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River Forest D90 residents in the dark as learning rates equaled the U.S. average

Student Learning rates in River Forest District 90 were similar to the U.S. average following a policy penned in 2016 aimed at eliminating the racial predictability of achievement. Relying on “research pertaining to best practice in pedagogy”, Learning Rates fell substantially lower than districts River Forest still calls “high performing and comparable”, according to the Educational Opportunity Project (EOP) at Stanford University.

Learning Rates are computed by comparing students average scores in one grade and year to the same cohort in a subsequent grade and year. Sean Reardon, Director of the EOP, said “If parents were to use the learning rate data to help inform their decisions about where to live, they might make very different choices in many cases.”

At its launch, the EOP analysis didn’t include the ten years of data it uses today: 2009 to 2018. The 2016 data were added in 2019, 2017 added in 2020, and so on. The effect of new D90 policy became evident in measures of Learning Rate when later years were added. Average test scores are pulled down by declines in 2017 and 2018, but not as sharply as Learning Rate. Whatever was meant by “best practices” and “evidence-based” that pointed D90 administrators toward “universal design for learning, project/problem based learning, and co-teaching” and the K-8 curriculum overhaul, was already influencing Learning Rates of students, especially poor and Hispanic students.

Residents couldn’t find answers in official board committees like Policy, chaired then by Rich Moore, or from the Communications Committee. Superintendent Condon shared “It is correct that there are no formal meeting minutes taken or audio recordings made at Policy Committee meetings.” Katie Avalos, who chaired Communications, described “there were no minutes taken during the (Communications Committee) meeting.”

After being notified of violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, D90 responded saying “We believe strongly in operating in a fully transparent manner and in full compliance with the Open Meetings Act. Further, District 90 will continue to operate in this manner as we have always done”. But did they? No suit was filed.

No light for concerned residents would come from district administrators either. District 90 didn’t tell residents when it lost the Exemplary rating by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2019. The 2016 new-hire curriculum director, Alison Hawley, initially blamed teachers or “implementation drag” for rapid academic decline in English language arts. Now, declines are clearly connected with her implementation of “Balanced Literacy” and the debunked curriculum Lucy Calkins Units of Study.

Before this “evidence-based approach”, River Forest elementary teachers were provided the Journey’s curriculum and the flexibility to supplement it with other programs to achieve a science-based structured literacy approach. Then, students were achieving an average four grades above the national average in English language arts.

Instead of transparency, River Forest residents were left feeling their way through confusing changes like the districts re-defining the common understanding of differentiated instruction, or teachers using curricula designed to reach a range of ability levels. At some point, it was re-defined to mean delivering a single lesson and differentiating whether instruction came through games, books, videos, etc. The board and administrators wooed parents by describing how changes would address different learning preferences, although it failed to disclose it would be using ineffective curricula.

Curriculum Director Alison Hawley gave this cautionary justification after eliminating differentiated instruction in math, “If leveled math instruction begins prematurely, there is a risk that some students who might otherwise qualify for acceleration might not have the opportunity to participate”. The nod to de-tracking D90, or single ability-level lessons in the classroom, came in the next sentence: “Importantly, the research also indicates positive benefits for high-performing students when they have the initial opportunity to refine their skills in a mixed ability elementary classroom, before receiving accelerated coursework in subsequent years.” A recent survey of Teachers suggest low standards, and too much time "refining skills" may explain an emergent trend for classroom disturbances.

Compounding uncertainty on transparency, E3 learned recently Hawley resigned from Winnetka District 36 following what the Superintendent described as “concealing performance data from the board and the community”. Interestingly, the math and reading curriculum producing poor results hidden from Winnetka residents are the same math and reading curricula implemented in River Forest after 2016.

It is unclear if River Forest residents will ever get a clear picture of what appears as policy-induced learning loss before covid. Current D90 Board President Stacey Williams and Education Chair Nicole Thompson, both on the Board and voting in favor of the 2016 policy, along with “progressive” board recruits Katie Avalos and Sarah Eckmann, currently hold a majority and continue to stall on a switch back to instruction based on the science of reading. Accelerating the change might be seen as admission of guilt.

It is a curriculum review process Superintendent Condon says will again rely on Alison Hawley and again will be “done through the lens of evidence-based reading instruction”. At recent board meetings, one public commenter spoke of having to tutor in literacy and said “I ask and beg that we reform the literacy curriculum a little faster”. Another commenter referenced how it took outside testing to uncover specific delays linked to known flaws in D90 curricula.

Time will tell whether the goal has changed for which this "evidence" supports.


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