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A Single Curriculum Solution at OPRF HS - Where is the Evidence?

Next week, the OPRHS School BOE will vote on whether it will “detrack” freshman students, forcing them into a single curriculum for history, world languages and English, as it already has for science.


Members of the OPRF administration pushing this change have published 13 documents they claim serve as supporting evidence here.


This ad hoc group was formed to independently research the achievement gap, identifying “detracking” and other policies already applied elsewhere that might inform our community and instruct our district leadership in addressing the phenomenon itself.


A closer examination of the documents presented by the OPRF administration finds they are not exactly as depicted. In one particular case, the author of a meta-analysis cited by the administration recently suggested the findings of his work may be being misused.


For background, in Aug. 2019 the OPRF H.S. Administration presented the concept of limiting the freshman experience to a single option in History, World Languages, and English, in addition to science which has already been “detracked”.

Then, the administration described the change as providing “Access for All,” whereas it is described now as “Equitable Excellence”.


Last Thursday, the administration made a formal case to the BOE’s Committee of the Whole.

There is a Webinar planned for next Tuesday, October 26, and the BOE will officially vote on the policy at its regular monthly meeting next Thursday, Oct. 28.


In 2009, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Dr. Ning Rui wrote an article for the Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine titled, “Four Decades of Research on the Effects of Detracking Reform: Where Do We Stand? A Systematic Review of the Evidence.”


OPRF administrators included this article as supportive of their proposed move to “detracking” freshmen year, describing it as a “meta-analysis of 15 studies that found detracking consistently demonstrated positive effects on low-ability achievement with no measurable effects on average- to high-ability student achievement.”


Dr. Rui was contacted for a statement. He expressed surprise to learn that it was being used to substantiate policy decisions on high school de-tracking, providing the written statement provided in full below:


“I recently became aware that a meta-analysis article that I published in 2009, has been posted on the website of the Oak Park and River Forest High School as one of the research studies to support the district’s freshman curriculum restructuring plan.


This meta-analytic review found positive effects of detracking on the academic outcomes of low-achieving students and no significant effects on the academic outcomes of higher or average-ability students.


The study also found mixed results on non-academic effect of detracking. Students of different ability levels in heterogeneous classes reported outcomes ranging from less satisfaction with assignments and coursework, being less secure, raised tensions and no difference, to higher self-efficacy, and more positive attitudes.


While the meta-analysis is a valuable tool to cumulate and summarize the knowledge in the research field, it should be noted that only four out of the 15 reviewed studies employed experimental design that meets What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) Evidence Standards without Reservations.


As policymakers are trying to balance the competing goals of providing equitable opportunities for all students and addressing differences in learning needs among individual students, the context and limitations of prior studies about school restructuring and possibility of varied effects with different populations and school contexts should be taken into account to avoid over-generalization of the findings.

The decision to implement detracking reform in a particular district should be made on the basis of knowledge about the conditions and resources that are required to support high-quality instruction in a heterogeneous context rather than simply looking at the point estimates reported in the literature.”


Also cited by the OPRF Administration as evidence in support of “detracking” is a commentary written by Assistant OPRF Superintendent Peter Bavis about his own work on implementing a single curriculum approach at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), implemented in 2010-11.

In it, Bavis proclaims “It Works,” citing increased enrollment in AP classes and higher standardized test scores, when compared to 2006-07.


When questioned recently, however, Bavis admitted that “while we encourage and expect students to take AP exams, we no longer require them to do so.” It may be, in a “detracked” system, more students take AP classes, if they don’t test to get credit for them.


More broadly, and before any effects of Covid-19, state data shows student achievement at ETHS has trended downward since “detracking”, contradicting Bavis’ assertion.

The Illinois State Board of Education report card does show a narrowing of the “achievement gap” between black and white students, from 60% in 2017 to 53% in 2019 for English language arts. But that narrowing came about through lower overall achievement.


White student achievement declined from 87% to 76% (-11%) over that time, whereas black student achievement declined from 27% to 23% (-4%). The overall trend was similar in mathematics.


While the gap at ETHS has narrowed, it has come at the expense of achievement and student potential. This seems evidence to the contrary. Why won’t the OPRFHS Administration address these results specifically?

The problem of the achievement gap is real at OPRF and throughout the country, especially where there is socio-economic disparity and segregation. It is right to feel unsettled on the topic and it is admirable that this BOE and Administration are poised to take action.


That said, among any BOE’s highest charges is to be effective by enacting major policies only after all sides of the matter have been studied and all persons or groups affected have been consulted.


The findings here are good reason to question whether all sides of the matter have been studied, or is the Administration simply looking at point estimates that support a decision to detrack made long ago.


OPRFHS Freshman Curriculum Restructuring Webinar

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.

Click here for the Zoom link to the join the webinar





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