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In a lengthy interview, the RoundTable asked retiring District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren what he thought were the highlights of his tenure at the District, and also asked him to comment on the administration’s recent decision to prioritize the District’s focus on the instructional core, on the relatively flat test scores for students during the last five years, on the need for standardized tests, and whether the School Board’s recent five-year agreements with the teachers’ and teacher assistants’ unions solved the structural deficits facing the District.
“The opportunity to serve the community I live in and the dialogue on the public good is the opportunity of a life time,” Dr. Goren said in prefacing his remarks. “I’ve nothing but appreciation of the Boards that I’ve served, of the team of administrators. It’s a remarkable community. To be able to be part of the important public dialogue on the future of our community and the future of education has been a privilege.
“District 65 is a great school district. Even with the level of honest and forthright critique, this is a great place for kids to go to school in. I celebrate that.”
Dr. Goren’s last day as Superintendent of District 65 is June 30. He formally began his tenure as Superintendent on July 1, 2014. One of his major steps was to develop a five-year strategic plan for the District, which was unanimously approved by the School Board in March 2015, after gaining substantial input from students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members.
Some Highlights of the Last Five Years
Dr. Goren listed nine things that he viewed as highlights of his five-years in leading the District.
The Referendum: Dr. Goren first mentioned the community’s approval of the April 2017 Referendum, in which voters approved increasing District 65’s property tax revenues to fund the District’s operations by $14.5 million per year. He said he was proud to be part of a community that voted 80% in the affirmative on the referendum. “Living in a community that’s so affirming on public education and then to get that affirmation was, I think, a remarkable accomplishment during the five years that I served.”
Transparency with Data: “I led an effort to be transparent about data and not to shy away from that. That led to us providing broad data in our achievement and accountability reports.” He added that when asked by community members, the District provided separate achievement reports for Black and Latinx students.
“I actually think it is a very important part of the public dialogue because if you don’t know the performance levels for our kids, it’s easy to be able to say, on the whole, or on average, we’re doing well. … It’s not that other superintendents or other administrations aren’t that transparent, but some won’t go forward, I think, as much as we did.
“When I think about the future, I would encourage senior leadership to stay the course and on putting information out, because if we as a community are going to make improvements for our kids and our kids who are striving learners, kids who have been historically marginalized, we have to know where they are so we can make improvements.”
Tightening the Curriculum: “One of the accomplishments we made is to really tighten up our instructional core and tighten our curriculum instruction department. We did that with outstanding leadership. We did that by putting the focus on the early years, pre-K to 4, literacy especially. We altered our curriculum-adopting cycle. We’re about to adopt a new science curriculum. The community has been hungry for that for a long time.
“In the advances we made in the curriculum, we embraced a culturally relevant curriculum using the work of Zaretta Hammond to drive forward about how we actually think about teaching and learning and in a way that reflects both our equity agenda and the needs that kids have.”
The Equity Agenda: “The work that we have done on equity is so important; and we stand on the shoulders of work that has been done in District 65 a bit and a lot of the work that has been done at District 202. But along with being transparent about the data, we went forward in a robust fashion around issues of equity, issues of racial equity; we established an equity statement and an equity policy; we did equity walks; we did training in racial identity for all licensed staff, close to 1,100 staff members; and we moved the dialogue forward around issues of race and race in education and educational opportunity in ways that have not been done in the past. We still have a lot of work to do to combine that work with our instructional work, our curriculum work.”
Teacher Contracts: The District recently entered into five-year contracts with the teachers’ and teacher assistants’ unions. “There’s a couple of things to celebrate,” said Dr. Goren.
“We used the interest-based bargaining approach, where we could actually put issues on the table. We were able to talk about a broad range of issues facing teachers and teacher assistants in the District, whether it’s opportunity gaps that exist or issues and concerns about safety; and we were able to put on the table the challenges that we have with the structural deficit. Even with settling we know that we’re going to have to do some level of restructuring over the next four or five years, because the expenditures are going to exceed the resources, but we were able to put that on the table and debate that out.”
Partnerships: When he started as Superintendent, Dr. Goren said, District 65 did not have strong relationships with other organizations. He said he worked to rekindle and remake a partnership with Evanston Township High School, and that he also fostered a broad range of partnerships with community organizations, such as McGaw YMCA, the YWCA, Y.O.U., Family Focus and “we embraced the Cradle to Career efforts.”
He said he has established a relationship with Northwestern University and helped to secure grants to sustain work that NU is doing in partnership with the school districts, and to establish and sustain EvanSTEM, which brings together in-school science educators and the out-of-school science educators – folks at MetaMedia, Y.O.U. – to create synergy around STEM offerings in the community.
Social and Emotional Learning: “I put a stake in the ground, as has the Board, on social and emotional learning. We created courses in social and emotional learning, and we started to focus on school climate and created school climate teams in each of the schools. These teams with the school improvement teams promote learning and healthy relationships. That has been monumental.”
A New Position Focused on African American Achievement: “In looking at our work on the opportunity gaps, we – and again with good community push – we created, I created a position called Executive Director for Black Student Success, and that effort has helped us to focus on the importance of helping African American students in our community in their academic journey and in their social and emotional journey. I think it’s going to yield some really important fruits over time.”
Principals: “We have recruited some outstanding young principals, and one of the things that’s really satisfying to me is in the recruiting, we can see that people want to come and work here and commit part of their professional life – if not their professional life – to District 65. I feel very satisfied that we have maintained District 65 as a place to come.”
Prioritizing Work of the Strategic Plan
Dr. Goren said the District’s five-year strategic plan adopted in March 2015 is grounded in research conducted at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago that identified five essential elements for school improvement: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, family and community engagement, safe and supportive climate, and ambitious instruction. The study found that when at least three of the five elements are present, students are much more likely to show increases in achievement.
The District’s strategic plan captures all five of the essential elements, and contains many strategies to achieve each of the elements.
In retrospect, Dr. Goren said, “We may have done too many things under each of these categories.”
In a proposal to the Board on June 10, Dr. Goren and the District’s top nine administrators proposed prioritizing the work. He said the District still needs to focus on the five essential elements, but added, “We need to go deeper on our instructional core.” Along with that, administrators plan to put on hold or eliminate some activities.
Dr. Goren said administrators have been influenced by the research of Loretta Hammond in her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” and the research of TNPT, Inc., a New York group founded by former teachers, in their report “The Opportunity Myth.” The research found that schools throughout the nation have often underestimated what disadvantaged students are capable of and have postponed more challenging and interesting work until educators have taught these students the “basics.” This in turn has resulted in depriving many students of high level instruction aligned with their grade level.
“The argument of the TNTP group is that all kids can achieve at high levels and you have to, you must give them the chance to do so,” said Dr. Goren. “That influenced a lot of our prioritizing over the last six months.”
The proposal is to ensure that Black and Latinx students are given rigorous instruction aligned to their grade level in the classroom, and that the rigorous instruction is not delayed while the children are provided interventions and supports. The interventions and supports must be in addition to and not in place of the rigorous, grade-level instruction.
“I think it’s the right direction,” said Dr. Goren. “This is the right pivot for right now.”
Why is Student Achievement Flat?
There has been a wide gap in achievement between White students and students of color in District 65 for many decades. In terms of students who are on track to college readiness, the gap is not so much that students of color are performing below the national average for all students, but that White students in the District are, on average, performing twice as high as the national average for all students.
In contrast, Latinx students are, on average, performing slightly above the national average for all students, and Black students are, on average, performing slightly below the national average for all students.
High percentages of Black and Latinx students are from low-income households.
The achievement levels for each subgroup have been essentially flat during the last five years. The RoundTable asked Dr. Goren to comment.
“The achievement levels were on a downward trend for three of four years prior to our arrival,” said Dr. Goren. “Over the five years that I’ve been here, they’ve been up a little and down, and they’ve been relatively flat. So that’s a concern. If I had a wish for, I’d wish that all the work that we’re doing would also yield performance that is better than it is now.
“That said, I actually think if you look at school reform around the country, changes around the country, there’s a lot of times that school districts, like District 65, get sort of an instant bump, and it doesn’t sustain itself over time. In many of those cases, that’s achieved by teaching to the test and isolating kids on the test so you can show the bump, so you can argue that you have success and then if you look two or three years later it fades and goes down.
“So our theory of action and our action was around building an infrastructure that is focused on instruction, focused on early grades instruction, pre-K, K, 1, 2 and 3, especially in English language arts so kids can grow in their reading skills, and part of that should create a multiyear effect to better performance later on.”
Dr. Goren added that the District has also been implementing culturally relevant teaching practices so young people can actually see themselves in the curriculum, doing extensive equity work, and placing a focus on the instructional core.
“I believe we are on the right track,” said Dr. Goren. “We have all the ingredients to be able to make some improvements.
“In the broad literature on school reform and social change, it takes between five and eight years to be able to do what I’m arguing, so we’re right on the cusp.”
Standardized Tests and Equity
The RoundTable asked Dr. Goren to comment on standardized tests.
He said, “I think it’s absolutely imperative to make sure we’re not over testing.” The District recently presented a plan to reduce the number of standardized tests being given.
Dr. Goren added, though, “If we really have an equity agenda, then we really have to have some level of measurement to know how well kids are doing, and especially how well kids of color are doing and kids from marginalized backgrounds are doing. In our community that would mean having a focused set of data on Black students and Latinx students and knowing how well they’re doing. Having some standardized tests or assessments that are rigorous and give us that sense of accomplishment, where we have to make our investments, is essential.
“We have to set the bar high and then we have to know if we’re reaching the bar. And we need the tools to be able to understand that, the tools being the test. If we don’t have that, we’re not going to know how well kids are doing and then we won’t know what we have to do to improve.”
He added, “I want to be absolutely sensitive to cultural bias.”
The Structural Deficit
District officials have told the RoundTable that the salary structure in the five-year contracts recently entered into with the teachers’ union and the teacher assistants’ union will result in total salary costs that are slightly higher than assumed in the District’s financial projections prepared in February 2019. Those projections indicate that the District will be able to balance its budgets up through June 30, 2025 (FY’25), using Referendum Funds – and assuming that the State does not freeze property taxes or shift the cost of funding teacher pensions to school Districts at a higher level than assumed in making the projections. But unless major steps are taken, the District will be facing significant deficits in FY’26 and beyond.
District officials have also said the District has not solved the structural deficit in the new contracts with the teachers’ and teachers assistants’ unions. The RoundTable asked Dr. Goren to comment on the District’s long-term financial prospects.
Dr. Goren said they “set up the next couple of years to be able to think about what sort of restructuring needs to occur. The five years gives time, arguably six years left of referendum funding before another referendum would have to be called or some major changes in the District would have to occur.
“The five years of labor peace and the six years of referendum funding gives time for the community to come together and talk about the issues.”
Dr. Goren said the community can think about increasing class sizes and changing the way the District deploys support staff. While he said he was not sure if it would yield any cost savings, he said the District could consider restructuring schools in a different grade-level configuration. He said the District could consider closing a school, but added, “This also has to be juxtaposed with the great desire to provide a school for kids who live in the Fifth Ward. I think that also has to be put on the table.”
“There is going to be some important and tough work ahead over the next five, six, seven years to be able to think about how the District can sustain … We’re in good shape right now, but we’re not at a point where we’ve solved the issue.
“All of us who live in Evanston have to be keenly focused on how we maintain our schools, but how do we maintain them in a slightly different way than we are doing now.”
Dr. Goren said, “There are struggles in our buildings at times, but there are so many things to celebrate. I want people to stand tall for everything that’s great about the District. There’s so much to celebrate.
“It’s been a privilege to serve my community,” said Dr. Goren, adding he was grateful to the School Boards, his senior team, principals, teachers, social workers and staff in the schools. “I want folks to be optimistic about the future and to keep tackling the hard challenges, but keep moving forward.”