School District 65 administrators presented a plan to the School Board on June 10 that will place a major focus on improving teaching and learning in the 2019-2020 school year, especially for Black and Latinx students. As part of the prioritization process, the District has “stepped back from work that does not directly impact our goal of improving outcomes for students of color,” says a 10 page memo from the District’s top nine administrators to the School Board.

”While we have made progress in our work to dismantle systemic racism and to create more equitable learning environments, academic outcomes for students of color have not yet changed significantly, and indicate that we need to continue this work with a refined focus on curriculum and instruction,” says the memo.

The District’s achievement reports show that there are wide opportunity and achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups. For example on the Spring 2018 Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test, 84% of White students met college readiness benchmarks in reading, compared to 32% of Black students and 39% of Hispanic students. According to MAP norms, about 36 % of the students nationwide are predicted to meet MAP’s college readiness benchmarks in reading.

Superintendent Paul Goren told the RoundTable, “This has been a team effort to think about priorities. We need to focus even more to make a difference in the lives of kids, especially Black children and our Latinx kids.”

Dr. Goren said administrators have been influenced by the research of Zaretta Hammond in her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” and the research of the TNTP, Inc., a New York group founded by 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, grade-level instruction 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, said Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.

Root Causes in Practices

LaTarsha Green, Executive Director of Black Student Success, said administrators began to look at the District’s practices in December to see what was driving some of the disparities in achievement results.

The memo says, “We believe the trends we see in our assessment data occur because throughout this District our students, particularly Black and Latinx students, experience inconsistency in academic rigor, strong instructional practices, relevant and engaging learning experiences, and high expectations across our classrooms.”

According to the memo, students of color should have consistent opportunities to work on grade-appropriate assignments that reflect college and career-ready academic standards; that student of color should have rigorous instruction where they do most of the thinking in a lesson; that teachers should use materials that are culturally relevant and instructional practices that are culturally responsive; and that teachers should consistently have high expectations for students of color. 

Another issue the memo points to is that “trust and confidence in the District is low … across all employee groups and racial identities.” The stated root causes of this is “Our decision making processes and communication have been unclear and inconsistent across the organization.”

Focus on the Instructional Core

“We believe that to focus our efforts and improve teaching and learning in the District, we need to shift our system to having learning, and what happens in classrooms, be our primary focus and priority. In practice, this means focusing our work on the instructional core,” says the memo. 

Dr. Beardsley said administrators have developed seven strategies to focus on next year:  

First, “Ensure access to grade-level, Common Core State Standards aligned assignments for Tier 1 instruction that are rigorous and improve learning for Black and Latinx students.”

Dr. Beardsley said Tier 1 instruction is the instruction designed for all students. This strategy, she said, will address the need that students who are not quite at grade level will be given grade-level instruction and be challenged. She said students who are below grade level will be provided supports and interventions, but the supports and interventions should not replace access to grade-level instruction.

Second, “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of cognitively rigorous and culturally responsive instructional practices.”

Dr. Beardsley said that grade-level and beyond assignments should be engaging, cognitively rigorous and require students to dig in and be challenged learners.

Third, “Ask students and families directly about their goals and school experiences to inform ongoing strategy development, and adjust as appropriate.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “Engaging Black and Latinx students and families on an ongoing basis to inform our work helps us to understand the impact of our actions.”

The next four strategies are: Fourth: “Lead system-wide professional learning and implementation support of restorative practices to create environments that are intellectually and socially safe for learning;” Fifth: “Foster a culture of collaboration and trust that authentically engages staff to increase student achievement for Black and Latinx students;” Sixth: “Create structures and processes to support consistent and effective two-way communication with staff about district-level decisions and actions;” and Seventh: “Engage in long-term financial planning to ensure we have the necessary funding for our priorities on the instructional core.”

“We believe we can be successful in implementing these strategies because they build on and narrow the focus of work that we are already doing,” said Dr. Beardsley. 

Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, said the administrators have been considering what work or activities currently being done can be deferred or stopped to make room to implement the priorities well. She said administrators would like to simplify or consolidate some of the school-based teams and committees, discontinue or focus some areas of professional development, and discontinue other work listed in the memo.

Andelib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said the District will work to build trust and create enriched classrooms and school environments to ensure students of color achieve at the highest level.

Board Comments

Board member Joey Hailpern said he supported discontinuing anything that is not on the list of strategic priorities or closely related to them.

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “I want to thank you for the depth of the plan and the clarity.” She added that she would like to see how the District would sustain the work financially.

Board President Suni Kartha said the priority of focusing on the instructional core is obvious. “We are a school district.” She said, though, “We all have to have the same understanding of what the instructional core is.” She asked if social and emotional learning was part of the instructional core.

Ms. Kartha added she would like the administration to collaborate with teachers in deciding what work or activities to eliminate.

Research on higher-order thinking and deep learning demonstrates that it should be taught to all students in very engaging learning environments, and that it should not be deferred or denied to students on the premise they need to first master basic skills. Research also confirms that teaching children higher-order thinking skills and deep learning skills from the time they enter kindergarten is essential to reduce achievement gaps and to prepare children for success in life.

As one way to address the disparities, School District 65 has adopted a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, based on Zaretta Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain” (2015).  In her book, Ms. Hammond says schools have often underestimated what disadvantaged students are capable of doing, and as a result have postponed more challenging and interesting work until educators believe they have mastered “the basics.” By focusing only on low-level basics, she says, “we deprive students of a meaningful or motivating context for learning and practicing higher order thinking processes.”

In an interview last February, James W. Pellegrino, who chaired a national Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, is Co-Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute and a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the RoundTable, “Part of what contributes to the achievement gap, and of course, there are many factors, is that we sometimes construct our curriculum or create our learning environments for students who are of different socioeconomic status or have different backgrounds, such that we essentially try to give one group of students what I call basic skills and facts knowledge. … We try to make up for what we think is the ‘deficit,’ by essentially focusing on what I call the ‘details.’ What we don’t do is create environments that encourage them to think and reason with that knowledge.

“Instead we’ve engaged in more rote instruction, more rote exercises. I think that may be one of the reasons that contributes to the gaps that we have or that keeps them ever present, because we’re not doing something to create learning environments that help these students actually develop the kinds of knowledge that they need to have to be able to engage in transfer and problem solving.

“Kids sometimes come into school with differences in the kinds of knowledge and skills that they’ve developed in the home, in the community. … Then current school practices oftentimes essentially magnify those types of things over time, rather than essentially reduce or eliminate them.

 “What we don’t want to do is just remediate one group of kids and then create interesting learning opportunities for another group of kids,” he said.

Paul Zavitkovsky, a leadership coach and assessment specialist at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago,  says that culturally-responsive teaching can often get sidetracked by the widespread belief that basic skills need to be mastered before students can understand and work through more challenging and interesting questions. Modern learning science research clearly shows, however, that basic skill building, deeper conceptual learning and problem solving are best done simultaneously, he says.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...