Think before leaping into school reform

Opinion: Columns

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By Dale Sorenson

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In 1968 when I enrolled in a small college in rural Iowa, Calvin Trilling wrote a New Yorker article singling out the school. He noted that even its "idyllic college life" was interrupted by the emerging student protests of the '60s against the war and racism. [New Yorker, April 20, 1968]

In the first semester, I had eye-opening experiences. One was a student takeover of the college administration building in support of black students, demanding a black activities center, black speakers, black courses and more black faculty. The second was an honest re-evaluation of my brilliance as a mathematician, caused by meeting my new roommate Mark. Although he and I attended the same math class, for him it was a repeat of an OPRF class in his hometown, Oak Park, something that my high school did not offer.

Fifty years later I reside in Oak Park, where the issues of racism and school quality are still unresolved. The demands made at my college for more representation of the black perspective on campus were repeated by OPRF students last fall. And the quality OPRF education that my college roommate experienced was still available to my children who were raised here.

In recent months, the voices calling for changes at the high school to support the education of minorities have grown louder, more insistent and less patient. One civic leader urged the board to "move quickly" [WJ, Nov. 21]. A popular teacher announced that "things have gotten so much worse" that she felt compelled to take a leave of absence [WJ, Nov. 7] The local newspaper publisher accused the school's past leadership of sitting on their hands [WJ, "It's now or never at OPRF"].

These voices seem ostensibly reasonable given the limitations of our progress. If there were a time for suggesting that we hold our horses, this would not appear to be it. But maybe it is.

Failed attempts at educational reform in the name of improving the reach of our schools are now legion. Two recent presidential administrations initially endorsed No Child Left Behind — before it was completely overhauled because of perverse consequences. In Atlanta, many teachers falsified student test results because of pressure from their administration. In New York, there have been major reform misadventures at both the state and local level. This week the state of New York reversed a plan to require half of a teacher's rating to be determined by student results on standardized tests, only four years after the plan was adopted. And last year the city of New York abandoned a $773 million school reform program that had been "imposed by a mayor eager to show on a national stage" improvements in the poorest-performing schools. Does this have the ring of an Oak Park voice arguing that OPRF must focus "on educational equity or we just give up the bragging rights"? [WJ 9/26/18]

In the years between my introduction to an Oak Park roommate in college and today's initiatives to reform OPRF, much has been left to be accomplished. The social injuries owing to centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation are still conspicuous. It should not be a matter of embarrassment to say that Oak Park has not found the solution. 

Listening to the various voices in the village, one realizes the consensus to take action is not matched by agreement on the type of action. And an honest inspection of the failed school reform experiments across the country is sobering.

Hopefully, women and men with level heads will lead our schools. Their goal should be to do those things that are best for generations of minority students, rather than to protect the near-term reputation of the village. The history of both our village and our country suggests that this will be a grinding struggle, requiring equal parts of inspiration and perspiration … and patience.

Dale is a nearly 40-year resident of Oak Park whose children attended the local public schools.

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