another look at the achievement gap at OPRF

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Opinion: Columns

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Ralph Lee

Over the past three years, after talking to hundreds of teachers and parents, I have come to a conclusion about the achievement gap, which differs from the one that I formed during my 16-year teaching career at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I believed that many black students were treated differently as a group because of an institutionalized system of lower expectations.

While I still believe that this observation is accurate, a different point of view that leads to a somewhat different set of conclusions is more useful. What I missed was that equivalent numbers of white students are being treated (or ignored) in similar ways, and that they become invisible when we view things through our customary lens of racial equity.

Before I can talk about what I think we are doing wrong, it is necessary to describe what we are doing right.

We are, arguably, one of the best high schools in the United States at meeting the diverse needs of academically skilled students. For the academic upper third of our student body, it would be quite difficult to find another high school with more to offer these students, regardless of their race. It is this fact that forms the basis for our reputation as a "good school."

It is this reputation, combined with those of the public elementary school districts, that form the foundation of our residential real estate values — some of the soundest in Illinois. During the past three terrible years, our residential property owners have been among the most fortunate in the country.

And why are we in this position? The answer is simple: Our school districts have responded to the requests and demands of those parents and taxpayers who are the most effective, the most tenacious and the most organized in expressing their desires for their educational systems. It is no coincidence that they also tend to be the parents of the highest academic achievers.

Incidentally, our special education programs also have the same high reputation, for the same reasons: Our parents who have the need for such programs are very good at working to get what they need for their children. And is this not what is needed in a democracy? How can you blame teachers, administrators and school board members for giving parents and taxpayers what they ask for?

So what's wrong with this picture? In a nutshell, we concentrate so intensely on meeting the needs of our highest achieving students that we overlook the necessity for expending just as much time, energy and resources in meeting the different needs of our average and below average achievers.

There are few voices, organized or otherwise, to speak for the needs of "average" or "below average" kids. And what would you expect in a community where "all of the children are above average?" We allocate our greatest resource in an unfair manner: the expression of high expectations. We allocate our second greatest resource (money) in ways that benefit the highest academic achievers to a much greater extent than their lower-achieving counterparts. We show no real urgency to deal directly with the problems of poor reading skills, in spite of the annual reminders that we receive from the state. We produce too little data that is specific enough, and accessible enough, to allow ourselves to evaluate our assumptions or our effectiveness. Our reputation has enticed many families to move into our community, with the expectations that their kids will benefit in ways that our reputation suggests; yet, many whose kids are not top performers feel betrayed, and remain silent in their disappointment.

If the overwhelming reaction to what I have written here is negative, or even worse, we get dead silence, then perhaps I would be wise to drop the issue. If, on the other hand, what I have said has a sufficient ring of truth that is acknowledged by enough people, then there would be good reason to start a process of genuine evaluation of these claims and ideas. I hope that readers will consider these issues important enough to share their reactions. You can do so publicly with the Wednesday Journal (mstempniak@wjinc.com), semi-publicly with your District 200 board members (boe@oprfhs.org) or privately with me (rhlee@comcast.net).

Ralph Lee is a 32-year Oak Park resident, a member of the OPRF board of education and a retired 16-year teacher at the high school.

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Reader Comments

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Posted: December 21st, 2010 7:49 AM

The first step towards solving a problem, admit you have one. Have finally stepped up with full day kinder program. D97 needs to admit they have a problem with getting people to the level needed for reading - a small percentage, but yes some have an issue. They need to be identified and worked with. If kids enter school not having the needed skill of reading, over time in school - it is only going to get worse. And yes - Parental Involvement should be part of the child's evaluative process

Lisa Ripley from Oak Park  

Posted: December 16th, 2010 3:51 PM

@AJ-as a HS teacher I LOVE your idea - schools get to rate @CL-get off D97. Gap starts before school when some kids enter knowing how to read and are put in the same room with some kids who can't identify 5 letters in the alphabet and every other kid is somewhere in between. The gap is old at that point.

Acheivement Gap / Commitment  

Posted: December 11th, 2010 7:27 AM

Lets see if this makes any sense. D200 Board has no Strategy, no Metrics of its own to measure progress and sits on $80 Million - and now the Paper says Cheryl Witham, CFO gets the Board to increase the Tax levy by 6.79% and take an Additional 3.8 Million Dollars from the Taxpayers? Where does any of this make sense? Where is this money being spent - while the GAP gets wider.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: December 9th, 2010 6:23 PM

To Tom, cont.: (5&6) state-mandated (PSAT) test score summaries are reported annually, and assorted data tables are placed on the district web site. Obviously, I feel that our board given far too little real attention to this issue; our new superintendent has not yet had the time to get deeply into the issue, but he appears to be headed in that direction.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: December 9th, 2010 6:19 PM

To Tom: At the risk of unfair statements because of brevity answering your six questions: (1) We discuss MSAN very little; (2) no strategic plan, although we seem to be moving in that direction very slowly; (3) our administrators and a few teachers and students interact with MSAN counterparts annually; (4) we have a long list of possible kinds of data we could use, but we have not agreed to do anything specific with it; (cont.)


Posted: December 8th, 2010 8:08 PM

Thanks for the link on the Gap information. Lots of Good stuff I never knew about. The link talks about a lot of stuff, strong parental involvement and working with grade schools (where GAP starts) - that successful districts have done. Are we doing that in OP. Also Expecting more from mid level or lower performing students and holding them accountable. Training for Teachers - to deal with slow learners etc., Mr. Lee, what is your knowledge and experience with this Network

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: December 8th, 2010 6:09 PM

Some items to consider. OPRF is a member of Minority Student Acheivement Network. http://www.annenberginstitute.org/Challenge/pubs/cj/gap_cj.htm Great, how much does the Board talk about this(they should it is on the OPRF site), do they have an Actionable Strategic Plan to address issues, engaged w/others with the same issues (OPRF is not alone), do they have specific identified Measurable Metrics and are they Communicating same to the Community/Taxpayers? If so, Where? If not,Why Not?

AJ from Oak Park  

Posted: December 8th, 2010 4:30 PM

I suggest adding one more metric to all student report cards, K-12: Parental Involvement.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: December 8th, 2010 4:26 PM

We must also expect the public school systems to do those things that they are capable of doing, which can be done now: They can assess the specific academic skill needs of each child and develop reasonable programs that lead to the successful building of those skills. We in District 200 have the capability to do this without risking the things that we do well. All that is lacking is the political will.

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: December 8th, 2010 4:16 PM

Of course the involvement of parents is the single most important factor in determining the academic achievement level for most healthy students, not just starting with the third grade, but starting at birth. This is why I am such an avid supporter of our Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education (www.collab4kids@homestead.com), which I believe will eventually lead to the greatest progress in narrowing the achievement gap that we will ever experience. But can we wait for that?

Tom from River Forest  

Posted: December 8th, 2010 5:39 AM

Reading several of the comments, appears to be agreement the involvement of Parents is the Key - and when kids are Young (as early as 3rd grade) As a Community AND School Board, lets start there, and identify those in the GAP range - and work with their Parents, and all Community Groups/Individuals that have a position of influence over those students. Is that Not the Voice that Mr. Lee says is missing for these students? If not, Why Not?

Megan from River Forest  

Posted: December 7th, 2010 12:47 PM

I would love to see the parents of the average and below average achievers get involved if they haven't already. Kids, no matter what age, learn by example and if a parent shows their child they don't give a damn, then the child isn't going to give a damn. Be enthusiastic, talk to your child, get involved, find out what makes your kid tick. We owe it to kids as well as ourselves to be supportive and stay involved.

C. L   

Posted: December 7th, 2010 7:14 AM

The article says - people move to the area for the reputation. What/Who has earned the reputation? What causes the HS to not meet Standards. All Schools have Standards - State and Federal. Stop talking about a lack of voice for the average at the HS (their parents) - and work with the Community to fix the problems of D97 - if this is where the Gap comes from? Work with the Church and faith groups - reach them when they are young. Where is the Board Strategy that reaches out to Community?

Ralph H. Lee from Oak Park  

Posted: December 6th, 2010 11:51 AM

I believe that you have misquoted me. You ("Achievement GAP / Committment") said "But to say it is the fault of teachers & high achieving & SP ED students & their parents?" Please read what I said again. I thought that I made it clear (and perhaps I didn't) that I did not blame parents for asking for what they want, or educators for giving parents what they want. What is missing is a voice that asks for just as much attention to the needs of the students with average or below average skills.

Acheivement GAP / Commitment  

Posted: December 5th, 2010 9:26 AM

Take cue from Evanston HS working w/feeder schools. OPRF has gap, ok. But to say it is the fault of teachers & high achieving & SP ED students & their parents? If no high achieving students, no more OPRF - reputation lost. Much Work to be done by Lee & BD with families /kids on commitment BEFORE they get to OPRF. Lets all admit this. To solve a problem 1st must be honest how we got here. More must be done with lower achieving students - but start at feeder schools like Evanston!

Naomi Hildner from Oak Park, Il.  

Posted: December 4th, 2010 5:38 PM

For the record, the required data needed to identify the most needy students at the high school in terms of reading skills has been taken and filed, while the persistent urging of our teachers for a comprehensive reading program has been ignored or rejected by the previous administration. Perhaps, finally, with our new administration, the pleas of the faculty and the needs of the students will be met.

Violet Aura  

Posted: December 4th, 2010 12:44 PM

The problem is that by the time high school rolls around, students with academic challenges have already experienced much failure. Their placement tests indicate what track they will follow. I think it's fair to say that of all the places in the country, Oak Park is very progressive in how it views "diverse" students. However, I have heard it said that third grade is the time when Black children start falling behind as a group. So to suggest that there is bias is probably unfair to teachers.

Shirley Lundin from Indian Head Park  

Posted: December 4th, 2010 9:58 AM

The unique position of OPRF, compared to many suburban schools, is its racially, culturally diverse population. It is a unique and challenging opportunity for educators to bridge the gap between cultural differences that are often attributed to race. Lee's comments that "squeaky wheel" expectations of those more empowered by stability related to education and income can make invisible the needs of those not similarly blessed. Lee has articulated an important analysis.

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