Do we have the courage for this conversation?

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

As the end of summer fades to the first cool nights of fall, we know it's almost time to get ready for a new school year. It's time to buy books, new clothes and get back to the nine-month routine.

And if you're the District 200 Board Of Education, it's time to renew efforts to close the pernicious achievement gap between the white children and the African-American children — a gap that has persisted for many years despite the very best efforts of students, parents, teachers, boards of education and superintendents to close it.

Yet despite these efforts the gap remains more or less the same. Ask any educator: No Child Left Behind was a flop. Given the failure to make any significant progress, it is understandable that there is little public documentation here in Oak Park of the harsh reality that so many have worked so hard to achieve so little.

Like most of the community, I would rather read about all our National Merit scholars who are going to Ivy League schools this fall. District 200, like high schools in Evanston and Shaker Heights, Ohio, has the more complicated version of the gap. On average, our minority students do worse on these standardized tests even if their parents make the same incomes and have the same educational background — two key variables often used to explain the gap.

According to Terry Dean's July 31 report in Wednesday Journal, the high school community has had and will continue to have "courageous conversations" about race and education at OPRF. Good idea.

I would like to courageously offer a thought on the achievement gap: Given the long history of so many smart, dedicated people trying, but failing, to solve the problem, maybe it can't be solved. Given the modern world's arrogant conceit that every problem can be solved, this will seem cynical rather than realistic. However, global warming, 4 percent unemployment, a cancer cure, violent gangs, living forever, and drug and alcohol addiction are all good examples of how wishing doesn't make it so.

I suppose the high school could shift millions of dollars to try to close the gap with pull-outs, Saturday classes, individual tutoring, smaller class sizes, but realistically the community will not support such an approach. Same thing for eliminating tracking at the high school.

Such drastic new approaches might work, but good luck running for office on those proposals. As a community, we're interested in solving the problem, but not that interested. Nor can the board tell the community that by the time the students enter high school, the race is run. Parents, early childhood education, and District 97 probably have more to do with the gap, yet somehow have much less accountability.

I feel bad for the OPRF school board. On the one hand, they can't just come out and say this gap is never going to be closed. The African-American community would understandably be very upset. So would most Oak Parkers. As a result, the high school every year has to come up with yet another new plan. A little tinkering and fine-tuning wrapped up in determined, hopeful rhetoric, and we can put our concerns aside until next August. We all take our yearly placebo and, predictably, nothing happens. At least we feel better. The high school is doing public relations rather than education on this issue.

Obviously, closing this gap is important, especially to all of the underachieving students. I'm no educator, so I have no idea what this board should do, but I do believe that less magical thinking and more consideration of the implications of how do you address a problem that probably can't be solved should at least be part of the public discussion.

Now that conversation will take courage.

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Posted: August 22nd, 2012 5:55 PM

Talk to anyone in OP who has a high achiever that doesn't attend Mann and you get similar comments. Schools don't focus on the intelligent in OP. They focus on the troubled kids - they "teach the test." So, what happens? The bottom is brought up, but at the expense of the top. There is a flattening of achievement to assure funding. That's a big part of the reason people flee places like OP.

Craig Chesney from Oak Park   

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 5:14 PM

John - the statements "maybe it can't be solved", "how do you address a problem that probably can't be solved" are completely incorrect, and at the same time point to the problem. The gap can and is being closed in Chicago. One of the most important things that needs be present for this to be achieved is that the kids, parents and staff believe every child can and will learn. High expectations, hard work and accountability pay off. See the results -

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 3:23 PM

During the Tif Remediation and the D97 Referendum, D200 was chastised for sitting on a near 100M financial reserve. Many posters said that D200 should use the reserve to help other OP taxing bodies with low reserves and financial weaknesses. I opposed that view. It is fine for the taxing bodies to cooperate with each other, share ideas, and work on inter-governmental projects, but transferring money, gift or loans, distorts the independence they need to do their job. It also misapplies the voter will when it votes on revenue issues. D200 does not have a money problem. It has an educational standards problem which has eroded its standings versus other high school districts. The problem is widely viewed as children entering the high school not prepared for the education rigors. Ultimately, if correct, the problem will have a negative impact on D200, D97, and OP taxpayers. Professional baseball shares the D200 problem. The Cubs are a very successful franchise with lots of money, but a failing team. The failure is attributed to weak minor league teams that are not producing major league players that are winners. The answer to teams facing the Cubs problem is to invest in the players in their farm system -skills development, training, etc. The process is expensive and the financial return not immediate, but doing a great job of preparing raw minor leaguers to become star players is worth the wait. The simple solution for D200 is to fund programs that targeted at improving the capabilities of faltering students at D97. Don't ask me what programs are needed - leave that the experts. Also don't tell me it is impossible because it is not easy, possible, or politically realistic. Bring all the players involved (the state, county, the school districts, etc.) and ram out a solution to a major problem. Take down the legislative and political barriers that inhibit children's learning. Thinking of new ideas is a great educational pract


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 1:35 PM

I agree with OP Resident # 545. More nuanced information would be helpful. Is there any info about how what proportion of the students from under-performing subgroups in D200 were educated in D97? Conversely, were most minority students that exceeded expectations on state tests in D200 educated in D97? I remember an article some time ago about 2 black OPRF valedictorians. Neither were educated in D97.

OP Parent  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 12:03 PM

Excellent ideas. As a AA OPRF alum with IVY league JD/MBA, I think we need to have the tough discussions. This issue is the same as 80's but i can tell you it was not as drastic. There is a gap that needs to be addressed - with innovation and leadership.

Q from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 11:13 AM

There are some Black students who do better then some White students. Ask those Black students why they do so good. Ask the Black students not doing so good if they want to do as good as the other students. Without the same desire, you won't get the same results. If you want to get the same results, you need to find out why people don't have the same desires to achieve as others. If the school needs help, I can make myself available to resolve the problems the school can't do.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 9:54 AM

I agree with #545. The other issue is that this is largely a cultural/familial issue as well. Unless the black community is willing to address the serious dysfunction that is occuring in our homes, this gap will continue to fester. There is only so much the school can do. Given that other students are doing just fine at OPRF, the school is not the issue.


Posted: August 22nd, 2012 9:39 AM

Here's a solution. Make property taxes so high that only wealthy people can live in OP. Either OP is overrun with the wealthy, or the wealthy flee for another burb. In either case, the education issue will be solved. In the first instance, the wealthy, despite their other flaws, tend to invest in and value education. In the latter instance, the schools will run out of money and people will have to prioritize - edumacation or all the pet projects.

OP Resident # 545 from Oak Park  

Posted: August 22nd, 2012 8:52 AM

The gap can't be fixed by the high school, because it's too late! This is not a D200 issue, though the HS should do things to help. This needs to be addressed at the elementary level. The other questions that need answers are: 1) Do we know who each student in the gap is? 2) if so, how many of them were in D97 schools from K-8? 3) how many spent no time in D97 schools? 4) any from private schools? There needs to be a different conversation about this. It is indeed a Parent, D97 issue first.

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