In Illinois, white public school students are significantly outperforming Hispanic and African-American students. Now, a suburban school district is trying to take this so-called achievement gap into its own hands. The district believes the answer to closing that gap may not just be in how good a teacher is, but what race the teacher is.
In the affluent suburb of River Forest, Public School District 90 is engaged in a bold experiment to help minority students perform better. Or a misguided form of bureaucratic overreach, depending on your point of view.
District Superintendent Ed Condon says that all of their students perform at about the same level in first grade, but for minority students, the performance gap widens between second and eighth grades.
“There is a noticeable gap, and it’s something that we believe as a school district we need to address,” Condon said.
In River Forest, administrators believe the racial makeup of teachers has something to do with that. The student body is 28 percent minority, but the faculty is only 7 percent minority. Condon says he thinks a new policy of hiring more minority teachers will help improve student performance.
“The thinking behind that reflects the idea that for youngsters to see themselves in the adults and role models in their lives can be very powerful,” Condon said.
It’s a controversial policy that relies on the assumption that a student can learn better from a teacher who comes from his or her own cultural backgound.
“Young people see teachers as role models, so if people in their lives that they affiliate with and have a connection with play a significant influence, that can be a really powerful asset.”
The district’s school board voted to adopt the new hiring policy that includes diversity training to stamp out implicit bias and stereotyping and promote cultural awareness.
“Being a part of this group has opened my mind more and more to being more thoughtful to different groups of kids and what culture they’re coming from and their home lives and their backgrounds,” said District 90 special education teacher Sharon Leiter-Weintraub.
While administrators in River Forest hope the new policies lead to improved performance for minority students and a closing of the performance gap, some parents fear that the policies amount to social engineering and could promote reverse discrimination.
River Forest resident Brian Timpone says he took his kids out of public schools partly for this reason, and made it known at a recent board meeting.
“Does anyone here have any level of skepticism at all about any of this?” he asked to board members. “Is it just me?”
Timpone says he thinks the performance gap is based more on income than race and calls the new policies dangerous.
“It’s ridiculous, there’s no data or evidence supporting that any of these ideas have ever worked when tried,” he said. “Parents don’t know that this is happening in their community. This is a small group of left wing activists that want to push their social engineering on the rest of the community … if the rest of the community did know, they’d be as outraged as I am. … They’re sending teachers to indoctrination camps led by race-hustling consultants. It’s truly almost totalitarian in what they are trying to achieve.”
But Condon pushes back on any notion of social engineering.
“Students that feel as though they’re valued by their teachers are more successful in the classroom, and seeing yourself represented by the adults in the school is one of those elements that builds that opportunity,” he said.
Condon admits that he doesn’t plan to replace any existing teachers with minority teachers, and that it’ll take years to tell if the new policies make the grade.
According to the Illinois Board of Education, in 2016 Caucasian students scored 20 percent higher than Hispanic students on the PARCC exam, and 26 percent higher than African-American students.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz
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