Education system overhaul outlined
The graphic accompanying this article makes stunning promises. Illinois teachers and administrators, your heads are on the chopping blocks. But everyone should read this graphic. After all, isn't it likely other states have made similar promises? After all, Race to the Top is all about who can sell out teachers the most and test students the most.
By Stephanie Banchero
While Illinois residents are focused on election season and budget woes, the state's top education officials have quietly pushed through a sweeping agenda that will transform how students are tested, teachers are rated and failing schools are fixed.
The most provocative reforms will replace the elementary school ISAT with a tougher exam, mandate testing at every grade and rate teachers and principals based on students' test results.
The changes ΓΆ€” which will affect every school district from Amboy to Zion ΓΆ€” are part of the state's effort to secure $500 million in federal grants under the Race to the Top initiative. To be eligible, states had to prove they're willing to revolutionize their education systems.
Illinois submitted its 814-page application last week and will compete against 39 other states for a piece of the $4.35 billion federal pie. Winners will be announced in the spring.
The application presents a utopian view of public schools, where learning goals and tests are aligned from early childhood through college, and special interest groups work together to ensure every child exits the system prepared for a well-paying job.
"The initiatives included in Illinois' application have the power to dramatically improve the education of Illinois students for years to come," said Darren Reisberg, deputy state superintendent. "It allows us to move much more quickly on the reforms the state board was already eager to push."
Not everyone is so enamored with the agenda. Only 40 percent of the state's 869 school districts and 15 percent of the local teacher unions signed letters in support of the application.
Some districts thought there were too many strings attached, according to Diane Rutledge, executive director of the Large Unit District Association. The group represents districts that run both elementary and high schools.
"Some of our districts felt like they would not get many resources, but still would be required to make major changes," Rutledge said.
The bulk of the initiatives detailed in the Race to the Top application will happen whether or not Illinois gets the $500 million ΓΆ€” albeit at a much slower pace.
Race to the Top, President Barack Obama's key education initiative, is a relatively small carrot: only $4.35 billion in a nation that spends about $500 billion annually on public schools. But with state budgets awash in red ink, legislators nationwide are feverishly rewriting laws to align with Obama's vision.
Those who want money must commit to set higher learning goals for students, link teacher pay to student test scores, create more charter schools and overhaul failing schools.
To better position themselves for the federal grant, Illinois lawmakers this summer doubled the number of charter schools allowed and, two weeks ago, required that teacher and principal evaluations be tied to student test scores.
Most of the reforms have been on the state agenda for years but were bollixed up by competing special interest groups. The allure of $500 million cut through the petty bickering.
The two statewide teachers unions, business and foundation leaders and 368 school districts, including Chicago and New Trier and Hinsdale high schools, signed letters in support of the plan.
"Everyone worked together to find consensus on some very difficult issues, and that represents a new collaborative spirit for education reform in Illinois," said John Luczak, education program manager at the Joyce Foundation, who was loaned to Gov. Pat Quinn's office for two months to work on the application.
The 368 districts, which enroll 75 percent of the state's public school students, committed to more bold actions and, consequently, are eligible for more money. If the state wins, half the money goes directly to those districts to help institute the reforms; the remainder goes to the state Board of Education.
Officials with the Illinois Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, acknowledged that Illinois' dire financial picture played a role in the conciliatory mood.
"But we are going into this with a sense of optimism," said Ken Swanson, president of the union. "We felt it was better to be part of the process and a party to its success because we feel it can produce positive results for children and our members."
The most far-reaching state reform calls for creating world-class standards for every grade and a muscular testing system that would gauge student growth several times during the academic year. This gives teachers immediate feedback on where students are falling behind and gives districts notice when teachers are falling short.
Illinois officials are working with 46 states to develop the internationally benchmarked standards, which detail what students should know at each grade.
Right now, students are required to take an end-of-the-year state exam in 3rd through 8th and 11th grade. That won't change under the new reforms. But schools will be required to give interim assessments during the year at every grade level ΓΆ€” likely choosing from a state-approved list of exams.
Details of the assessment changes have not been worked out, but Reisberg said the state plans to scrap the oft-maligned Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
The state also is working on a longitudinal data system that will track individual student progress from preschool through college. This database will allow the public to gauge the quality of preschool, elementary, high school and college institutions based on student outcomes. For example, parents could see how many students from a particular elementary school went on to earn a college degree.
The plan also calls for assessing the school readiness of kindergartners.
But the most controversial state reform is the overhaul of teacher and principal evaluations.
A bevy of new research has shown that student success is dependent in large part on the quality of the classroom teacher. Yet, the teacher rating system is outdated and, for the most part, does not weigh student progress.
A recent study found that only 0.4 of a percent of teachers in the state's largest school districts were rated "unsatisfactory," while 93 percent were "superior" or "excellent." As a result, few teachers are dismissed and raises are awarded largely based on years of service and professional development hours earned.
Under the new law, student academic growth must be a "significant" factor in teacher and principal evaluations. State officials hope to mandate that student progress count for at least 40 percent of the evaluation.
The 368 districts that signed the application agreed to make student growth at least 50 percent of the overall evaluation process ΓΆ€” one of the most rigorous standards in the country. They also agreed to use the evaluations for tenure and dismissal decisions.
The Chicago Teachers Union did not back the state application.
"We support the concept of Race to the Top, but we oppose the idea that teacher dismissal and tenure decisions should be tied to student (academic) growth," said Traci Cobb-Evans, the legislative issues coordinator for the union. "We don't oppose student growth as a partial measure in the evaluation system, but it should not be used as a tool for dismissal."
Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is one of the few districts in the nation that uses test scores to evaluate teachers. Supt. Hardy Murphy said there was a "spirited" debate before the local teachers and administration agreed on the rating system.
"If you can show that children made a year's growth, you should get a raise, and if you can show they made more than a year's growth, doesn't that mean you deserve more money?" Murphy said. "I think it's time we all agree that teachers and school districts should be able to demonstrate that children are better off for having been in their schools."
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