Sunday, February 20, 2011

Excellence & Equality In Evanston

I was very pleased when President Obama spoke about the need for a "Sputnik Moment," calling on the United States to focus its energy on improving educational outcomes. The President is correct, our economic competitiveness and creativity is inseparable from the level of achievement of our students. Unfortunately, excellence does not seem to figure prominently in the hierarchy of progressive values. Of course, most liberals value achievement, however excellence is almost always eclipsed by their focus on perceived social goods, such as achieving equality of outcomes. This was apparent when Evanston Township High School eliminated an honors English class for freshman, because African-Americans were underrepresented in the said class. Administrators responded to outraged parents with the dubious claim that "high achievement students will profit from experiencing multiple perspective and diversity in their classes to gain cultural capital..."

This is not an isolated incident; in the Masters in Education Program at Loyola University, my professors were virtually unanimous in their opposition to academic tracking and levels. They believed that "solidarity," "diversity" and "equity" trumped the need to maximize achievement. This may have been feasible when the United States towered over the world, but now that we are competing against rapidly rising powers like China, India and South Korea, we do not have this luxury. We must do all that is possible to foment achievement and excellence. And while the administrators are correct that we must bridge the achievement gaps that exist between different ethnic groups, stifling our best and brightest, committed and capable students is not the way to achieve this.

Evanston High School Drops Honors Course

Jim Breeling


By Jim Breeling

Being an elected member of a public school board must be one of the toughest jobs in a democratic society. Unless committed to some political or educational creed that puts ideology first and students as an afterthought, the board member seeks to do "what's best" for students when it is often not at all clear what "best" may be.

Constraints on good decision-making are mines in a mapless minefield: budgetary allocations, teacher hiring/firing/retention, selection and purchase of educational materials (hard- and software)), objective measurement of academic achievement by the student bodies, how to improve academic performanc if that becomes an issue (as it almost always does), security and student safety, quality of foods if the school has a school breakfast ot lunch program, and etc., etc., etc.

An etc. that can be a very explosive constraint on objective decision-making is social/cultural/racial diversity of the student body, with related issues of equity in access to highest quality education, and fairness in assessment of academic performance.

Dealing with these "diversity" issues opens questions as broad as any in a democratic society--e.g., what are the pruposes of public education in a democratic society? What roles should public education fill in addressing social/cultural/racial inequities? Are these questions that need to be addressed by the elected board of an individual public school?

A question that has nefarious connotations but one that a board member must ask is whether standards of academic performance should be altered to accomodate more "fairness" in access to education. What is "best" for students? Would "best" be most harmoniously achieved by some form of compromise?

Evanston Township High School District 202 board members spent agonizing weeks in addressing just such issues, and ended up with a compromise (Chicago Tribune December 12, 2010). The board ended up voting unanimously to eliminate an honors English course for entering freshmen who have records as high academic achievers. The ratio of white to "minority" students in the high-achieving freshmen has usually been heavily skewed to whites. This statistic prompted the question for the school board to address: Did this honors course for entering freshmen begin a process of differentiating high-achieving white students from "other", a process that could influence how students are perceived academically all the way through high school? According to the Tribune story, data collected by the school show that white students are far more likely to qualify for honors and Advanced Placement courses with high academic standards and "stepping stones" to continuation in education after high school.

Did the board make the "best" decision for all students? Many parents of students thought not, and made their views known at board meetings and by petitions. In the end, however, the board voted to do away with the freshman honors course that selected students based on test scores--a method felt unfair to minorities. The decision is seen as a move toward opening academically advanced courses to a broader range of students.

It may be that the decision was the best that the board could make, given all constraints on decision-making. The decision does not affect me personally because I do not live in Evanston and know no students who attend this school. I do, however, regret the board's decision. I regret a decision that fails to encourage intellectual achievement--no matter if achievement is assessed by test scores.

There is a powerful current of anti-intellectualism in American culture and students of high intellectual achievement should be encouraged to swim against it. Among sub-teen and teen-age students there is often powerful peer pressure to be a low academic achiever, to be "cool" or whatever sobriquet is current for putting a high value on low academic performance. Students need all the help they can get to resist such peer pressure.

It is unfortunate that in order to be broadly equitable in opening educational opportunity, a school board must close its eyes to the presence of intellectually exceptional students and let them find their own way to a properly stimulating education.

The effect of anti-intellectualism in American life is now on display in the publication of 2009 data by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. PISA compares academic performance of 15-year-olds from 60 countries in science, mathemetics and reading. An average score is 500. The 5,233 U.S. students from 165 schools scored 487 in mathematics (31st place in rankings), 502 in science (23rd place in rankings), and 500 in reading (15th place in rankings. Not too many years ago, U.S. students were at or near the top in academic performance. In 2009 PISA ranking, students in Shanghai outperformed all others in all categories. Students in China, Japan, Korea and Singapore were high performers in all categories.
Tagged Evanston township high school district 202 decision--oh my

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