The New Normal?

Preliminary results of a new standardized test taken by Illinois students – PARCC – were recently released. The numbers are sobering.

In math, only 17 percent of high school students met state expectations – none exceeded. In English Language and Literacy, only 36 percent elementary school students, on average, met or exceeded state standards.

Compared to results from the ISAT and PSAE last year, these results can seem disappointing. But, the standards on those tests were intentionally set low to pacify parents and avoid federal penalties for chronically low-performance.

The PARCC exam is the first honest look at how well the state’s schools are performing.

The exam and the standards closely associated with it – Common Core – haven’t been without controversy. Originally the idea of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core aimed to correct the major policy loophole of the No Child Left Behind Act – a state’s ability to set its own standards and report results according to them.

It was only after the Obama Administration developed its Race to the Top grant program to incentivize states to adopt the standards, that opposition – from the both the right and the left – starting building.

Still, until parents can exercise true choice, the standards are a step in the right direction. Having benchmarks set for math, English language, and literacy for each grade level is policy that provides increased accountability to taxpayers. Real accountability will ultimately come when parents are allowed to exit a dissatisfying school for a higher performing one. Until that day when competition creates natural accountability to parents, the PARCC standards provide a healthy means for evaluating performance. They allow apples-to-apples comparisons to be made between schools, districts, and states. More importantly, it sets a reliable standard from which to judge other educational interventions against, like Course Access or a high-quality teacher transfer and retention bonus program.

One Chance Illinois supports groups like Advance Illinois and Stand for Children for advocating for both PARCC as well as school choice, but we also ask these groups to ensure that standards go beyond academics alone. States, like Illinois, need to do more work to incorporate other non-academic information into their official evaluation of schools. Parents want to know that the school their child is attending is safe (violent incident rates, arrests), has a strong culture of achievement, has high college enrollment and retention rates, and will be responsive to their questions or concerns.

Illinois’ initial PARCC test results are disappointing. Instead of wondering what went wrong, administrators, teachers, and parents should treat this a huge wake-up call and begin reforming the education system so history doesn’t repeat itself.

Joshua Dwyer
Policy Director

 

Missed Lessons from the Big Easy

New Orleans is seen throughout the country as the exemplar city for publicly funded education. But so much of the NOLA story still goes untold.

New Orleans’ primary claim to fame is its massive reduction in failing schools since Hurricane Katrina. In 2004, 60% of New Orleans students – some 40,000 children – went to a school in the bottom tenth of all Louisiana public schools based on state-issued performance scores. In 2014, just 13% of students attended these schools.

Student suspension and expulsion rates have also fallen by double digits since Katrina, while college entry rates among high school graduates climbed from 37% in 2004 to 48% by 2014.

Arguments rage over the role of testing, charters, unions, and school choice in New Orleans’ improvement. But, that’s only part of the story. The raucous discourse often overlooks the core of NOLA’s success: principals in New Orleans control their own schools.

The primary function of the school district in New Orleans is not to operate schools. Instead, it authorizes and identifies the schools that are successful enough to educate more students and the schools that should not educate students at all.

The actual business of education is left to educators.

Illinois should take notice.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, “a typical school district spends about two-thirds of its budget on compensation for employees, about one-fourth on maintaining safe and comfortable buildings, and the remainder for equipment and supplies.” Considering that staffing decisions and capital improvements are not solely a principal’s responsibility, a rough estimate shows that the average Illinois public school principal controls less than 10 percent of his or her own school’s budget.

Beyond financial disempowerment, principals often have little control over their school’s curriculum and atmosphere. Regulatory impediments like seat time and age based cohorts also inhibit school autonomy. A student who enters 5th grade ready to begin Algebra still has to sit through lessons on fractions. Unfortunately, there’s not much a principal can do about that.

Principals will sometimes respond to these arguments by saying that they were never adequately trained to handle the money and decisions currently entrusted to the district. They are almost certainly correct, and that’s exactly the problem. Principals should be trained to operate schools, and districts should be responsible for funding and logistical coordination.

New Orleans has seen drastic improvement in education outcomes. They’re not anywhere close to done, but the upward trend in undeniable. Other districts looking for similar results have a template to work from. Improve education by empowering principals.

Trey Cobb
Community Navigator

 

The Blaine Game

Nevada’s American Civil Liberties Union is suing to stop an innovative education policy on the grounds that it violates the separation of church and state.

Under the state’s new Education Savings Account Program parents can ask the government to give them their child’s per pupil funding beginning January 2016. The money is used to craft educational experiences that meet kids’ personal needs. Eligible expenses for parents to choose include private school tuition, virtual school programs, special education services, and more.

The ACLU is trying to keep this initiative from being implemented, arguing that ESA programs violate Nevada’s Blaine Amendment.

Quick history lesson: in the mid to late 1800’s, coalitions of Protestant denominations established public, government funded “common schools” – the predecessors to modern public schools. They were intended to form citizens with a basic education and strong Christian morality, often through biblical study.

Simultaneously, the Catholic Church made its commitment to opening schools serving poor students as part of its social justice mission. To anti-Catholic and anti-Irish nativists, this development was unacceptable.

So in response, Congressman James G. Blaine – a conservative Republican with presidential ambitions – pioneered a constitutional amendment which would have prevented any public money from flowing to sectarian schools. The federal amendment barely failed, but the idea made its way into most state constitutions. The provisions are called “Blaine Amendments”.

Nearly a century and a half later, the ACLU is calling on Nevada’s Blaine Amendment to block a policy that will be especially helpful to low income families, who are not able to exercise the same level of choice their affluent peers enjoy.

The lawsuit raises both constitutional and education policy questions. On the legal side, the United States Supreme Court has already decided that private school choice programs in general do not violate the US Constitution, and in particular an ESA was recently upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court. The constitutional logic basically goes that since choice programs give state money to parents, not schools, it’s all good.

I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, and it’s been paid for by need-based scholarships. Because my local public schools were not able to meet my needs, I would not have received the education and opportunities I did without financial aid to attend other schools. It wasn’t about religious versus secular education – or even private versus public schooling – but about school quality.

However, there aren’t enough private scholarship dollars out there to guarantee every kid the experience I lucked in to. States have recognized this challenge in higher education, and spend millions of dollars helping students attend whatever universities they choose. A lot of state money already flows to Catholic schools, they just happen to be for bachelor’s degrees instead of high school diplomas. Indeed, I wouldn’t be able to attend DePaul University – the largest Catholic university in the nation – without Illinois’ MAP grant program.

I don’t want to pretend like this is a black and white issue, or a personal vendetta. I also tend to support the ACLU, especially when they do things like support New York’s tax credit scholarship proposal – ESA’s close cousin.

So in addition to being a constitutional and policy question, it’s also a deeply philosophical question. Religious freedom is a vital part of this country, but so is education. Inability to provide every child a quality, individualized education strikes right at the heart of the American Dream. Education is the great equalizer – the institutional delivery system for equality of opportunity. Empowering parents to make their kids’ education better advances one of America’s most valuable civil liberties.

I don’t know what kind of country we would be if we didn’t do what’s necessary to make our children’s lives better. And I can’t imagine what my life would be like if Illinois decided I didn’t deserve help paying for the education I chose.

Frankly I don’t want to try.

Trey Cobb
Community Navigator

Reforming Our Education Priorities

Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) is a globally renowned public school established by General Assembly statute. The Aurora-located school is not run by a school district. Instead, a Board of Trustees composed of government appointees and government officials selects a President, who is entrusted with all administrative duties. Enrollment is open to students across Illinois. Even though IMSA does not officially charge tuition, fees could total $15,000 by graduation.

IMSA is odd for those of us used to thinking about schools in three categories: district, charter, and private. The school is reminiscent of Chicago Public Schools’ selective enrollment district schools like Northside College Prep and Walter Payton. However, it is authorized by the state, like many charter schools around the nation. Finally, no student will be denied for financial reasons, but students of means will pay several thousand dollars a year.

IMSA is an example of what can happen when we care more about outcomes than school sector. One Chance Illinois believes that students of all incomes, from all places should be able to access the education that works for them, and IMSA enacts that belief.

The aspiring young chemist whose family can’t pay for schools like Latin or Lab doesn’t care what sector her school belongs to. Funding streams and governance structures are irrelevant to her. She just wants a world class education. Illinois has understood that little girl’s situation, and created IMSA in response, as a way of saying that children need and deserve something special in their education.

It’s time for the state to recognize that every child needs and deserves something special. Every kid’s school experience should be unique because every kid is unique.

Illinois should extend the IMSA ethos to students across the state. The 16 year old in East St. Louis that wanted to be a mechanic, but has been struggling in school and is thinking of dropping out, deserves his world class education as well. The future artist in St. Clair County needs just as much out of the school system as the future lawyer in Winnetka. But all of these kids will need something different, and their success is the priority.

So we have to escape the conventional wisdom that school sector matters. Illinois education should incorporate course access, which allows students to take classes from welding to AP Calculus outside of their current public school. Legislators should support the Illinois Kids Campaign, which raises revenue to improve public schools, to help kids attend private schools and out-of-district public schools, and to help support tax breaks for teachers. Between the chemist, the mechanic, the artist, and the lawyer, we won’t be able to come up with a sufficient one size fits all brand of education. But with policies like these, we can begin to meet kids’ individual needs.

IMSA shows that world class education doesn’t come in a box. If we want to do right by every child, we have to end the argument about school type, and begin the discussion about helping each child find the education that’s best for them.

Trey Cobb
Community Navigator

OCI Response to the governor’s state of the state address

“It’s clear that the Governor and leaders on both sides of the aisle are focused on improving how we educate our most at-risk children, and One Chance Illinois applauds them all. Providing disadvantaged kids access to high quality education is essential to Illinois’ future.

90% of Illinois’ low-income students aren’t proficient in math, and 80% don’t read at grade level. We need to put aside historical differences and provide kids the necessary resources to flourish. One Chance Illinois supports the Governor’s pledge to “create more quality school options for low income children stuck in failing schools”. OCI believes that traditional, charter and private school providers can come together on a policy that benefits the neediest children and rewards quality.

Partnerships between high schools, community colleges, and local employers are critical to ensuring young people can be ready for both college and career. One Chance Illinois believes there are solutions to support college and career readiness and looks forward to working with the Illinois General Assembly.

Kids only get one chance at a high quality education, and we must do everything we can to ensure that Illinois’s children get the quality resources they need and deserve today.”

Myles X. Mendoza
Executive Director, One Chance Illinois