Q&A with ISBE’s Tony Smith

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Tony Smith

Tony Smith

Illinois has a newly named superintendent of schools. Tony Smith previously ran the school system in Oakland, Calif., but abruptly left that job in 2013 to move to Illinois and be closer to his wife’s ailing parents. He was heading the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation in Oak Park until the Illinois State Board of Education named him to the position earlier this month. Smith holds a doctorate in education from the University of California at Berkeley and is a former professional football player.

He replaces Christopher Koch, one of the longest serving superintendents in state history. Catalyst Chicago Associate Editor Melissa Sanchez sat down with him during an interview at the offices of ISBE chairman James Meek’s South Side church last week. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed.) 

Catalyst Chicago: What’s your vision for education in Illinois?

Smith: I honestly want that every single district be organized in ways that maximize the well-being and academic outcomes of children. That we would improve support for districts. That districts would be in better relationships with their public systems and communities. That this is not simply about higher test scores, it’s about community well-being. Districts run well serve an extraordinary public function, which is to prepare young people for civic participation. And so, how do we do that in ways that kids and families are healthier and more likely to thrive? That’s what it’s about.

Catalyst: How do you balance that with federal mandates and all this focus on things like tests?

Smith: I think the focus is there because they are public dollars that are spent on public education and there needs to be some kind of ‘We can show that we’ve done something.’ A standardized test is easy to report. It’s harder to say, ‘Did kids learn how to persevere? Did they find their passion? Did they get really good at something they were struggling with?’ I think with the move to things like PARCC and Smarter Balanced [tests], people are trying to do better. We haven’t gotten it right yet. When people say ‘no’ to testing I think they don’t really mean that. Because where they say they’re coming from is they want greater equity, they want more inclusion, more participation. If there’s not some measure or metric or way to know, than whose judgement are we counting on?

Catalyst: There’s been a lot of backlash over the PARCC here recently. What’s your thoughts on the assessment and do you foresee any shifting of direction?

Smith: Well, I think that PARCC has to get better. It’s really important as a measure of growth and progress.  I think that it’s not adequate yet as a mechanism. I think we have to improve it. I think there’s a use value to it that I haven’t seen in other tests. Things are changing. The world is changing. We need different ways to make sure that we are supporting kids to be ready for what’s coming. And it’s too much, too slow, we don’t have information back yet. It’s not totally adaptive the way it should be. It should let kids follow all the way to the end of what they know and feed that back and it should be real time and should, should, should, right? That’s where I think it’s helping us go.  We think about it as a step in the process, in a journey, rather than now ‘We’ll have the PARCC, period.’ I’m not a ‘PARCC, period, person.’ I think it’s helping us get better at what we need to do.

Catalyst: What do you think parents’ rights should be in terms of opting their children out of assessments?

Smith: This is really right at the crux of it, right? I’m a huge believer in what parents want and need for their children is what we need to be doing. I’d like to believe that we could get better at using information from tests to improve instruction. And I’d like also to believe that’s what parents want. They want teachers and educators to be better prepared to teach their child. I think not participating isn’t the best choice right now. I think we need more people to test. Unless we have really everybody trying, it makes it harder to get to the time where we can interrupt inequity. I think the purpose of these tests really done well is to meet the needs of kids. Now, is that how it’s been pitched, is that how it is? Not exactly. And yet if we don’t participate, then what do we have? It’s hard to know what we would really do. It’s very easy to just tear things apart. It’s very difficult to build something.

Catalyst: So a short answer. It sounds like you wouldn’t support this opt-out bill in Springfield. 

Smith: I haven’t read it. I don’t know. I’ll get there. Rather than speculate, I would love to read it so I know exactly what I’m answering.

Catalyst: CPS’ financial picture is pretty bleak. Any thoughts on how CPS can get out of this hole?

Smith: It’s a horrible situation.  Unfortunately there’s no quick or simple fix for something that’s taken years to get to. We have to ask what we want for kids and how we organize ourselves to make sure that we’re going to get there, and let’s talk about whose values or whatever. And then you design systems to support that. And in that context, you make the trade-offs and the hard decisions. So, yes I have led the closing of schools, the reduction of budgets, the balancing and getting to that academic and fiscal solvency. As an educator, you want to give everything you can to maximize all of the inputs possible. However, if you give everything you’ve got right now, and then the need persists, and then you don’t have the money and the people that most need it are the ones who lose it first. But if you just hoard money, you actually are holding back academic opportunity for kids now. How do you balance that? It’s always a tradeoff.

Catalyst: Do you think the state should be helping or intervening…?

Smith: It’s one of the largest school districts in the country. I don’t see how it can’t. There are laws and ways of practice ways of doing business in the State of Illinois in relation to CPS and the state that probably have to change. What that change is and how it goes forward, I don’t I know. But there’s no single solution set I think offered by one party to recover from a hole that big.

Catalyst: The governor has suggested bankruptcy. Do you see that as a viable option? 

Smith: I think this is where the politics of words like that is different than what’s trying to be accomplished. I think the idea is restructuring the organization so that it has a balanced budget so that you maximize academic opportunity and you are spending the revenue that you get to meet your commitments. It might sound simple but I fundamentally believe this: that the public good requires uncommonly good public systems. The discipline to run a public system well and to be relentless about those tradeoffs and be clear about why you’re making them is really hard work. You have to make some calls that challenge your values and beliefs. Whether it’s closures or restructuring contracts, whatever it is, it’s hard work. But you’ve got to come to back to what is it that children need, and what are parents and families asking for, and what support do educators need to do that.

Catalyst: Charter schools. Do you think that Illinois has enough of them? Should the cap be lifted? 

Smith: I really think that this question needs to get put back in the context of quality. There have to be quality schools in every neighborhood across Illinois. And how we get there is the conversation for me. Clearly, currently, charter is a part of that conversation. They have to be about quality schools, not just an idea. There’s so many ways to describe what a good high quality school is.  The support to get there is different in different places. And when time is spent talking about an idea and an ideology rather than a practice, I think we waste time that should be spent on how we support kids in schools.

Catalyst: The governor has said a lot about unions recently. Do you share his thoughts? Do you think teachers should be unionized?

Smith: This is where this conversation should be about ‘What is the hard work of teaching, what support do teachers need in order to teach kids well?’ The conversation about the organization of teachers is different than the conversation about supporting the craft of teaching and what that looks like and what is necessary support for teachers, whether it’s coaching, compensation. I’d much rather talk about what kinds of support do teachers need in Illinois to meet the needs of our children, and then build out from there. Those other conversations? Let those folks talk about that.

Catalyst: Do you have any thoughts about vouchers? That’s something I know ISBE chairman Meeks has supported in the past.

Smith: I think that with the degree of inequity in our cities and communities, that there have to be different conversations about how much it takes to adequately support a child who is located very far away from opportunity, who lives in concentrated poverty and has a significant set of high needs. The amount of support it takes for that kid to take advantage of the quality option is greater than the amount of support it is for another kid. So to have an equal voucher as a response to an inequitable problem actually makes it likely that you’ll have some kids who have a little bit more take advantage of something like that, and you further concentrate poverty, and create the conditions where we make it very, very difficult, more difficult than it currently already is, to create a quality option for the highest-need kids. On the face of it, sure, we should give a voucher for kids and they should be able to take advantage of something. But if you start with choice, I find that you concentrate the greatest need and you actually increase the inequity. So I think if everything were equal and the world was different, then maybe. Currently, no.

Catalyst: One thing that I’ve written about a bit is the challenges of recruiting teachers of color and helping them stay. I don’t know whether you did any work in Oakland on that or have any thoughts on what Illinois could do.

Smith: It’s critical work. How do we have affinity groups for teachers of color? This is the same thing as differentiated supports for kids. To be a teacher of color, to come into a situation and sometimes be the only man of color, the one all the other teachers send the kids to handle certain issues. There’s a weight that comes with being that teacher. Being a teacher of color in a community of color, trying to get into the schools, trying to increase the number of teachers of color, that’s complex hard work that takes different kinds of support. There’s a deep level of work still that it’s not just about the recruitment, it’s about the support, the differential support. And if systems in places are serious about meaningful change, then the system has to change. That’s really tough stuff in the context of racism and classism. Some people of color did not have the same class experience as kids who may look like them. All those boundary crossing conversations and deep work is invisible unfortunately to many people of privilege and white teachers in particular.

Catalyst: You may not be super familiar about this, but there’s some controversy over a test that’s required to get into ed programs here. The failure rate is pretty high, especially for black and brown candidates. ISBE has a lot of sway over how that works and what kinds of tests are out there.

Smith: This goes to the question of changing the system. Does one have a different standard for different groups? I think no. Do you have differentiated supports to meet the same standards? Yes. So what kind of mechanisms are in place, is it on the same timeline. All the kind of questions around what does it look like to have people equally prepared to succeed is necessarily differential. Because we care about having more people of color, then we’ll do what’s necessary to get to it. But it challenges a lot of deep assumptions about who we think should get our help.

Catalyst: Any last thoughts?

Smith: I think that there’s a real opportunity right now because of all the tension. The opportunity in Illinois is that people are active. They care. I think if there is a place in the country to bridge rural, urban, suburban, political divides, public, private, there’s something here that’s special. And I’m very excited, quite frankly, to think about this idea of a radical middle. That is going to take some different kinds of thinking. But we’re going to have to stretch the middle because that’s where most people are, and most people want what’s good for their kids. There’s got to be something different and I feel like now is the time.

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  • Andrea L.

    What an empty suit! Answer every question with ‘that’s the kind of conversation we need to have’ until you get the script from the boss.

  • mollyc

    I know Tony Smith from his work in Oakland. He is very, very smart. Very passionate about urban schooling. Not at all an empty suit at all as the commenter below suggest. Not the best manager…so, hopefully he’ll hire someone who can run the office for him. But, he’s a very smart guy committed to social justice.