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4 votes to 3 – River Forest D90’s board will keep Lucy Calkins in ELA curriculum review

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

The River Forest District 90 school board debated a motion brought by 2023 BOE addition Kristine Mackey - “I move to remove consideration of Lucy Calkins Units of Study from consideration by the appointed committee responsible for review of ELA curriculum for D90”. You might be surprised by the outcome.

Expediting a review of English language arts curriculum is something new board members Cortese, Isenberg, and Mackey have pressed since taking office in May 2023. Avalos, Eckmann, Thompson and Williams either voted to approve as far back as 2016, or have voted to extend use, renew contracts or generally support what Avalos has called on social media the "progressive curriculum".

The motion by Mackey failed to pass on Tuesday September 5, 2023 after 30 minutes of discussion and debate.

Finance Chair Joe Cortese YES

Policy Chair Eric Isenberg YES

Facilities Chair Kristine Mackey YES

Vice President Katie Avalos NO

Personnel Chair Sarah Eckmann NO

Education Chair Nicole Thompson NO

President and Equity Chair Stacey Williams NO

Mackey, who joined the D90 board in 2023 cited Illinois senate bill 2243, passed by both Illinois House and Senate, and signed by Governor Pritzker, saying “I re-read the full set of legislation, I read all the legislative comments, and the aim of the bill is to stop the program we have today”.

The program Mackey was referring to is called Balanced Literacy, and most often is associated with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study reading and writing curriculum. This is the approach and curriculum avoided by District 90 until it was adopted by a new-hire curriculum director named Alison Hawley in 2016. The overhaul of K-8 curriculum and instructional practices were described as "lowering the ceiling" by Hawley and others and part of 2016 policy implemented by Ralph Martire so that 8th graders would "comport" with a de-tracked freshman year at OPRF High School.

Around since 1981, the curriculum has no research support and has come under fire in recent years for creeping into thousands of public schools. It has been the target of restrictive legislation in most states, and the curriculum, its author, and its supporters, were investigated thoroughly by Emily Hanford of American Public Media under the title SOLD A STORY.

Student achievement in English language arts (ELA) had trended up steadily in D90 for years before implementation of Balanced Literacy. According to analysis of D90 data by Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA), the average annual ELA growth of River Forest students was estimated at more than four grades above the state average. The trend turned downward beginning in 2017 when annual student growth fell below the state average, according to CEPA data. This is before covid learning loss.

Mackey’s motion was challenged predominantly by Kate Avalos who made two primary arguments, neither of which cited efficacy or academic achievement under Balanced Literacy and Lucy Calkins Units of Study.

One argument put forward by Avalos, Eckmann, Thompson and Williams was removing Units of Study from consideration would be “an overstep of duties”. Avalos said her NO vote “isn’t really about the specifics of the curriculum, it is more about what is our responsibility as a board.” She described how withdrawing a failed curriculum would “set a precedent that I personally would be uncomfortable with”. Thompson said it would be “a slippery slope” if the board gave specific direction to the administration.

Board member and Policy Chair, Eric Isenberg cited D90 board policy 2:22, Powers and Duties of the Board of Education, item 9 “Approving the curriculum, textbooks, and educational services”. Isenberg said “I don’t see this as over-reach, I see it as what our responsibility is according to the policy of our school board.” Isenberg added “The direction of our test scores has been very much a warning that we are not going to reverse things by doing the same thing we are already doing”.

The four voting NO seemed to rest on their majority number and were concerned less about forming arguments that would immediately benefit students. A second argument presented was that removing Units of Study from consideration would hurt the review process - committee members wouldn't be able to discuss pros and cons of Units of Study or have a basis of comparison. It was implied eliminating Units of Study from consideration would also ban committee members from talking about it?

Mackey confirmed this wasn't the case and it was an argument Joe Cortese suggested the concern could be addressed by re-wording the motion to explicitly state access to Units of Study and past experience. Williams and Avalos were quick to say that wouldn’t change their NO vote.

Superintendent Ed Condon said the next English language arts curriculum review would be “done through the lens of evidence-based reading instruction” and added “something positive is at work for a significant number of our students, and we just don’t want to miss the chance to understand what has worked for those children that have demonstrated success”.

“We will engage in the most thorough and transparent process” said Asst. Superintendent Alison Hawley Tuesday evening. Hawley was hired by D90 after resigning from the curriculum director role at Winnetka D36 where she oversaw the same math and ELA curricula she would implement in D90. Her resignation from D36 came after “concealing student performance data” according to D36 Superintendent, and was documented by concerned parents, a finding Condon, Hawley, and the D90 board has yet to address publicly.

The first meeting of the D90 curriculum review committee will be September 19th, 2023. Hawley will chair the committee and as of Sept. 5th committee members were "yet to be determined".

Illinois State Board of Education reports 38.4% of River Forest D90 students were not proficient in English language arts in 2022.

How would you have voted on the motion? Share your opinion at the YES or NO opinion poll button below - all votes will remain anonymous.

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