River Forest School District 90 makes “equality of outcome their primary goal”; sees record-low test scores for students


West Cook News reported that River Forest School District 90 changed curriculum and teaching methods “to prioritize equalizing white and black student test scores, rather than simply raising them.” The school district’s actions are now reportedly “leading to worst-ever outcomes for River Forest students.” The news outlet analyzed Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) test score data and found that “students posted record-low scores in English and math in 2021” in what has become a five-year slide since the changes were implemented.

West Cook News continued to report that “some four in ten River Forest students in grades K-8 are testing below their grade level and are deemed ‘not ready for the next level.'” The news outlet explained that the school district’s “79 black students, who make up about six percent of the district total of 1,400, have fared worst of all.” West Cook News stated: “In 2021, just one in four black River Forest students tested at grade level in mathematics, down 12 percentage points from 2019.” Additionally, black students were also struggling more in English, “with three in ten at grade level, down 14 points from 2019.”

The news outlet further reported that then-School Board President Ralph Martire had previously created and chaired an “Equity Committee” that proposed changes for how educators in the district taught students by “making equality of outcome their primary goal.” He then tasked the Board of Education with adopting the new curriculum. West Cook News explained:

He emphasized a methodology called UDL, or “Universal Design for Learning,” which deems it racist to let high-achieving students learn ahead of their lower-achieving peers, or to emphasize test performance over so-called “social-emotional” priorities.

West Cook News also shared the school district’s “Student/Family Handbook 2021-2022.” This handbook explains how the school district adopted a “Universal Design for Learning” approach. However, the handbook also explains more recent policies that the school district has adopted. The handbook mentions a new policy with a provision “for students to be treated and supported in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity.” The handbook states:

The Board policy and corresponding Administrative Procedures strive to promote the educational and social integration of transgender and gender-expansive students. Together, the Board policy and Administrative procedures ensure a safe, affirming, and healthy school environment that is free of harassment and bullying for every student, including those who identify as transgender or gender-expansive.

Steve Lefko wrote in a column for the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest that student scores in math were favorable until 2017 when the school district adopted “The Crosswalk, the district’s Vision for Equity initiative that involved a range of activities aimed at reducing the racial predictability of achievement.” Mr. Lefko explains:

The new math and English language arts curricula are illustrative of the changes. According to the National Center for Education Evaluation, whereas the teacher’s role in the former math curriculum (Math Expressions) was to explain, model and facilitate the production of ideas, the new curriculum (Investigations) relies on the student production of ideas. The new ELA curriculum is from the controversial Lucy Calkins. Instead of teaching the 44 phonemes used to decode or sound out words, early readers learn to identify words by relying on context or pictures, sentence structure and other factors. Classroom libraries and books of choice have replaced leveled reading materials designed to target appropriate challenge and resulting growth.

Steve Lefko is part of a parent group called “Equity and Excellence in Education.” The parent group reported that the school district’s curriculum change was spearheaded by a curriculum director hired by the district in 2016 who was “excited by the opportunity to implement social justice equity in education.” The Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest reported that the Board of Education hired this person at a $138,500 salary.

The Cook County Record reported that the legal group “Liberty Justice Center” has “accused [the school district] of violating Illinois’ open meetings law in the past few years, allegedly failing at times to post required records from the meeting, and failing at times to notify the public that a meeting was being held, even as the district changed its strategic plans and curriculum in the name of promoting equity.” A lawyer from Liberty Justice Center sent a letter to the school district on behalf of Steve Lefko “outlining a series of alleged violations allegedly committed by the district’s Board of Education in the way it conducted a number of committee and subcommittee meetings since at least 2019.” The Cook County Record then provided the alleged violations that the Liberty Justice Center accused the school district of committing:

  • Failed to properly notify the public of upcoming meetings, including at least one instance when the board “neglected to even publish the existence of a meeting” on its website.
  • Failed to properly file minutes from meetings that meet the standards spelled out in the Open Meetings Act, including at times, not publishing a summary of what was discussed at the meeting, “who was present at the meeting, what they said, or how they voted.”
  • Failed to properly record proceedings of District 90 committees meeting in closed session.
  • Failed to abide, at times, by the district’s own policies, which require the board to post audio of board meetings on the district’s website.
  • Attempted to argue District 90’s “Equity group” and its “Policy Committee” aren’t subject to the Open Meetings Act, because the group and committee are either “specifically for employees” or are advisory committees to the board. In his letter, [the Liberty Justice Center’s attorney] said that argument is “fatally flawed,” because the Open Meetings Act says its rules concerning notice and minutes should apply to “all … administrative or advisory bodies of … school districts.”
  • Failed to properly notify the public and to properly vote to close the Equity group and Policy Committee meetings to the public.

The Cook County Record continued to report that “separately from the letter, Lefko noted the district’s Equity committee was created and chaired, at least for a time, by former District 90 Board President Ralph Martire.” The news outlet further reported that “Lefko said it appears that committee provided recommendations to the Board of Education to implement.” However, the Liberty Justice Center and Mr. Lefko “do not know what exactly District 90 officials discussed at the various committee meetings that are the subject of the Feb. 24 letter.”

The Cook County Record also reported that the Liberty Justice Center has “not yet threatened District 90 with legal action to rectify the alleged Open Meetings Act violations.” As of now, the Liberty Justice Center’s attorney said that the legal group and Mr. Lefko would “like to see District 90 update its policies to bring itself into compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”

On February 22, 2022, the district’s Board of Education adopted a policy titled “Equal Employment Opportunity and Minority Recruitment.” The policy includes “gender identity” as a protected class. The policy also states that the school district will specifically “recruit and hire minority employees.”

On August 20, 2018, the school district adopted a policy titled “Educational Philosophy and Objectives.” The policy provides the school district’s “objectives” with several appearing political in nature. These objectives include:

  • To develop an awareness of and appreciation for cultural diversity.
  • To help each student develop sensitivity to the needs and values of others and a respect for individual and group differences.
  • To be free of any sexual, cultural, ethnic, or religious bias.

On February 22, 2022, the school district adopted a policy titled “Curriculum Content.” The policy states that “history must be taught” in all of the district’s schools. However, this history includes “a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the history of the U.S. and Illinois.”

On February 22, 2022, the school district adopted a policy titled “Equal Educational Opportunities.” The policy states: “No student shall, based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity be denied access to programs, activities, services, or benefits or be limited in the exercise of any right, privilege, advantage, or denied equal access to educational and extracurricular programs and activities. Students shall be treated and supported in a manner consistent with their gender identity.” Students can file a “sex equity complaint” in regard to this policy.

The school district’s website has a page labeled “Inclusiveness and Equity.” The school district states on the page that “as our world becomes more global and our communities more diverse, it is incumbent on District 90 to prepare all our students for the multicultural world that awaits them.” The school district then explains that it is in the process of updating the curriculum taught by teachers to promote “diversity, inclusiveness, and educational equity”:

District 90 is undertaking a coordinated and complementary approach to the issues of diversity, inclusiveness, and educational equity. Both the Inclusiveness Advisory Board (IAB) and the Board of Education’s Equity Committee are tasked with making the District intentionally inclusive and educationally equitable. However, both groups have distinct responsibilities. The IAB has been charged with developing a better understanding about issues of diversity and inclusiveness within the District 90 school community, as a whole. While the Board of Education’s Equity Committee will be investigating educational equity as it relates to the student performance gap across a variety of diversity dimensions. Based on the work of both groups, the District will be considering additional initiatives to improve inclusiveness and equity in areas such as professional development, community outreach, and instructional practices.

The page then promotes “Gender Equity and Inclusiveness.” The school district states: “As part of our efforts to promote inclusiveness and equity for all students, about 14 months ago the Board of Education created the Ad Hoc Gender Inclusiveness Committee to support the equal opportunity and inclusion for transgender and gender expansive students.”

The school district promotes its “Inclusiveness and Equity” agenda.

The school district has a “2020-2025 Strategic Plan” called “District 90 Vision.” One purpose of this vision is “creating caring, empathetic learners who are equipped with the social and emotional skills to value and respect individual and cultural differences.” The vision also has five goals for the school district with one being to provide “equitable opportunities and resources.” The vision explains that this means to “upgrade existing facilities to create progressive and productive learning and working environments.”

In a document promoting an initiative called “Focus 2020,” the school district explains that it will “continue to support, and implement anew when necessary, those innovative instructional programs and systems that will narrow the achievement gap and provide each child with the development of critical thinking skills and equitable opportunities to achieve at their highest potential.” This includes:

  • Continue to implement the new District 90 6-8 math curriculum with fidelity.
  • Continue to implement the new District 90 K-8 literacy curriculum with fidelity.
  • Provide ongoing staff development on issues of equity and inclusivity for all stakeholder groups; maintain partnership with the National Equity Project (NEP) to aid in pursuit of key equity initiatives.
  • Ensure high quality professional development/training for faculty members leading the transition to a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework throughout the District.

The school district’s website also has a document titled “National Equity Project (NEP) ‘Equity Network Team’ Progress Update” from November 16, 2020. The NEP document states that teachers should become “#rebelleaders.” The document then explains: “Rebel leadership now requires that each of us SEE the system, ENGAGE and ACT differently than we ever have before.” The document then has questions for teachers to ask themselves:

  • How am I positioned (relative to privilege and/or oppression) in all aspects of my identities (e.g. race, class, gender, language)?
  • How might these identities impact people and our process?
  • What is unfamiliar to me here?
  • Expand your equity consciousness by seeking out new information about privilege and oppression.

The document also tells teachers to “recognize oppression.” The document states: “If we are able to see root causes and systemic inequities more clearly, our design work has the potential to address deeper needs. Our design process should build our capacity to recognize oppression at play at individual, institutional, and structural levels.”

The school district’s website also has a document titled “Increasing Student Voice in District 90” from a “Committee of the Whole Meeting” on December 7, 2021. The document provides definitions for the terms “Symbolic Student Voice” and “Transformative Student Voice.” The definition for Symbolic Student Voice is “student leaders who are already winning in the current structures and policies, engage exclusively in youth facing leadership activities while young people are excluded from structural decision making.” The definition for Transformative Student Voice is “student leaders, who may or may not already be winning at the structures currently in place, participate in school policy discussions and help transform school structures to be more equitable and representative.”

The document then provides definitions for “adultism,” “tokenism,” “decoration,” and “design barriers.” The definition for “adultism” is described as “adults are perceived to be the keepers of all truth.” The definition for “tokenism” is the “involvement of students for show, no actual influence applies.” The definition for “decoration” is that “student engagement is window dressing to affirm adult decisions.” The definition for “design barriers” is that “student voice is dampened by structural impediments that hinder authentic participation in decision-making realms.”

The document then lists efforts that the school district is implementing to increase “student voice”:

  • PERTS Copilot/Elevate – learning platform enabling teachers to get rapid feedback from students about how they are experiencing key classroom learning conditions (pilot)
  • Student Membership on Essential District Committees – including Inclusiveness Advisory Board (IAB), Board of Education Equity, Communication, and Education Committees
  • District 90 Student Focus Groups – voluntary option for students in grades 7 and 8 to provide feedback about school district issues (planned for Q3)
  • RMS Oral Communications Course (social justice focus)

The school district’s website additionally has a page promoting Social Emotional Learning (SEL). The school district promotes the “five SEL competencies identified” by CASEL. These competencies are “self-awareness,” “responsible decision-making,” “relationship skills,” “social awareness,” and “self-management.”

CASEL is an organization that works with school districts throughout the country to use SEL in an effort to push “equity” and “social justice” in education. On July 1, 2020, CASEL promoted “racial justice” in discussing its roadmap for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. In explaining the importance of the reopening process for schools, the organization stated that “this moment called on all members of our school communities to deepen our social and emotional competencies and create equitable learning environments where all students and adults process, heal, and thrive.” CASEL also published a video in 2020 titled “SEL As a Lever for Equity and Social Justice.”

CASEL promotes “racial justice” in its roadmap for reopening schools.