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  • The E3 Group

River Forest D90 spends $375,000 over 3 years on reading curriculum experts say is “failing kids"

River Forest District 90 spent approximately $375,000 between April 2019 and April 2022 on a reading curriculum, teacher training, and books procured by the same curriculum’s developers, according to a public records request (1, 2, 3).

The total includes approximately $170,000 spent training teachers on the curriculum. Most training was provided by curriculum developers Reading and Writing Project Network, LLC, and some by a local trainer Meghan M. Hargrave, LLC. It is estimated $150,000 was spent on grade-level book lists procured by curriculum developers, including over 100 books purchased for seventh graders from Heinemann’s “Critical Literacy Shelf” under the heading “Fantasy Dystopia”. The balance of spending during the interval was on curriculum and associated instructional materials.

A report by the education consulting group Student Achievement Partners and reported on by APM concluded the instruction "would be unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America's public schoolchildren". Renown literacy research expert Timothy Shanahan wrote “I can’t find a single study that supports its use.”

The curriculum and associated books in use by district 90 come from Lucy Calkins, founder of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia, and Heinemann publishing.

The average River Forest student was reading at about four grades above the national average until 2016. Among other changes, newly hired curriculum director Alison Hawley required teachers to lean into what she described as “balanced literacy”, a program Hawley had implemented before.

Whereas District 90 had been using teacher-explicit instruction in phonics and curricula designed to challenge a range of reading levels, the Calkin’s curriculum “takes a constructivist approach, minimizing direct instruction” writes Sara Schwartz for EducationWeek. Instead of teaching the 44 phonemes used to decode or sound out words, early readers learn to identify words relying on context or pictures, sentence structure and other factors.

In an email, Hawley rationalized eliminating a range of phonics options for “adopting a single resource” saying “teams can enhance their collaborations”.

A Stanford University research group produced an analysis of district 90 data suggesting student growth in English language arts may have ceased completely, even reversed, immediately after implementation of "balanced literacy" in 2016.

The “balanced literacy” approach theorizes easy access and greater interest will translate to greater reading achievement. Hawley instituted new grade-level libraries in the classroom with books procured by Calkins and her publisher Heinemann.

It is uncertain how much money was spent on "balanced literacy" prior to April 2019. Superintendent Condon cited "undue burden on the district" as reason not to provide earlier records.

Alison Hawley was hired in 2016 at $138,500. She was promoted by the district in 2022 to Assistant Superintendent, paid $201,703, and has 43 vacation and sick days per year along with a pension. According to ISBE, the average salary of administrators in Illinois is $116,166 in 2022. While higher pay for better education is something River Forest residents may accept, only time will tell whether they believe decisions like this tip the balance of acceptability.


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