Political heavyweights in Advance Illinois lay out education reform agenda

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After a lengthy statewide “listening tour,” the bipartisan, politically-connected group Advance Illinois released its recommendations for improving Illinois education.

The recommendations—among them, better teachers, tougher standards and more innovation—are timed to make a splash with state leaders as they grind through tough budget negotiations. Those talks are never far removed from the politically vexing problem of inequitable school funding.

But the mix of carrots and sticks laid out by Advance Illinois say little about funding. Instead, the focus is squarely on more affordable fixes, such as raising state standards, giving principals more hiring and firing authority and tying student performance directly to teachers.

After a lengthy statewide “listening tour,” the bipartisan, politically-connected group Advance Illinois released its recommendations for improving Illinois education.

The recommendations—among them, better teachers, tougher standards and more innovation—are timed to make a splash with state leaders as they grind through tough budget negotiations. Those talks are never far removed from the politically vexing problem of inequitable school funding.

But the mix of carrots and sticks laid out by Advance Illinois say little about funding. Instead, the focus is squarely on more affordable fixes, such as raising state standards, giving principals more hiring and firing authority and tying student performance directly to teachers.

Perhaps the most notable idea, however, is for a new incentive fund modeled on the “Race to the Top Fund” in the federal stimulus package. Like that fund, the state’s program would award competitive grants to districts and schools that pitch good ideas for fixing their own unique challenges.

Contending that the grant program would put school leaders in the driver’s seat, Advance Illinois co-chairman and former U. S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley says “Springfield shouldn’t order change.”

Advance Illinois leaders left it unclear how big such a fund should be or who should control the decision-making levers. But Robin Steans, the group’s executive director, says she’s looking forward to working with state legislatures on the issue.

The organization’s other co-chairman, former Governor Jim Edgar, says he welcomes the “elephant in the room”—the federal Race to the Top fund—as an agent of change. Edgar points out that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has signaled that Illinois needs to do more if it wants a cut of the nearly $5 billion in funding.

Duncan is scheduled to have breakfast tomorrow with Advance Illinois leaders, adding more political heft to the group’s proposals.

Raising teacher quality, improving data analysis

To make its case for radical change, the report notes that just one in four Illinois students will graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

Teacher quality: Advance Illinois wants a major overhaul of teacher tenure and evaluation, based on much more rigorous and value-added measures of student performance. Principals, principal preparation programs and teacher training should likewise be evaluated on student outcomes, the report argues.

Giving principals more control over hiring and firing of teachers is also on the group’s radar, a shift that may require changes to the state’s education laws.

Such recommendations are sure to ruffle feathers with the teachers unions, which fought to include rules limiting the use of test scores in teacher evaluations as the state works toward a new student data system.

But Steans contends that the state currently wastes nearly $400 million a year compensating teachers with advanced degrees despite a lack of evidence that advanced degrees lead to better student learning.

Better data: To make it all possible, Advance Illinois also suggests the state build a much more robust data system. To save money, the group also backs a rollout of an online platform for administering state tests, allowing schools to test kids later in the year to better gauge how much they have learned. It would also provide nearly instant feedback to educators.

Advance Illinois suggests the state commit to the following by 2020:

  • Increase the state’s proficiency rates in reading and math on the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) from 30 percent to 50 percent
  • Increase the graduation rate from 75 percent to at least 85 percent
  • Increase the number of students who take college- and career-prep coursework to from 45 percent to 70 percent
  • Close the achievement gap to less than 10 percentage points

Photo: Courtsey Hill & Knowlton. Fmr. Secretary of Commerce William Daley discusses the report while Gov. Edgar and Robin Steans, Advance Illinois executive director, listen.