The reform road yet Traveled

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Picture this: A distribution manager for Motorola must deliver a product by truck to a number of company warehouses in the Midwest. The product is temperature sensitive, and weather forecasts spell trouble. Considering the options, the manager taps an unlikely outsider for solutions: a group of Chicago public school students.

If the Illinois Business Roundtable and the Illinois State Board of Education get their way, such a scenario may be reality in the not-so-distant future. The idea of bringing academic standards to life has been kicked around for a while, says Richard Laine, the Roundtable’s education policy director. But now it’s gaining momentum as technology advances and the quest to make school— especially high school—more relevant becomes a top priority.

The program, dubbed “Making Standards Real,” would present real-life problems, such as the Motorola case, to students, who would then attempt to solve them using the concepts they learn in school. In this instance, students would tap math and science skills to find answers to the problem, then use communication skills to present solutions to the teacher and corporate manager.

“We know how people learn and how it sticks,” says Laine.

Futurists who track education trends at the national level see other trends. As a tool of learning, textbooks are eclipsed by the Internet. Public education takes on more characteristics of the consumer-driven marketplace, offering families vouchers and more options on where to send their children to learn. Today, an estimated 25 percent send their child to a magnet, charter or some other “choice” school. By 2010, the number of families with children in choice schools will be closer to 40 percent, says education prognosticator Marvin Centron.

At the local level, those who have been closely involved with reform efforts see continued progress. If student achievement continues its current upward trend, Chicago’s test scores will be on par with national averages by 2010, says Fred Hess of Northwestern University. In the future, CPS will rely less on standardized tests that compare students with each other (e.g., the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills). Instead, tests will assess whether children have learned the curriculum being taught. This shift has an equalizing benefit: kids in an Algebra I at a neighborhood school should learn the same stuff as their counterparts at academically elite schools, such as Whitney Young and Lane Tech.

Reaching that goal won’t be easy, Hess cautions. The city’s history of low performance has kept the system focused on what students could not do. Will teachers be able to shift gears—and will they have the skills—to push all students up to standards?

CPS has stepped up its teacher recruitment efforts, targeting the best and brightest graduates of college teacher education programs. Melissa Roderick, a University of Chicago researcher, says the system would serve itself well by hiring more Hispanic educators, too. By 2010, Hispanics may well outnumber African Americans, who now comprise the majority of students.

Mayoral control is likely to stick around as long as Richard M. Daley is in office. And if political longevity runs in the family, he may well be mayor for another 10 years. At the central office, Paul Vallas’s financial expertise and political acumen get credit for keeping the school system on course. If he leaves in a couple of years, his replacement is likely to have similar credentials. It will probably be 2008 before another educator takes the reins, predicts one local expert.

The fate of local school councils is unclear. Politicians are unlikely to take them on anytime soon, especially since Senate Bill 652 lost its teeth last spring. (See story on page 27.) Still, drumming up candidates and retaining members continue to be frustrating challenges.

Legislators are not likely to tackle school finance reform, either. Many believe the problem was solved in 1997, when telephone and sin taxes were raised. It probably will take another five years before pols recognize that property taxes are adequate for Chicago’s schools; it will take another couple of years before they admit something must be done. It might help if districts began tracking how school-level expenditures relate to academic progress, says Laine. If legislators knew more about how to spend education dollars effectively, they would be more likely to take action, he says.