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  • The E3 Group

An imbalance in a River Forest education?

The E3 Group was launched with a lecture and Q&A at the RF Community Center by Dr. Tim Shanahan, one of the nation’s leading experts on teaching early literacy. Tim served on the congressionally appointed National Reading Panel. The panel was charged with researching the best way to teach reading for the benefit of US students. An interview where he describes this is found here.

At the River Forest event, Tim said technology has increased the demand for literacy by more than a grade level and gave supporting evidence and a personal story. Still, at least one D90 board member pressed an argument with Tim that technology has reduced the need for producing excellent readers. Why would someone argue it is now less important to be a great reader?

Another thing Dr. Shanahan left the audience with was a warning about “balanced literacy.” You can find much more on the topic at his website. It is no secret Tim was invited because River Forest District 90 had quietly pushed through a K-8 curriculum overhaul, a change in instructional methodology used by teachers, adopted block scheduling, hired new Instructional Specialists to enforce teacher’s “fidelity to the (new) curriculum”, and yes, began implementing standards-based grading in middle school. The changes were penned by the District 90 board in 2016.

Among the new curricula was the controversial Lucy Calkins reading/writing curriculum that Administrators referred to as a “balanced literacy” approach. A brand-new approach, despite District 90 students were excelling in English Language Arts scoring four grade levels above the national average before the new curriculum.

The timing of this curriculum change overlaid on measures of D90 ELA achievement (see chart) should raise questions. Questions with real answers, although difficult to find in River Forest compared to the transparency offered by other local districts. This, according to a "lack of compliance" with the IL Open Meetings Act, according to legal experts.

Dr. Sean Reardon’s education research group at Stanford Univ. produced an analysis of D90 data suggesting student growth in ELA may have ceased completely, even reversed, upon adopting balanced learning. Today, as declining student growth and achievement are compounded by extended periods of remote learning, members of the district 90 school board seem galvanized in their ideas, supportive of the administration overseeing changes that that coincide with the point of inflection, and maybe even content with the loss of an Exemplary school rating by the State. Was the board’s bet too big on technology?

These facts will beg different questions for different people regarding the mission of District 90, what is meant by educational excellence these days, the definition of equity, and who and why the district needed radical transformation instead of a stepwise plan using previously proven changes to lift all boats.

It isn’t from Dr. Shanahan, but twenty years after the panels report there is some confidence the world does know how to teach reading. It is an easy read, lacks a lot of the usual school jargon, and it might lead to better understanding and great questions. Article link below.

Now, it is up to River Forest to find better balance for its students.


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