Illinois is going to be part of the second wave of states applying for "waivers" from NCLB, according to a letter released late last week (see full text below). Many teachers and administrators will cheer the news. But how much will revamping the accountability system cost the state? We don't know. California's state department of education says $3 billion. How long will it take to switch from annual ratings based on subgroup accountability targets (aka AYP) to whatever comes next? Nobody seems to know, exactly, which means it could be a while before schools are held uncomfortably accountable (just like I like them). Even NCLB critic Jim Broadway says it's too soon to celebrate (PDF here).
In Illinois, we believe that strong standards can and do help our schools achieve. However, we need a system that also recognizes and encourages growth. This year, the rigid benchmarks of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have deemed that only eight Illinois high schools made “adequate progress”, while 656 failed. While no one questions the need for educational improvement in Illinois and the nation as a whole, this stark statistic does not paint a true picture of Illinois’ schools, nor the progress many of our schools have made toward closing achievement gaps. In fact, aspects of the law have put ‘success’ so far out of reach so as to be counterproductive – actually deterring our administrators, teachers and children from making realistic advances in student learning.
Earlier this fall President Obama announced his plans to allow states to apply for waivers from NCLB, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Increasing student achievement is Illinois’ number one educational priority, and, as such, our state intends to pursue a waiver from NCLB, allowing us to create our own accountability system. In the coming months, the State Board of Education will work with Governor Quinn and his administration on Illinois’ proposal, with plans to submit early next year. We intend to enlist a diverse group of citizens to help us shape our request and develop the system that puts Illinois children first.
The best long-term economic development tool a state can have is a solid education system. Successful graduates attract business and jobs. The State Board of Education is committed to making Illinois’ Pre-K to 12 system the strongest in the nation. Developing our own stringent accountability system will allow our state to pursue objectives and accountability standards that will ensure our schools’ progress, while also recognizing and encouraging advances in student learning.
In Illinois we have already embarked on the following initiatives to substantially strengthen our education system:
- · The implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which are new, more rigorous learning standards to challenge students and educators alike to increase our global competitiveness;
- · The development of new assessments based on these higher learning standards, which will be more rigorous, including using multiple measures and providing better data to teachers to drive instruction;
- · The promotion and utilization of technology to drive student achievement;
- · The development of a kindergarten survey to ensure our youngest learners are on track in the earliest grades;
- · The coordination of a statewide inter-agency partnership that will provide better coordinated early childhood services and performance ratings;
- · New, higher standards for teacher and principal recruitment and preparation, aimed at improving classroom instruction and educational leadership;
- · The development of a new principal and teacher performance evaluation system that takes into account student academic growth; and,
- · A targeted, intensive effort to turnaround our state’s lowest achieving schools, which involves the provision of additional resources and oversight, while expecting significant gains for students and better possibilities for their future.
It is within this context of positive change that we must design a new accountability program for our education system. Under NCLB, 65 percent of our schools and 80 percent of our districts are deemed failures, with little hope of climbing out from under the program’s unrealistic performance targets. Is there room for improvement in our schools? Of course – it is what our Board and schools across the state work toward every day. At the same time, we do not believe that a constant message of failure breeds the creative thinking and enthusiasm that creates success; it’s not how you help children learn, so it stands to reason that it is not the best tool for a school’s success either. Illinois’ accountability system needs to be balanced between encouragement and consequences, and opting out of NCLB will allow us to implement such a system.
The accountability system we envision will still expect continuous improvement and success from our students, schools and districts, but the goals we set will be both high and attainable. We need to create smart, nuanced tools to accurately measure the progress our schools make and also identify areas in which achievement gaps exist so that they can be addressed. School districts and schools will have the ability to demonstrate improvement and success in differentiated, appropriate and measurable ways, so that progress is based upon growth and lasting achievements.
Our waiver request will be based upon the goals of the Governor and the State Board of Education to better prepare every Illinois student for college and career success. There is no question that our schools can and must improve. As part of opting out of NCLB, our state will build an accountability system to raise the bar for all students and focus on closing achievement gaps. To truly help our children grow and prepare for the future, Illinois needs a common sense accountability system, supported by our recent reforms, that not only tracks success and high academic performance, but also inspires it.
Gery J. Chico