Will this time be different?

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

When I ran for the District 97 School Board in 1987, the campaign's hottest issue was a debate over equity versus excellence. There was great concern that the lower quartile of students had considerably poorer test results than the upper quartile. There was much passion surrounding the notion that if D97 were just committed and innovative enough, this gap could be closed. 

I was a bit dubious, but my slate of candidates was convinced a solution was at hand in the crucial election. We won. We fired the superintendent. We disbanded the gifted program. We got rid of a rescheduling program that had reduced class size. I was told that educational research supported our initiatives.

Four years later when I left the board, the gap remained. We had failed to solve the problem. I was hopeful that future boards would be more successful. I did become interested in the subject and have done some reading. I also have followed both D97 and District 200's efforts over the past 30 or so years during which we have continued grappling with this issue. Oak Park's effort to mind this gap occurs every five years or so when an impassioned community says: "Enough is enough. We are affluent, liberal and smart. Something has got to be done." 

Alas, despite laudable well-intentioned efforts, the gap remains. Like Sisyphus we push our achievement gap rock in futility. At least he got his rock to the top of the hill before it rolled back down. Seldom have so many smart educators worked so long and so hard to achieve so little.

The recent documentary, America to Me, appears to be the catalyst for the most recent attempt at educational rock pushing. New superintendent. New board. New strategies. Hope springs eternal.

I suggest that one possible reason for this historic lack of success, aside from the great difficulty of the task itself, is that the community as a whole has never bought into the concept nor has ever believed there is any real chance of success. Very few people have articulated their disbelief lest they be called racist. The majority of villagers are uninformed, confused, or indifferent about the issue.

I believe people might buy into reforms if the high school weren't so ahistorical and opaque about explaining just how we got where we are as we launch yet another initiative. In addition, it would be helpful if the newest effort would explain how this time is different and just how the board will measure progress this time, how long will it take, and how much it will cost.

There must be mountains of data on student performance for the past 30 years. Please make it easily accessible. Similarly, there must be scores of summaries of the data — what worked, what didn't work and what research was relied on. We might want to consider a kind of outside audit by third-party experts. It would be helpful if the data were disaggregated by race, gender, income, elementary school performance, number of years in D97 and other relevant socioeconomic performance. For example, when does the gap first emerge? How far are students behind when they enter high school?

Now I can appreciate that despite a lack of success by past boards, teachers, administrators, parents and students, there will be little zeal for performing an autopsy as to what went wrong so many times, but for the life of me I don't see how we can go forward unless we look backward. Maybe this has been done. If so, it needs to be accessible to the community and reported on by the press.

Such an approach would enable the community to make an independent review of past failures in order to better understand this very complicated problem. 

I believe the only chance to move the needle is to engage the whole village, not just a cadre of impassioned insiders.

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