Seeking equity and excellence at OPRF

Opinion: Columns

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John Duffy

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The Teachers Support & Best Practices Initiative (TSBPI) presented by Cathaleen Roach at the Feb. 22 OPRF High School board meeting represents an important and needed development that many in the community have called for repeatedly for many years. Though we at the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE) agree with many of TSBPI's positions, a number of its suggestions cause concern.

TSBPI explicitly targets the long-criticized inequities in curriculum tracking at OPRF while demonstrating that such inequities persistently prevent large numbers of students from gaining an education comparable to that available to students in the AP and Honors tracks. CEEE believes it is also important to call attention to a central historical dimension of curriculum organization at OPRF that should inform all considerations of the TSBPI.

For over a generation, parents and citizens have criticized curriculum tracking, both for its manifest contribution to internal racial segregation as well as its ineffectual efforts at closing the achievement gap. Indeed, the 2008 School Improvement Plan explicitly acknowledged curriculum tracking as a significant component of the gap. Not surprisingly, this year's board policy guidelines wrap instructional program developments around goals for racial equity.

TSBPI and our committee (CEEE) agree on many points. We agree with the uncontroversial propositions that all students be provided with opportunities for high academic status, best-practice teaching and learning to enable continued education beyond high school. Most importantly, we agree that curriculum equity involves much more than simply addressing some vague notion about providing more attention to the "middle student."

CEEE diverges from the TSBPI proposal in several critical ways, most importantly on the need to address racial equity in all school programs — a priority repeatedly set by our school board. TSBPI implies throughout that equity occurs when students do the same thing, in similar ways, for the same amount of time within and between curriculum tracks. We strongly disagree. We also disagree with TSBPI's assumption that continuing the multiple-track curriculum structure is a best practice. Indeed, in speaking about best practices, TSBPI fails to acknowledge or consider significant innovations related to inclusion education and school discipline that support racial equity.

In fact, many professional organizations, bolstered by substantive research, call for major changes in OPRF's traditional curriculum organization. Examining "culturally responsive teaching" practices pioneered by education researchers Ladson-Billings, Irvine and Ochoa and the "authentic curriculum" models championed by Fred Newman and others can add much to our understandings of best practices that support racial equity in school.

In advocating for these ideas, be assured that CEEE, like TSBPI, seeks to preserve the rich quality, high standards and academic challenge of existing courses. Nonetheless, we insist that the time to rethink, reform and find academically, socially and racially equitable alternatives to the current tracking system is long overdue. Ignoring these considerations, as the TSBPI seems to do, severely limits its efforts at the inception.

Finally, despite some key disagreements, we are grateful to TSBPI for advancing the discussion on how to make OPRF a better school. Let us now expand this conversation throughout the community in preparation for the upcoming OPRF Strategic Plan process.

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Reader Comments

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Josh from Chicago  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 5:18 PM

Speaking as somebody who actually went to OP schools, the non-tracked years (junior high) were terrible. I learned nothing in two years except how to type and play the drums. Eliminating tracking will work only when all parents are willing or required to commit to their kids taking school seriously. If they aren't, don't waste my time with making me sit in class with a kid who doesn't give a f&*k and whose mom or dad won't make them give a f&*k.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 2:48 PM

Russ - Re your statement "Programs can help overcome these differences, but the reality is that there is only so much that can be done." There is no doubt that your statement is correct, but what is missing is the recognition that education research, studies, and dialog are focused heavily on determining How Much Can Be Done. That might be an endless effort, but based on the positive changes in the quality and capability of education from when I went to school in the 1950's, it is an effort that has to continue. We need our education professionals, civic leaders, parents, and residents to continue asking "How Much Can Be Done?"


Posted: March 22nd, 2012 2:00 PM

Liberals always make the mistake of assuming there will be equitable outcomes which is never the case. We need to ensure that everyone has equal access to educational opportunities, but it is unrealistic to expect that everyone will excel. The vast majority of the difference in performance in school for minorities is tied to cultural/societal issues. Programs can help overcome these differences, but the reality is that there is only so much that can be done.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 11:42 AM

Reader, you get it but not Oak Park. Oak Park tells Blacks they need extra help. That is saying they aren't as smart as Whitey. Both students have the same teacher, the same books, etc.. If Blacks want to remain as people that can't excel then Oak Park H.S. is the place to go to school.


Posted: March 22nd, 2012 11:26 AM

@Reader, I agree. Think also of the message that this sends to minorities: you can't make it unless we do something to help you. Not exactly empowering.

Reader, but not always sure why from OP  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 10:46 AM

Thank you OP Prof. I don't think equality means that everyone should get the exact same thing, but rather everyone should get an opportunity to succeed and achieve based on their talent and personal desire. Otherwise, in practice, "equality" sinks everyone to the bottom. I also agree that race is being used in an inappropriate way. I believe that OPRF's constant focus on race is sending an unintended message: Students are failing or succeeding because of their race. Time to get beyond that.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 1:18 AM

Cont. and would probably still not be able to keep up. "Education" is not "equal" because people are not raised "equally", and are not "made" "equally". Where equality comes in, in institutional structures, is where different students can "equally" receive the type of "education" that is right for them (given that they EARN the right to receive it by applying themselves). Then there is the parents responsibility to raise their kids in a home that fosters positive learning habits.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 1:09 AM

Lastly. Consider you are training a sports team for the Olympics, who are training at a high level, with a high rate of consistency... Having team mates and coaches that push them beyond their limits are the major factors that allow them to progress. This is why you don't see Olympians training with amateurs, because there is no competition to encourage progress. Equally, amateurs would gain little by working at the pace of Olympians, because they would need a lot of extra outside training

OP Prof.   

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 1:02 AM

Cont. this is not about caring for the achiever vs the rest... everyone should have an opportunity to receive a good education, BUT, people need to realize that it's a two way streak. A great education is worthless if the student doesn't try. It's not just about the teacher giving information, it's also about how willing, or well equipped a student is at accepting that information. Knowledge is not merely given, it's earned through hard work... and this is a concept that so many don't get.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:53 AM

Cont. personal attention that will not only keep them focused, but also counter and change their disruptive and disinterested attitudes towards the positive. A lot of disruptive students act out passive aggressively when they feel either frustrated or bored, and it takes a certain type of class and teacher to deal with that. mixing everything into one class is like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. Difference issues call for different solutions.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:49 AM

Cont. The interested students need to be in a context where they are going to be constantly challenged by both their teachers and peers. That type of positive competition between self guiding students is what pushes everyone at that level to progress. The lower achieving students need a lot more personal attention than a high level self guiding course can provide. The disruptive and or disinterested students need strong discipline with clear cut policy, and also need a certain type of

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:38 AM

Cont. Race is being used more as an ideological tool here, as oppose to truly trying to find the underlying issues and addressing them. Even though the largest mount of underachieving students here are minorities, it's got nothing to do with how one race is treated verse another, and sticking every interested, high achieving, disinterested and low achieving student in the same class room, with the same teachings, is not going to make one ounce of positive difference.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:33 AM

Cont. hard to aim for achievements that would take a huge amount of extra time and work to achieve (which is why many give up on trying in the first place). The disinterested students end up either passively failing the course, or acting out... which either ends in more disciplinary disruptions, or the teacher trying to find ways to "entertain" the student through creatively feeding the work (certain students don't want anything to do with work unless it's entertaining). Everyone loses.

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:25 AM

Cont. become increasingly frustrated at the broken discussion, the need to stop to explain simple concepts and words just so the underachieving student can keep up with the sentence. They become frustrated because too much time is taken away from exploring content to a rigorous level, and from the disruptive actions of disinterested students, or from the time taken away to discipline disruptive students. The lower achieving students become increasingly frustrated because they feel pushed too

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:18 AM

Cont. students and the disinterested low achieving students. It is insane to think that a rigorous level of conceptual and academic discussion can be sustained when you have a group of students that can converse and analyze the discourse, and then a group that either needs every single word explained, or doesn't care enough to even try to participate. The quality of education drops as a result of the teacher needing to address the needs of both groups. The interested and high achieving students

OP Prof.  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:09 AM

Being a retired college professor that's taught at a large variety of colleges, I have experiences with a very diverse range of students. I will say that combining a group of interested and high achieving students with either students that are disinterested, or low achieving, will do nothing but negatively affect not only the quality of education (time spent on certain material, and the time it takes to explain and digest material), but will frustrate both the interested and high achieving

OPRF is pissing me off!  

Posted: March 21st, 2012 10:57 PM

I am so sick of this school seeking a touchy-feely "racially sensitive" and "equitable" approach to why kids aren't learning. There's nothing wrong with tracking. Give low achievers small class sizes where they can get the attention that they need to increase their skills. Who cares about a kid's feelings or if classes are not racially balanced? The hard truth is that from elementary school on forward a lot of black kids do nothing but screw around and that is why they are behind.


Posted: March 21st, 2012 3:19 PM

@Neil Washington. I agree. Let me also state that my youngest is just wrapping up at OPRF and that what little I could understand from Mr. Duffy-sounded disastrous for my kids (and others). In short, I think that what is being advocated is a program somewhat like Brooks and Julian - where the disinterested students are grouped with the interested ones. To Done, Q, OPRF Dad - respectively, it is my opinion that you don't have kids at OPRF. Why? For most kids, OPRF is doing what you are seeking.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 21st, 2012 3:17 PM

Done & OPRFDad - If education was as simple as you describe, the educational issue would not be on the top of everyone's concerns for the country. The education dialog has to include the future as well as the past.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2012 2:50 PM

OPRFDad - I also am in total agreement with you. "Academics" is not spelled with k's. Plural words do not end in "z". The biggest challenge to actual learning in this generation is crap like Twitter and social media. Kids (and many adults) are more concerned with how this garbage works than with things that actually matter.

Neil Washington  

Posted: March 21st, 2012 2:35 PM

Gobbledygook. If this meant to be persuasive, explain your position clearly, and stop tiptoeing around, if that's what you are doing. I have a fair amount of "book learnin'" but could not make heads or tails of this. More emphasis on actual education and less concern for how that causes the racial makeup of classes to shake out, right?

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: March 21st, 2012 1:45 PM

OPRFDad, totally in agreement with you. To much time is wasted on how to educate students. The idea is very basic. Student comes to class and learns. Any student acting out gets sent out of the class and a letter goes home. At that point it is up to the parent to take charge, not a Village to raise a kid, because that is an excuse. You try to do anything to someone else's kid, and you will have a lawsuit up your ass.


Posted: March 21st, 2012 1:39 PM

As an employer, and witness to what our educational system is producing, my advice is to drop the obsession with race and equity and get back to basic - reading, writing arithmetic. Kids entering the workforce today can barely string a grammatically correct sentence together let alone think critically. The obsession with leveling the playing field produces poorly educated kids all around, and drags those who would otherwise excel to the middle.

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