Freshman Curriculum Restructuring

Equity & Excellence through Access for All

UPDATE On Feb. 27, 2020, the administration and Faculty Senate presented this joint statement to the Board of Education: 

"The OPRF administration and the Faculty Senate are jointly committed to the district’s plan to address the racial predictability of our freshman enrollment patterns and performance outcomes. We have been working together to ensure that the majority of our freshman students experience one high-level, rigorous curriculum in English, history, science, and world languages; we are also making curricular adjustments in math. Over the past several months, we have started developing the new curriculum, identifying professional development needs, and establishing support structures to ensure that all students benefit from this shift. In the course of the process, one thing has become clear: in order to carry out our plan with fidelity, the implementation date must be shifted to the fall of 2022. This adjusted timeline will realistically enable us to provide our students with the level of educational experience that they deserve.  We look forward to continuing our collaboration to ensure that Oak Park and River Forest High School provides those things that are best for all students."

The priorities of the district’s strategic plan include increasing access to rigorous curriculum and eliminating race, socioeconomic status, and other social factors as predictors of student success.  In 2022-2023 (originally planned to be 2021-2022), to increase access to honors level coursework for all students, the high school plans to switch to a single curriculum for freshman English, science, history, and world languagesAll students in these classes will have the opportunity to earn honors credit.

Frequently Asked Questions

To see answers to additional questions asked at our four community meetings, click here.

Beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, freshmen will no longer be separated into class levels of college preparatory or the more demanding honors. Instead, they will be given the chance to earn honors credit through one, high-level, rigorous curriculum.

Yes. We are not eliminating any honors or AP classes. In fact, our intent is to expand access to such classes.

Because the research is clear: Increasing access to more rigorous curriculum increases achievement

OPRF, like schools throughout the United States, has been grappling with how to address differences in student outcomes that are predictable by race, commonly referred to as the achievement gap. Here at OPRF, however, we view it as an opportunity gap. Providing more students with access to honors-level experiences from the moment they enter our school will provide them with the opportunity to achieve at the highest levels throughout high school. In order to create this access, we need to challenge our mindsets: We don’t need to fix students. We need to fix the system.

Currently, we rely heavily on standardized test scores to guide placement recommendations. Using such limited data, before we even know firsthand who our students are as learners, has led to racially predictable course placements. Freshman honors classes contain predominantly white students, and college prep classes disproportionately comprise students of color. Eliminating course levels will not diminish the rigorous experience students and families expect from OPRF. Instead, it will create a culture in which as many students as possible will have the chance to develop their full potential and are best prepared for post-high school success.

Not necessarily. While college is the right choice for many students,  a variety of other options such as technical education, skill-based certifications, entrepreneurial opportunities, the military, and so on can lead to rewarding work of the student’s choice. Promoting academic achievement in high school will help all students reach their post-high school goals, no matter what path they pursue.

There are different notions of what tracking really is. For us, where there had been separate college prep and honors classes, we are moving to a single, rigorous, honors-level curriculum. So in that sense, yes, we are detracking much of the freshman curriculum. In order to inform this work, we are drawing heavily from the detracking literature. This is an evidenced-based practice that will enhance learning for all of our students.

We are confident that our approach to rollout will avoid this potential pitfall. Maintaining the rigor of curricular programming is paramount in our focus here. Evidence shows that increasing access to honors-level content can have the effect of raising achievement for all students, including higher-performing students. We are spending the next two years developing our own practices as educators to help ensure that this initiative enhances the learning experiences of all of our students.

No—in fact, just the opposite. All of the freshman core courses that are part of this change will provide honors-level content. So rather than presume a student can’t handle an honors curriculum and assign them to a lower level, every student in those classes will begin with a clean slate and the chance to earn honors credit.

Based on our existing Models of Science pathway, we know this approach works. These unleveled, demographically diverse science courses in chemistry, physics, and biology provide all the students who take them with the option of earning honors credit. The premise here is that students should be granted honors status based on the quality of their learning, not the class they find themselves in. Our data validates that these mixed-ability classes fully prepare students for high levels of learning: The AP test scores for students in the Models sequence are on par with their peers in the AP level science classes. 

Again, our data shows that this has not been the case for students who’ve come from our Models of Science sequence. In addition, health and myriad electives in the arts, computer science, business education, history, etc., have never been categorized as college prep or honors; they have always had students of mixed abilities. Nevertheless, we are spending two years providing professional development to teachers and developing supports for students, to ensure that we meet the needs of all learners.

Absolutely not. Students in mixed-ability classes do as well or even better than students in homogenous classes. In fact, with the option of earning honors credit open to all, more students will have the chance to pursue the path of their choice.

We are being extremely deliberate with the research, planning, and implementation. We took last school year to evaluate the entire freshman curriculum. Course enrollment trends, as well as feedback from student focus groups, told us that more students are ready for an honors challenge their freshman year. After analyzing the results from our year of study, the path forward became clear: We need to provide as many students as possible with rigorous, challenging curriculum.

We are taking two years to roll out this initiative:

  • 2019-2020: A planning year. Teachers and administrators are researching teaching practices, data-driven instruction, culturally responsive teaching, etc. No change to curriculum.
  • 2020-2021: A piloting  year. A year of piloting and gathering data on changes to teaching practices, data-driven instruction, culturally responsive teaching, etc. No change to curriculum.
  • 2021-2022: Implementation year. The new, unleveled freshman curriculum will begin.   

In collaboration with our racial equity initiative, we are crafting a professional development plan that will address a culture of warmth, culturally relevant instruction, and tailoring instruction to students’ differing learning needs and styles.

Over the next two years, we will be exploring research-based methods of how best to provide students with appropriate academic and social-emotional support.

Yes. Considerable educational research supports this path forward; please see studies to the right. Most notably:

  • Grouping students by a limited number of data points consistently—and often inaccurately—stratifies students by race and class. It also is linked to lower achievement for students in lower levels.
  • Studies have shown that students assigned to low-ability groups score lower on standardized assessments than if they had been placed in mixed-ability classes.
  • Our own grade data supports the last finding. It shows that when students in our college prep classes are placed in heterogeneous settings, their performance improves.
  • Research as well as anecdotal evidence shows that when implemented, equal access is tied to success for all students.

Part of our research in 2019-2020 is to determine the process of earned-honors credit. We will learn from what we have already implemented in our Models of Science sequence, as well as from schools that have made similar changes.

All parents and community members are invited to the following informational sessions, regardless of whether you have children attending these schools:

  • OPRF High School: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.
  • Brooks Middle School: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.
  • Roosevelt Middle School: Thursday, Oct. 3, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.
  • Julian Middle School: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.

Info from Community Meetings

September 18, 2019

  • Click here to download a PDF of the presentation.

  • Click here to view the video of the Sept. 18, 2019, presentation.

October 2, 3 & 9, 2019

  • Click here to download a PDF of the presentation, which contains some revisions for clarity.

  • Click here to view the video of the Oct. 9, 2019, presentation.


"Accelerating Mathematics Achievement Using Heterogeneous Grouping," by Carol Corbett Burris, Jay P. Heubert, and Henry M. Levin, American Educational Research Journal, Spring 2006. Longitudinal study on providing accelerated mathematics curriculum to all 8th graders in a diverse suburban school district. Performance of high-achieving students showed no statistical difference when compared to their previous homogeneously grouped classes. Additionally, scores on placement and Advanced Placement tests improved over time.

"Accountability, Rigor, and Detracking: Achievement Effects of Embracing a Challenging Curriculum as a Universal Good for All Students," by Carol Corbett Burris, Teachers College Record, March 2008.

"Alternative Approaches to the Politics of Detracking," by Kevin Welner and Carol Corbett Burris, Theory Into Practice, Winter 2006

“Choosing Tracks: ‘Freedom of Choice’ in Detracking Schools,” by Susan Yonezawa, Amy Stuart Wells, and Irene Serna, American Educational Research Journal, Spring 2002. 

“Detracked--and Going Strong,” by Peter Bavis, Phi Delta Kappan, Nov. 28, 2016. Highlights detracking Evanston Township High School. Positive outcomes include noticeable gain on ACT scores across all demographic groups. 

"Detracking: The Social Construction of Ability, Cultural Politics, and Resistance to Reform," by Jeannie Oakes, Amy Stuart Wells, Makeba Jones, and Amanda Datnow, Teachers College Record, Spring 1997. 

"Does Educational Tracking Affect Performance and Inequality? Differences-in-Differences Evidence Across Countries," by Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann, National Bureau of Economic Research, February 2005. Analysis of different tracking arrangements in 20 international institutions. Results suggest tracking is linked to lower overall performance and increase in inequity. 

"Four Decades of Research on the Effects of Detracking Reform: Where Do We Stand? A Systematic Review of the Evidence," by Ning Rui, Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine, 2009. Meta-analysis of 15 studies found that detracking consistently demonstrated positive effects on low-ability achievement with no measureable effects on average- to high-ability student achievement.

"Honoring All Learners: The Case for Embedded Honors in Heterogeneous English Language Arts Classrooms," by David Nurenberg, English Education, October 2016. 

“Matchmaking: The Dynamics of High School Tracking,” by Jeannie Oakes and Gretchen Guiton, American Educational Research Journal, Spring 1995. Cornerstone article in detracking literature. Three-year longitudinal study of detracking in 10 racially and socio-economically diverse high schools. Found that detracking efforts confront and should attend to assumptions about power, control, and legitimacy in schools that manifest in how students are viewed as learners.   

“Readiness for College: The Role of Noncognitive Factors and Context,” by Jenny Nagaoka, Camille A. Farrington, Melissa Roderick, Elaine Allensworth, Tasha Seneca Keyes, David W. Johnson, and Nicole O. Beechum, VUE, Fall 2013. 

"Sustained Inquiry in Education: Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size," by Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light, and Jason A. Sachs, Harvard Educational Review, Winter 1996. Analysis of literature found lack of available evidence to support current form of tracking in U.S. schools.

"Tracking Detracking: Sorthing through the Dilemmas and Possibilities of Detracking in Practice," by Beth C. Rubin and Pedro A. Noguera, Equity & Excellence in Education, 2004.

"Whole-School Detracking: A Strategy for Equity and Excellence," by Doris Alvarez and Hugh Mehan, Theory Into Practice, Winter 2006.