By Nona Tepper
Forest Park District 91 school board members approved spending $47,520 on bias training for all staff next year at a meeting on July 11. In a statement, the Forest Park Teachers' Association (FPTA) said it was "pleased" D91 was undertaking the initiative, and staff looked forward to learning how to become more equitable in classroom practices.
"Inequity is a very real problem in today's educational world. It is encouraging that our district is choosing to tackle this systemic bias," the FPTA statement said.
"While we do not know the implementation plan for this endeavor, we look forward to the positive impact this work will have for Forest Park's children and families."
At the meeting, board member Eric Connor said he was "fully supportive" of the training but wondered if there was a way to track the program's efficacy.
"Is it ever measurable to see whether it's been effective?" Connor asked. "Because we're investing a good amount of money in the training, and there's always a downside to burdening teachers with additional training because it takes away from other things that they do. So I'd like to have at least some idea that measurements could be made to see whether the cost effectiveness is there."
Last year, board members received training from the National Equity Project, an Oakland-based leadership organization that helps individuals identify biases, and aims to address the academic achievement gap between majority and minority students. Connor called the training "excellent and eye opening" but wondered if, after staff receive the training, they could receive bias testing to measure the program's progress, if students could be surveyed to see if there's been a change in their feelings toward school or themselves, or if academic results could be analyzed.
"The objective is that we raise awareness that everybody suffers from implicit bias; regardless of what level it's at, everybody does. It's human nature to have biases. The question for me is, does it affect the child's ability to learn? And if it does, then we need to identify those areas where that bias is affecting," Connor said.
He noted that D91 has been asking students about their feelings toward school, but he thought the survey was "terribly flawed."
Over the past few years, D91 has been surveying students on three points: If they believe classmates help each other, even if they're not friends; treat others who are different from them with respect; and feel that staff cares about them. While the vast majority of D91 students have consistently responded positively to survey points, the number of favorable responses declined during the 2018-2019 school year, compared to years before.
At a board meeting in June, Superintendent Louis Cavallo said students could be suffering from survey fatigue, since the district has presented students with the same questions approximately five times, and D91 also didn't have time to survey the eighth-graders this year on progress toward the district's social and emotional goals, essentially making the results from the previous year incomparable with years before. He said D91 would not be administering the survey again.
"There has to be some correlation between what we're doing on the equity front to results that we perhaps see down the road," Connor said, noting that staff training on bias was not intended to be a "one and done" issue.
Board member Katherine Valleau said staff results from implicit bias training will be quantitative and qualitative. If the district were to try and collect data on staff progress, she said there might be too much to measure over an extended period of time. "That's a ball of wax on its own," she said.
Ed Brophy, assistant superintendent of operations, said if the district were to measure staff understanding of their biases, they would need to wait an appropriate amount of time and, initially, it would be a project for staff to reflect on their own, so the results would not be presented to the board. When the board received training from the National Equity Project last year, he said, the line that resonated most with him was, "Before you try to measure anything, you have to look at yourself."
"We could look at how other community entities, whether it's school districts or villages, have tried to evaluate the progress on their initiative like this, and we could decide whether we think that those efforts should be replicated here," Brophy said.
"To be fully realistic, that's something we would share after we've had enough of the experience to make some determinations and make some conclusions, and that's not going to be until the end of the next school year. So we're going to have to look at how do folks try to measure this and what would be the purpose of measuring it, besides just trying to make sure resources were invested, and if we could see some outcome from that. It's going to start with people looking at themselves first and that's easily the first year, if not two or three."
Board president Kyra Tyler agreed that the trainings require a "significant" amount time and resources. Once teachers are trained, she said, hearing their perspective on it is "critical."
"Not that it's like, 'We need to see that it's working.' It's not that. I would like to know how it's landing, what the take on it is," Tyler said.
She also called for staff to submit brief responses — without names but perhaps numbers given as identifiers — about the training, as well as surveys given to students to find out what they think of teacher, staff and administrator behavior after the equity training.
"I feel passionately about this. I am not as convinced about a black and white survey to determine this," Tyler said.