The real gap at OPRF isn't between students

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

Those of us of a certain age will recall the short fable written by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who trick the emperor to buy a new suit that they claim is invisible only to the stupid or unfit. The weavers make no clothes at all, but the citizenry say nothing as the emperor parades before his subject lest they be deemed stupid or unworthy. Finally, a child cries out that the emperor isn't really wearing anything at all.

When it comes to the high school's decades of unsuccessful efforts to close a racial gap in student achievement, I must confess to feeling like the child in this story. As the school year begins, OPRF has launched yet another plan to "mind the gap," including the creation of a new position, director of equity and success, who will be tasked with implementing the district's first racial equity policy. This time the District 200 Board of Education is serious.

Never mind the sizeable majority of teachers, parents, students and educational researchers who know that the gaps in student performance are manifest at early ages. These gaps tend to persist throughout elementary school and strongly influence high school performance. Like a marathon, if you are behind at the 10-mile mark, it is unlikely you will catch up no matter what your skin color.

Never mind that President Clinton (Goals 2000/1994), President Bush (No Child Left Behind/2002) and President Obama (Race To The Top/2009) prioritized closing this gap with only limited success.

And never mind that Oak Park and River Forest High School for more than a quarter of a century has pursued strategies of high expectations, cultural congruence in instruction, teaching strategies to promote meaningful participation, smaller class size, higher teacher quality, and summer enrichment among others. Yet this pernicious problem continues.

So like the child in the story all of this seems pretty obvious, yet almost every newly elected school board sounds a clarion call that this time things will be different. It reminds me of World War I trench warfare, keep charging forward again and again, with very limited success.

I'm afraid I'll never get it. So I have shifted my focus as to just why this particular paradigm of futility exists.

I believe there is a significant gap between the community and the elected school boards. Most of the teachers and parents never fully buy in to the transformative plans of the boards. Their everyday experience tells them that by ninth grade it is unlikely a big diverse public high school can do what no other big diverse public high school has ever done.

But the real problem here is the very complicated, emotional role race and racism plays in all this. There is a significant disconnect between elected boards and the citizenry. Very few people vote in D200 elections unless taxes are involved. Your kids are there for only four years. As a result, only motivated voters participate in these elections. Idealistic candidates campaign on platforms that emphasize they will somehow accomplish what prior equally zealous board members failed to do. The faint but pervasive odor of moral superiority wafts over the discussion.

No candidate will campaign on the perspective offered in this column today lest he be called stupid or unfit or, worse, a racist. As a result, the elected school board officials believe they have a mandate for change. But they don't. They just have their own good intentions and the support of a cadre of well-intentioned idealists. The rest of the community is afraid of being called racist, or are simply indifferent to what goes on at the high school. Most of the parents at the high school are more interested in their kids getting into college, not getting bullied, or the pernicious influence of social media than capturing unicorns.

Don't get me wrong. The gap between the achievement of minority students at OPRF High School is real and worthy of the community's attention and concern. But the gap between the expectations of the school board and the teachers, parents, and community on this issue is just as real.

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Reader Comments

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Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 14th, 2019 6:14 AM

In case you were not sure, I think America to Me was a hack job on OP that damaged our reputation, hurt property values and told a narrow narrative that was not completely true. OP is struggling to resolve them for the same reason it has not been able to resolve them since I went there in early 80's.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 14th, 2019 5:57 AM

@ Kevin - agree with SES but you are spitting into the wind/ ice skating a steep hill/ wasting your time. This is a reaction to America to Me which was raced based and never that looked at SES. That might have told a much less dire story and would not have sold for $5MM (how much did OPRF get?). The truth is race/ income/ class are tightly correlated in this country ... most of less advantaged are of color. Second, this decision is done - trying to argue logic now is wasting your time. Given that reality, think we have to rally troops - as if this fails all of OP will suffer

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 4:37 PM

@Gregg Kuenster: I appreciate the comedy relief, in this dead-serious matter. I could attempt to force things in a Freedom of Information Act request, but my inclination is not to start that way.

Gregg Kuenster  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 4:18 PM

No status information for you Kevin. The social background of the student is irrelevant. If you do not understand and believe that OPRF can change a turnip into a tomato ? YOU are a Racist. So just admit it. Say to yourself, I , Kevin am a racist. Now Kevin go stand in the corner with your dunce cap. Good boy,

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 13th, 2019 1:09 PM

One of John Hubbuch's points in these columns (as early as 2007) has been that the socioeconomic status of the student is extremely important in predicting his/her degree of academic success. Rather than decide that matter based on emotion (which is a forte of many Oak Parkers), why not put the actual data to the test? In the '90s, past D200 Board President Bernie Abraham (now deceased) had a friend in the Administration leak a massive computer printout, by student number only, of the discipline records of every student. I decoded the fields in it, and it contained how severe the offenses were, gender, village of residence, race, and whether the student received a free or subsidized lunch (a surrogate measure for poverty). Most importantly, it included whether the student was from a two parent, one parent, or no parent (i.e., foster care) household. It turned out that kids from River Forest who were White living in a single parent household had problems also. I presented that to the Citizens' Council at a large public meeting, arguing that social class, not race, was a driving force. Blacks were highly correlated with low socioeconomic status (SES), but certainly not all of them. Blacks from higher SES families had fewer problems.The study was so controversial that a later Board President asked to see it, and the Administration refused to provide it. So I gave him/her a copy. That same kind of study can be done today with regard to Achievement. WILL THE BOARD authorize me to receive that data, with students identified only by anonymous number? Alternatively I could help the Administration do it on its own. It would take Microsoft Excel or Access to do the work. Socioeconomic status would be determined by free lunch status and number of parents in the household, with a weighting factor to be determined, that provides the best goodness-of-fit. Why not look at that, as input on this vitally important decision that is pending? Will the D200 Board authorize that?

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: October 4th, 2019 8:49 PM

My previous post should read "Fred Siegel".

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: October 4th, 2019 8:46 PM

John Hubbuch: Yes, you will be called a racist, just as was Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 while serving in the Johnson Administration. He issued what was called the Moynihan Report. To quote from the associated Wikipedia article on that, "He ... concluded that the high rate of families headed by single mothers would greatly hinder progress of blacks toward economic and political equality," and "...the rise in black single-mother families was caused not by a lack of jobs, but by a destructive vein in ghetto culture, which could be traced to slavery times and continued discrimination in the American South under Jim Crow." That culture was matriarchal, without strong male authority figures. Ironically, these were not his original thoughts, but had first been expressed by the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, University of Chicago Ph.D., in the 1930s. Moynihan also recommended a policy of "benign neglect" on race,. That was a policy of the British in the latter 1800s used with regard to the "Irish Problem". That held that people will grow out of their problems if you take off the explicit training wheels, and give indirect support. A biographer of Moynihan (Fred Steiner, who knew him) writes that Moynihan nearly went into a nervous breakdown from the criticism, and that civil discourse on matters of race has become virtually impossible in America.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: October 1st, 2019 12:54 AM

@Maureen. That change in terminology is what currently is in vogue, and it comes from Professor Sean Reardon of Stanford, who has been mentioned in these online posts. Good as his data and insights are, he's a bit into denial on some things. He thinks The Gap is solely one of missed opportunities. On the other hand, in his work is on the impact on learning of socioeconomic status (household income, two or one parent families, education level of the parents, of the overall community, degree of parental involvement ...) is where he notes that schools can do next to nothing to overcome the effects of that So, with the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in his mind at the same time (cognitive dissonance), he says that providing more "opportunity" might overcome things. Education has fads that come and go: The New Math, Block Scheduling, Ebonics, Learning Pods, etc. "Opportunity" provision is the new flavor of the month. Another Stanford professor, Eric Hanuschek (an economist), has been the historic proponent of stating that school achievement is primarily driven by socioeconomic factors. D200 Board Member Ralph Martire has described Hanuschek on Chicago Tonight as being an almost polar opposite to Martire's thinking.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 9:58 PM

here's another more recent (April 2019) reference to the "opportunity" gap https://www.oprfhs.org/racial-equity-program

Kline Maureen  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 9:34 PM

I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall that at some point in the not too distant past, the terminology was changed and it was no longer called an "achievement" gap but an "opportunity" gap. Whatever happened with that? (note to self - here's a link: https://www.oprfhs.org/about/equity-and-excellence)

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 30th, 2019 6:51 PM

It is unfortunate that people talk about the gap as if it was some sort of competition. If instead they just looked at all the kids scores on tests and then tried to improve all of their scores, that would seem to be a better use of time. If a kid is behind, give them more class time, better teacher to student ratios, help them learn to study outside school, make sure they have quality tools to learn with. But don't call it a failure if some other kid happens to have a higher test score. The setting of expectations in town seem doomed to failure.

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