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Lowering the Literacy Ceiling On River Forest District 90 Students

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Journeys was the River Forest District 90 reading curriculum up until 2016 and before the Board of Education directed the Superintendent to implement a “fundamental change to instructional philosophy”.

At the time, average student achievement in English language arts was four grades higher than the national average, and two out of three River Forest schools were rated Exemplary by the State. Things were pretty good for students, parents and teachers in District 90.


The Journeys is a comprehensive reading and writing curriculum that uses teacher-explicit instruction with whole group, homogenous small group and independent sessions covering skills development in vocabulary, phonics, comprehension, and fluency. Homogenous small groups could be considered ‘tracks’, or a source of hurt feelings for students in lower-ability tracks and this was about to change.


  • Journeys cost between $2,750 and $4,200 per grade per year for the premium print and digital classroom packages.

  • The Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University rates Journeys STRONG based on one K-2nd grade study.

  • Planning, Research and Evaluation Services (PRES) found Journeys produced significant growth in all six measures using a two-year randomized control trial. Significant growth occurred in reading comprehension, vocabulary, word analysis, spelling, language, and word recognition.

  • The Educational Research Institute of America (ERIA) study concluded that Journeys produced statistically significant increases in achievement for higher and lower ability students.

The district would eventually call this initiative D90 Vision for Equity and River Forests’ own detracking would look like a massive revamping of the entire K-8 curriculum, along with changes to instructional practices. Most of the River Forest community had no idea about these changes, just that there was less homework, new classroom libraries, no time for math block, students having ‘voice’ in everything from parent teacher conferences to developing the five year strategic plan. Most without school-age children still don’t know about school decline beginning before covid.


Although supported unanimously by the District 90 Board at the time, implementation of these changes was driven by a curriculum director hired in 2016 named Alison Hawley who described being excited by the opportunity to implement social justice equity work in education. Hawley had spent time at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, the home of the Lucy Calkins and her controversial reading and writing curriculum Units of Study. Lucy’s curriculum has found its way into schools across the nation, and implementing Units of Study was one of the earliest curriculum changes as part of this Board’s Vision for Equity.


Lucy Calkins Units of Study uses a combination of some teacher-led and more student-lead and group instruction. Literacy is taught through repeated and varied access books increasing ease and fluency of reading and comprehension. Early readers rely on cueing, including meaning, syntax, and visual cues to solve unknown words.


  • The web Units of Study for Teaching Reading Bundle, Grades K-5 price is $1,300 from the publisher Heinemann. Although reading is the focus here, the writing component is sold separately for $1,200.

  • EdReports ranks Units of Study far behind Journeys in research basis and effectiveness in every grade and every category.

  • Center for Research and Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University found no studies of Units of Study that met inclusion requirements.

  • The American Institute for Research performed a quasi-experimental study and report implementation is associated with improvements in ELA starting in the second year of implementation.

  • More recently, experts are beginning to attribute poor national reading scores to the widespread use of an unsupported approach to teaching reading as used by Lucy Calkins Units of Study.


If we use an automotive analogy, what the District has done is traded in a high performing family car for another proven less reliable, and now the discussion is over what poor performing tires are the best fit for a jalopy. In this case, it’s how best to bolt-on phonics to our new jalopy that is Units of Study. Don’t think the same trade-in hasn’t already happened with math. It wasn’t explicitly stated in the five year strategic plan, why would a BOE lower the ceiling without first affirming the objective and methods with the community it swore to serve? Who benefits from the new poorer performing curricula? Time is already telling us the answer.


The lack of clear honest communication from our local schools is heartbreaking and breathtaking for those paying close attention. Yes, the new ELA and math curricula are junk and it didn’t take long for vision to blur, and a wonderful district to stray off the road and into a confusing if not crooked crosswalk.


It’s true that disruptions to education from covid may be one of the most important problems facing most public schools; however, there is a problem beneath this problem in River Forest that has showed its face in recent years. The problem is in a community-wide understanding of the objective for this particular Vision for Equity. It persists not because of bad people, but people who, knowingly or unknowingly, all together got behind an unclear idea on how best to serve a community. This is the same board that swore to serve the interests of the entire community, yet couldn’t bring themselves to condemn persistent candidate and voter intimidation. No wonder it is confusing for residents and why can’t our Village Board of Trustees facilitate a true community discussion?


No, the children of River Forest didn’t suddenly lose academic ability before covid, but they are losing valuable time with each day this board and administration pretend their new chosen trajectory for River Forest is anything other than downward – close the achievement gap by lowering the ceiling?


Disbelief is the most common first response, and some are still in denial because the board and administration are still telling the community “the research and evidence supports this approach”. The question remains, this approach to what? What is the end goal of your Vision for Equity?


For the record, the residents that originally conceived and still contribute to this watchdog group agreed unanimously that equity and excellence were not mutually exclusive, that spending more money on children with greater needs was worthwhile, and the true meaning of educational equity is a distribution of individual achievement indiscernible according to race, ethnicity, gender, and whether you like thin crust from Bertollis or thick from Lou Malnati. I'm not sure we're all using the same definitions.


Every good story has a villain, and my opponent in the 2019 River Forest school board election did a great job of keeping the conversation off River Forest education. This saucy campaign tactic worked fairly well for the election. It’s also partly to blame for more miles on the jalopy at a cost to students, families and the entire community. These local problems don’t get fixed in national elections, by teachers unions, and unfortunately not by trusting that past excellence is your best predictor of your children’s future here in River Forest. You get what you vote for. Bad ideas, not bad people.


I was naive to the strength of grip politics has on education in this tiny town I really love. While many may be in disbelief, or even moved onto anger, I’d like to get to the bargaining phase sooner than later so these kiddos don’t miss out on how best to read, write and do arithmetic. I’d like to keep River Forest attractive to young families, reverse the recent trend for decreasing enrollment and while some still vote with their feet, I think excellent education is something worth discussing. I’m excited the District 90 Communication Committee is considering objectives and tactics.


Since running for school board no fewer than 100 people have said - I see it too, you are right, keep pointing to the facts, but I won’t speak up out of fear of repercussions. Hold on one second! Some have left the District, but those buildings are still filled with many of the same blue ribbon teachers, principals and staff that were the reason you moved here in the first place. Yes, they want to keep their job, AND they still want the very best for your children. I was afraid too, for a while. Then, I realized those that might seek retribution are a very small minority, and the people that do this stick out like a flat tire, a broken down car slowing traffic on the side of the expressway. Over the years, I’ve learned asking difficult questions helps them, and can help you too.


Friends and neighbors, there are no repercussions for speaking up on behalf of children, only regrets, tutoring fees, lost free time and broken relationships when you don’t.


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