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“There’s tension around phonics” but not with River Forest parents?

Asst. Superintendent of Instruction Alison Hawley told District 90 board members “there is tension around phonics”. In recounting her recent interviews with K-4th grade teachers on the subject she said, “they were not hearing concerns from parents or families”. She reported just one teacher saying they had heard from just one parent.

Hawley’s comments were in stark contrast to board president Barb Hickey who said, “I’ve heard concerns in the community” and “we do need to provide reassure to the community that what are doing here is meeting the needs of our kids”. Hickey shared it was the district 90 board that called Hawley to account for the reading instruction materials she instituted five years ago at the March 20, 2023, board meeting (discussion begins 1:01).

There is anecdotal evidence of “tension” between Elementary schools that received some validation on Monday. Board member Katie Avalos said a source of tension is “in that the two different (elementary) schools have a little bit different feelings about the curriculum”. The ISBE report card website shows 77% of all Lincoln Elementary students are ready to advance in English language arts whereas that number is 65% for Willard Elementary students.

“Systems change”, “standardization”, and “collaboration”, not achievement, were reasons given by Hawley for why a curriculum called Units of Study from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and Lucy Calkins was introduced five years ago. She pointed squarely at a 2018 committee “of mostly teachers” for making the decision, despite Hawley’s history with the program and that some teachers reported being given a choice between two bad options. “Previously teachers had a lot more freedom” and “the level of accountability (before Calkins) was not what it is today”, said Hawley on Monday.

The curriculum received the “lowest ratings EdReports has given for K-2 curricula in English/language arts”. Renown literacy research expert Tim Shannahan wrote “I can’t find a single study that supports its use” referring to the comprehension component in now in use at Roosevelt, that also seems to be creating "tension" according to Hawley. Emily Hanford, education reporter for APM, has reported on the topic voluminously and it seems River Forest may too have been “Sold a Story” on the meaning of "best practices".

When Hickey asked for the boards interest in reviewing the curriculum two staunch proponents of standardizing education pushed back. Rich Moore, who had policy responsibility for the district and helped usher in the new reading curriculum, defended it saying, “I think we would have known by now if the teachers didn’t believe that they had the tools to teach English language arts in D90”. Moore may not be aware teachers did give their instructional leadership the worst rating in school history via the states 5 Essentials Survey immediately following Hawley’s wholesale changes to curriculum and instruction. He added “I think we’re over-reacting to a vocal small group of people”. This despite ISBE reports district-wide, 38% of students did not meet English language arts standards in 2022.

Board member Sarah Eckmann, backed by Rich Moore in her 2022 distict 90 campaign, said she has two children that use the reading program at River Forest’s Willard Elementary and rebutted the call for review saying, “our children are getting what they need” and that a review would be reactive to “a lot of misinformation out there spread by certain people”.

No examples of misinformation were offered by Eckmann; however, one example of what might be incomplete information surfaced often in the discussion – “we’ve always taught phonics”. The sentiment, offered by at least Hawley, Moore, Eckmann, and Williams seemed to imply all phonics curriculum and instruction are created equal or should produce a similar result. A thoughtful discussion on whether this is true or not from a true literacy research expert can be found here.

The “information topic” concluded with Superintendent Ed Condon recommending the administration provide a series of options for any further attention to the English language arts materials in District 90.

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