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Research points to RF D90 Curriculum Dir. fired from Winnetka D36 for "lowering the ceiling"

River Forest District 90’s commitment to “lowering the ceiling” on students and families became clearer recently after E3 learned Alison Hawley, D90’s Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, was fired after three years of lowering the ceiling on Winnetka District 36 students. Research into D36 suggests the declines came after using the same tactics, curricula, and instructional practices she began implementing in D90 in 2016. A penchant for poor performance could explain the loss of ‘Exemplary” school status and lower student achievement.

Google Math and Reading Wars to come to your own understanding; however, the conclusion of most education research experts is the war should have been over long ago, and inquiry-based methods of teaching critical skills like math and reading limit potential for most elementary students.

Specifically, Hawley implemented TERC’s Investigations curriculum, an inquiry-based method of teaching math in both D36 and D90, and both districts saw subsequent declines in math growth and achievement. The Winnetka parent group cites declines in student growth under Investigations and suggests declines were obfuscated by D36 leadership, while in D90 the Investigations math curriculum replaced the significantly higher performing Math Expressions curriculum and has widened the achievement gap. According to the National Center for Education Evaluation, whereas the teacher’s role using the former curriculum Math Expressions was to explain, model and facilitate the production of ideas, the Investigations curriculum relies on the student production of ideas.

Hawley favors the Lucy Calkins English language arts (ELA) curriculum Units of Study, which didn’t acknowledge the science of reading. It was used at D36 and replaced all other ELA programs in D90. Both D36 and D90 saw declines that overlap with Hawley’s tenure and implementation of unproven reading instruction.

EdWeek reports 31 states have passed legislation hoping to lead their education systems away from Calkins methods and toward the science of reading. Illinois is not one of those states.

A comparison focused on third graders using district proficiency tests is relevant since until then, children are learning to read, and after then, children are reading to learn. Narrowing the focus can create sources of variability not necessarily related to curriculum and instruction, nonetheless, the highlighted years of the table do show D36 and D90 achievement while Hawley was curriculum director, and only after 2020 are the data confounded by covid.

The Winnetka parent group also said the District apologized for and “admitted concealing student performance data from the Board and the community.” In River Forest, community members have raised concerns the district isn’t reporting longitudinal data on student growth and achievement, and in response to declines has begun comparing D90 to state and national norms instead of what the Resident Friendly Financial Report calls “comparable high performing districts” like Northbrook, Hinsdale, Western Springs and LaGrange.

In March 2023, Hawley reported on D90 English language arts achievement using a single figure produced by a consultant, a cumulative frequency chart, seen below. The yellow column is how well D90 is doing - in the top 4.8% of Illinois districts. See the table at the end of this article for a less concealed comparison.

It is unclear why River Forest D90 leadership chose to implement policy in 2016 that would “lower the ceiling” on students instead of raising the floor, especially for low-income and minority students the district committed to helping. Today, ISBE reports the district is over-funded (139%).

It does seem clear why teachers lambasted their leadership in the state survey at the time.

There is a commitment on Hawley’s part too; a public records request estimated $375,000 was spent on “balanced literacy” curricula and texts between April 2019 and 2022, long after declines were evident. Further, she recently asked the board to approve spending that would commit the district to math Investigations for five more years.

The answer to why is especially important because recent board meetings suggest the district may begin reviewing curricula, and it’s unclear now if D90 has an administrator that is both qualified and objective to do so.

E3 will continue the probe into decline in two nearby school districts with one common denominator. You can reach out with relevant information at or subscribe to stay up to date.


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