n 2016 River Forest district 90 implemented a policy aimed at “eliminating the racial predictability of achievement” according to then school board president Ralph Martire. The theory goes, lowering standards and eliminating curricula designed to help teachers challenge students of different ability levels would create a classroom of students closer to average, thus reducing the racial achievement gap.
"When your student masters a lesson, they'll help teach" said Martire. A political win for some with ties to teachers unions, but so far it seems a blow to students and families relying a history of “educational excellence” from district 90 and unprepared for outside tutoring.
In the years following the policy, the D90 board voted unanimously to close the gap using poor performing curricula implemented by curriculum director Alison Hawley, hired in 2016. Hawley forced a comprehensive K-8 curricula overhaul that included two she had experience while at Winnetka D36: math Investigations, and the balanced literacy curriculum from Lucy Calkins called Units of Study.
Hawley referred to these curricula as “inquiry based” during the board meeting Monday June 20, 2023, and said “balanced literacy is now a loaded word” since parents were beginning to understand deficiencies. June 30, 2023 D90 BOE meeting link (4 public comments, then discussion begins at 52:30)
Curriculum director Hawley presented two versions of a curriculum review schedule for the district on Monday. An April Draft showed a review of “ELA” or English language arts, which colloquially includes instruction in listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing, beginning with “needs assessment” during the 2025-2026 school year, and not completing until 2027-2028. A June Draft narrowed the review; there is no review of ELA through 2028 and literacy alone would begin a review during 2023-2024 and may not conclude until 2026-2027.
It is unclear when a writing or other ELA topics may undergo review, and as board member Avalos pointed out Monday, the writing component of from Lucy Calkins has been in use since 2016.
On Monday Hawley defended her decision to implement Units of Study again saying “in 2018 this was the program [Units of Study] that most high-performing districts were adopting”. She made no mention of her time on leave, followed by resignation, from Winnetka D36 after allegedly manipulating data to mask declines in achievement under the same poor math and ELA curricula she implemented in River Forest.
New board member Joe Cortese said regarding the most aggressive option for review “We’re stuck with a curriculum that many states are moving away from, for two more years”. New board member Eric Isenberg suggested it was possible to complete a review and begin using effective literacy curricula during the 2023-2024 school year.
Board president Stacey Williams, who voted in favor of the policy years earlier, dug in demanding “fidelity to our process” saying to administrators Condon and Hawley “there is a need to advance it a year, and when you come back to us I want to make sure you’re not compromising any part of the process”. Board member Mackey pointed out the curriculum review process is a product of the district and can be adjusted at will.
There was a true difference of opinion among board members, and maybe even a true difference of understanding. Board member Avalos made claims nothing substantive has changed in the district saying “Our previous reading curriculum [Journey’s] was also Balanced Literacy so this is not like, this isn’t like, we were doing something different before and then we switched, it’s all balanced literacy”.
There was discussion of whether River Forest residents care about literacy. A petition was submitted on Monday signed by roughly 140 residents “We are requesting the board to stop using Units of Study in D90 elementary schools” , to which board member Avalos said “128 people is not 1,000 and 1/3 of those people don’t have kids in the district”. New board member Mackey said “the election” was evidence residents care, and new board member Eric Isenberg lamented “heartbreaking” accounts of unexpectedly poor reading from River Forest parents.
Board member Thompson, who chairs the districts Education Committee, blamed the reason for even considering a review of Units of Study was misinformation, saying the board should “read through the lines and try to make sure we’re not being subjected to misinformation that is quite obvious”. New board member Mackey challenged Thomson to explain the “the obvious agenda” she said was at work in the community. Thompson didn’t answer, and later added “I don’t want to necessarily change for a few when it’s working for many”, referring to Units of Study.
New board member Mackey offered to review the research literature with teachers saying “the academic world isn’t with us on this”, to which board president Williams said “I don’t know if we want to have teachers review academic literature”.
The agenda item ended with board president Williams directing Superintendent to consider an earlier review schedule, although the instruction did not differentiate whether this included literacy only or all ELA topics.
Our question to you is this - Is it irony that the district recommended the book “End of Average” in 2018 as the trend for decline in achievement was becoming evident?