The other student achievement network

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Steven Gevinson

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For more than 20 years, the number one goal of the District 200 Board of Education at OPRF High School has been to close the achievement gap. In 1996, for example, we launched a 10-year project to eliminate the gap. The superintendent at the time told the faculty, "Failure is not an option."

Yet by 2006, the dramatic gap remained, as it does today. Although we have seen significant positive developments for minority students at the school (a better sense of belonging, a more sensitive staff with better skills in diversity education, an administration informed by the research findings of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), many examples of dramatic individual student turnarounds, and better clarity about the importance and use of the discipline system when it comes to academic performance, to name a few areas of progress), there is little, if any, quantifiable evidence, despite the efforts that have been made and the money spent, that the gap has been narrowed.

From my perspective as English Division Chair from 2002 until I retired in 2010, I observed one particularly telling phenomenon that can help explain why the gap is so stubborn and unlikely to be closed for a long, long time. I call that phenomenon the "Majority Student Achievement Network," which works powerfully and insidiously — but with no one to blame — against the purposes of the actual MSAN and the gap-closing efforts of OPRF.

One of my jobs as an academic division head was to place each of the approximately 800 incoming freshmen on the appropriate ability level track: Transitions, College Prep, or Honors. Placement is a sensitive and consequential decision, and I saw getting it right as one of my most important tasks. In reaching a decision on what level to recommend, I considered standardized test scores in Reading and English, eighth-grade teacher input, writing samples on occasion, and in borderline cases a conference with my counterpart in the History Division, who was placing the same students based on very similar criteria.

Although such placement is an imperfect science, I developed some skill at the practice. Nevertheless, every year a significant number of parents decided that I had made an error in the case of their child, or at least they decided to override my recommendation. These pairs (usually) of parents, who insisted on elevating their students' placement from College Prep to Honors (the district's policy is that parents have the final word on placement), numbered about 30-40 per year and virtually all of them were white.

Of course, they were not part of an organized network of white parents. Their networking was strictly informal. Most of them did not know the other overriders, and they had no idea that they were part of anything larger than a family effort to help their child succeed in school at the highest level possible in order to compete well in four years for college admission.

I could tell they were usually college graduates and successful professionals, had spent a good amount of the previous 10-plus years chatting with other parents about their kids, and knew schools and how to work with them. In short, they were exemplary citizens of the majority culture.

Even though this informal, unintentional, unorganized, unfunded, and essentially unconscious of itself Majority Network might seem weaker in constitution and effectiveness than the actual and opposite Minority Network with all of its formality, professionalism, institutional solidity, and financial support, the former is considerably stronger than the latter. Perhaps the best way to see their relative strength is to look at the Project Scholar program at OPRF.

MSAN's research suggests that minority students are particularly successful in educational situations in which they are challenged with high expectations by teachers exhibiting deep caring for the students. The Project Scholar program in English (there's also P.S. in math and science) institutionalized such features by placing up to 20 selected students (mostly minority), who would not otherwise have been placed on the Honors level, in freshman Honors English with an extra period each day of practice and tutorial time with the student's English teacher. Although expensive to the district, and requiring the student to sacrifice one registration to be part of it, the program worked well, with a high percentage of students succeeding in their P.S. Honors class freshman year and staying on the Honors track in that subject for the subsequent three years.

The other, unofficial MSAN, though, has been more effective in its completely non-organized non-program. Without cost to the school, and with no registration sacrificed by the student, these white parents achieved honors placement for their students, provided them with academic support in the form of tutoring or extra homework help at home, and often watched their students succeed with a grade of B or better. One goal of P.S. was to increase the percentage of minority students taking Honors classes. The Majority Student Achievement Network version of P.S., pushing an extra 30-40 white students into Honors English each year, effectively offset the gap-closing accomplishments of the real P.S.

The Project Scholar story — including the invisible element of the other MSAN — demonstrates part of the reason why closing the gap is such a recalcitrant problem. We live in an extremely stratified society with savage inequalities that evidence suggests are growing much worse. We may all devoutly wish we could close the gap, and we should certainly do all we can to make opportunities and outcomes more equal and fair, but we should also recognize that because of factors as rigid and deterministic as physical reality, the project is nothing short of social and economic revolution on a level never achieved in human history, and we should approach the effort with our eyes open wide. All too often, critics suggest that the solution is much simpler than it is.

Incidentally, I heard recently that the school's successful Project Scholar program has been discontinued. Without question, the majority culture's version of P.S. is still going strong.

Steve Gevinson is a former English instructor at OPRF High School and a former chair of the English Division.


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Reader Comments

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Posted: September 18th, 2012 6:44 PM

I guess kids who don't have parents are just SOL then.


Posted: September 18th, 2012 5:03 PM

Some things cannot be outsourced effectively, no matter how much you pay someone to do the job. There's no substitute for a parent taking an interest in their child's well being. Thinking that some government bureaucracy can make up for lack of parental involvement is naive. It's also naive to think that hamstringing involved parents and giving the children of uninvolved parents a leg up will redirect the efforts of involved parents.


Posted: September 18th, 2012 3:23 PM

I love how it always comes down to "the real world." I had to take math in school. Math was difficult for me, and I needed help to get good grades and get into a good school. But guess what? I didn't go into mathematics as a profession, so what I did learn served me well. But I don't need tutoring in the real world. Just one example.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: September 18th, 2012 2:42 PM

Thank you, OPRF Parent. Just like there are kids who don't belong in college, amassing huge amounts of debt while making no progress towards graduating. And who will "tutor" our kids when they get a job in the real world? Kids - and adults - learn by failing and figuring how to do things the correct way. We don't let our kids fail anymore. A show of hands of those parents who review their kids' homework before it gets to school so that it is correct?


Posted: September 18th, 2012 1:19 PM

Some kids need help no matter what class level they are at. Does that mean the kid has to be at the lowest level class? I don't think so. One thing I really like about OPRF is that they want kids to stretch and do the most rigorous work they can. If that means the kid has to have a tutor, whether in school or out, to help with homework, that doesn't bother me. I can't help my kid with math homework parents who are doctors and engineers can. Does that mean my kid can't do the work?

OPRF Parent  

Posted: September 15th, 2012 8:10 PM

Well at some point shouldn't you ask whether that child should be in a class where he or she can't do the work without the help of a tutor. Should that child be moved down to a class where he or she can learn from the teacher and not from the tutor. A little extra help is one thing. Unfortunately in our area we have went way past that action and now have tutors to make sure the kids can stay in a class. I just believe you should re-evaluate the placement at that point.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 15th, 2012 6:06 PM

OPRF Parent, I'm not for tutors doing the work for kids, but I am for tutors helping kids learn when they need it. There is a difference. Thre is nothing negative about getting you kids help, if you can. I think you need to separate the kids who get help and the ones getting people to do their work, as it's inaccurate to lump them together. Not every kid with a tutor is "working the system".


Posted: September 15th, 2012 9:16 AM

This is what I hear about "involved" parents. This is what I know about OPRF and some parents. They hire "tutors" to help their students "write" their college essays. They figure out a way to get extra time on ACT/SAT tests (IEP for what again?). So "help" your kids all you want but when they get to college, are you still hiring a tutor and still "helping" them with their essays? Ask the counselors and teachers at the high school. It's not helping your kids. It's manipulating the system.


Posted: September 15th, 2012 7:01 AM

When I was in school, parents were not expected to help their children academically. I do try to help my children, but often find the material confusing myself, and am then accused of being a helicopter parent. So, I guess, you can't win. But what I do hear from many people is that kids who don't have "involved parents" are kind of SOL. This is a rather new meme, and one that seems counterproductive at best. What about the kids whose parents can't help? We just give up?

OP Parent  

Posted: September 15th, 2012 1:51 AM

Kathy, I know a number of hard working single parents (both women AND men) that have kids, that were not from privileged families, and yet they find time to work with their kids. Installing healthy working habits does not take a high level of education, but it does take caring about education and caring that your kid is working at it.

Kathy Wyman from Oak Park  

Posted: September 14th, 2012 12:35 PM

OP Parent's "Leaving education purely up to the irresponsible and lazy" says much about the disconnect between families living on opposite sides of the gap.(Wild guess: He/she isn't a single mom working 2 jobs to put food on the table.) Plenty of hard-working, responsible parents lack the background to consider fighting placement decisions, the inclination to 2nd-guess teachers' methods, the resources to pay for private tutors, and/or even the time for much hands-on involvement.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: September 11th, 2012 9:20 PM

It's like the old cliche, 'why are all the Asian kids so good at math?' many are good because Asian culture encourages parent involvement in their child's education. If the White or the Black student's parents were as involved they would do just as well. This issue isn't about race it's about a change in culture. The more that folks want to close this gap the more it is important that we don't do so ala Harrison Bergeron.


Posted: September 10th, 2012 8:51 AM

Anyway, I post that question for info, but also to say, it looks like OPRF does see the value and necessity for tutoring for all students, and if this actually works, it seems an excellent use of resources. Also, the history teacher said he works in a bridge program for academically challenged kids in 8th grade, to help them be successful in high school. It seems to me that the school is doing a lot to help all kids, whether struggling or just having questions about an evening's homework.


Posted: September 10th, 2012 8:49 AM

So, here is a question to OPRF parents: have your kids had experience with the tutoring center? To me, as a parent, it seems like an excellent resource, one I certainly didn't have as a student. But I'm not there, and don't know if or how it actually works. It seems like it would be fantastic for kids whose parents can't be resources for homework, either because of long hours working, lack of knowledge, particularly for stuff like math.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 9th, 2012 9:28 PM

Cont. To encourage and work with their child out of school so they can receive positive working habits and excel to do the best they can. Leaving education purely up to the school (unless your kid is a genius) is irresponsible and lazy. If you can't afford a tutor, be the tutor and help you child yourself.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 9th, 2012 9:23 PM

OP Resident, how exactly is getting tutoring "playing the system"? And why is working extra hard so you can participate at the highest level a bad thing? Students who work extra hard and do well should reap the rewards and be commended. And who are you to say that students shouldn't get extra help? It's not like they're cheating on tests, or getting their parents to work for them. Would you really deny a kid extra education if they were willing to work at it? Parents have a responsibility cont.

OP Resident  

Posted: September 9th, 2012 8:48 PM

While parents should advocate for their child, it's clear that many white parents feel they know more than administrators with years of experience. As a parent, we do know our children best. However, at some point it would be great if parents in OP would trust the school system & the administration to do what they feel is best for the child & the school. If many students are being pushed into Honors because their parents want it, perhaps parents should not have the final say in public schools.


Posted: September 9th, 2012 7:12 PM

"Pushy parents" You say that like it's a bad thing. On the one hand, there are people on this site who harp about how involved parents are the key to a child's success. On the other hand, involved parents are a sign of the apocalypse. Make up your mind, please.

OP Resident  

Posted: September 8th, 2012 4:25 PM

There's a lot to say but let me hone in on the tutoring. I have seen myself that many parents of students in honors classes also have private tutors for these students. That's great except is it right for them to be in these classes if they need all that outside help? Do a survey of the higher level math classes at OPRF and find out how many are tutored outside the school. Pushy parents and outside ways to play the system seems to work well at OPRF.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 1:15 PM

OP - I would certainly hope there isn't, but with test scores declining the past nine years per the WJ article of a couple of weeks ago, it seems that we are already in the "depreciation" of the village.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 10:48 AM

Done, I highly doubt there's a conspiracy going on. Poor achieving students does not reflect well on the school, which in turn mean depreciation of the village, which means people get fired... I don't know the reason for getting rid of the PS but I'd like to know.

Done from Oak Park  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 8:58 AM

Abbott and Another: Damn right this should be followed up on. My guess is the reason that it was discontinued is because it was successful. If a program fails, then we can throw tons of money at something to replace it. If something becomes succesful, the costs reduce over time as it becomes easier to implement. Any comments from the muckety-mucks at OPRF on this?

Another parent  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 8:53 AM

Agree with Mr. Abbott, the Project Scholar program would seem an excellent solution for kids who would thrive with a little extra focus. It was successful, according to Mr. Gevinson. Why would the school discontinue it?

John Abbott from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 6:31 AM

thanks to Mr. Gevinson for a thoughtful & well-informed discussion. What struck me above all was the news, in his final paragraph, that the Project Scholar program is no more. I hope the WJ, which has spoken often if usually superficially about the gap at OPRF, will see fit to follow up on this important story.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 1:09 AM

Continued, She said that the way the students acted and worked and the involvement of the parents made the majority of the difference. Teaching low achieving students, many of whom have no interest in working, and act out to disrupt the rest of the class, is a very difficult task for the best teachers. 1 or 2 disruptive students can be dealt with efficiently, but when you have a large number, you spend most of the time trying to keep the class above water. Parent need to do better with their kid

OP Parent  

Posted: September 6th, 2012 1:05 AM

I was talking with a teacher at one of the top private schools in Chicago with consistently high achieving kids across the board. I asked her what she was doing different compared to when she was teaching at a public school with a lot of underachieving student. She said that the difference was that the children at the private school were hard working, were not disruptive and had involved parent. The majority of underachieving student at the public school did not have any of these.


Posted: September 5th, 2012 9:52 PM

@ P.S. - I agree with every word that you wrote. I'll add (which you might not agree with), imo, that OPRF does very well with the children of middle-class and up children...not so well with the rest. Chicken and egg? Do ANY schools in America do "well with the rest"? Perhaps if the "majority" are NOT "middle-class and up"? IMO, class/culture - not race - is generally the dominant determinant factor. And since it also plays a role in the IQ of the child......


Posted: September 5th, 2012 6:55 PM

These topics & comments make it seem like all the African Americans in Oak Park are poor, and all the whites are middle-class. Is there no sizeable community of middle class African Americans in Oak Park?! Or does people on this forum (and in Oak Park institutions more generally) seriously conflate of race and class? Much of this is a class issue.

Val from Oak Park  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 4:17 PM

My college prep son did at least as much writing as my honors daughter. If I had an issue with their studies at OPRF, and I really didn't, it would have been that there wasn't ENOUGH difference between the tracks. Perhaps that's because parents of kids deemed unqualified by the professionals are gaming the system. Can't be easy to give an honors "C" to the daughter of a pushy RF mom. Sounds to me like the village famous for averting "white flight" in the 70s may now be feeling its gravity.

Another parent  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 4:07 PM

I'd also like to thank Mr. Gevinson for shedding light on this phenomenon. I'm curious whether the net result of so many kids getting bumped up each year is that the honors program grows larger than originally planned? What is the role of test scores in these cases - are they then ignored? If the kids getting bumped up can keep up with the work, then they should be there, as should anyone who can handle the work. And any student who qualifies for extra tutoring should receive it.

OP Parent  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 2:49 PM

Kimberly, how much of it was "ineffective teachers"? And how much of it was "disruptive classrooms"? IME, it's nearly impossible to have a productive learning context if there are a good number of disruptive students. Teachers end up applying more disciplinary attention and focus to those student just to keep the classroom semi-functional. It's a very difficult job to teacher students who don't want to learn, while trying to cater to those who do... I won't automatically blame the teacher.

Kimberly from River Forest  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 1:12 PM

After watching my son go through regular English classes at OPRF with ineffective teachers, lack of real writing instruction, very little homework, and disruptive classrooms filled with students still struggling to read well, I called (and argued with) Mr. Gevinson to have my daughter placed in Honors English. I learned that advocating for your child is a necessity.


Posted: September 5th, 2012 10:31 AM

Burying the lede here, what this guy is saying is that "placement by educational professionals" is a very inexact "science" and parents are correct in questioning these decisions and pushing schools to place kids at higher levels than the professionals want them at. How many kids, especially minority kids, have had their educational futures effectively undercut due to parents blindly following the dictates of professional educators and the kids not being pushed to do more?

OP Parent  

Posted: September 5th, 2012 1:18 AM

Thank you, Steven, for the article. Basically, students with involved parents will do well regardless for extra financial support, because their parents will work with them and push them at home. Students who have uninvolved parents will not do so well, unless they have a lot more funding for extra tuition and extra classes... It's clear that it's not just a case of pouring more and more money into the system, but getting lazy parents involved in their child's education and future.

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