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Illinois Group Wants Land of Lincoln to Emulate Bay State

When a report on a state's educational system begins with, "As a state and a nation, we risk losing our academic edge as the rest of the world sharpens theirs," you can prepare yourself for a lot of gloomy statistics, and this Advance Illinois report on K-12 schools in the Land of Lincoln is no different. It finds that only a third of students finish the 4th grade proficient in reading, and only 29 percent of 9th graders "persist" to obtain some kind of college degree.

But I want to focus on something else in the study from the group, which has as its board members political and business people who displace a lot of water, so to speak, like William M. Daley, former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, and Edward Rust, chairman and CEO of State Farm Insurance.

What's interesting to look at in these kind of PDF files is the recommendations, coming on the heels of all those lugubrious numbers. So what does Advance Illinois say should be done? The group argues that Massachusetts presents an excellent model to follow in several respects. Among the plaudits they toss the Bay State's way include a historical look at the way "state leaders crafted high expectations with collaboration" through a 40-member commission and 16 public hearings. That process led to a "common core" of learning that prefigured the Common Core State Standards. The report highlights the fact that Massachusetts lawmakers passed a 2010 law "that provided greater flexibility to intervene in chronically low-performing schools," and that the the state "expects educators to master not only the content they will teach but also the pedagogy of teaching."

And, like the GOP's presidential candidate, former Bay State Gov. Mitt Romney, the report points to the fact that Massachusetts students "lead the nation" as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Using the Massachusetts model will help the study's K-12 goals, its authors say, of "involved families" and "effective leaders" and "collaborative teachers," among others. What's absent from the report are specific policy prescriptions suggesting "more charters" or "introducing school vouchers" or (on the more traditional end of the spectrum) "increasing school funding." (Such items are mentioned, of course. Funding for example, is cited in the context of equitable district resources in Massachusetts, and charter enrollment is "just" 2.4 percent of the state's total K-12 enrollment, the report says.)

In this Chicago Tribune story, Daley says that a large-scale voucher system for Illinois schools is not the answer, and that while charters are a good part of the solution, he doesn't want a New Orleans-type charter-dominated district, or anything that would be a big step towards privatizing the system.

Remember, also, that the state has changes in motion on things like teacher evaluation that have yet to be rolled out statewide. The group's executive director, Robin Steans, acknowledges this change and says it is promising, although of course not everyone agrees. (My colleague Liana Heitin has documented this change in the state.)

State education leaders, of course, often like to talk about sharing best practices. The language in the Advance Illinois report is somewhat general, but it does represent a "follow the leader" mentality of one state towards another, instead of latching onto policy hot-buttons like vouchers. So, is this good or bad?

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