© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Illinois takes one step for school reform

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 31, 2010 - Illinois' deadline dash to enact education reforms that could entice $500 million in "Race to the Top" federal funding was truly remarkable in this era of dysfunctional state government, but it took a toll on transparency.

The measure resolutely makes student growth a significant factor in evaluating the performance of teachers and administrators; yet, it bars disclosure of how specific educators fare with the elevated level of accountability. So, while many cheer the new law as moving Illinois "light years ahead," others chastise the darkness.

The contentiousness might have been mitigated without the rush to beat the Jan. 19 cutoff for entering the mega-buck, multi-state competition conceived by the Obama administration to refocus and re-energize classrooms across the nation. After all, the landmark legislation was whisked through the General Assembly and signed by the governor in less than a week. But even a more deliberative approach and robust debate would not have assured conciliation given the complexity of the clash between worthy objectives.

The legislation provides for release of summary information on evaluations to help determine the earnestness and success of the process in a school or district. Educators insist more intense, unscreened sunshine would produce malignancies. Principals would hesitate to confront teachers about their weaknesses and instructors would resist constructive criticism and remediation. How would that help struggling teachers to achieve and administrators to weed out chronic incompetents?

If parents knew students of a fourth-grade instructor were making greater progress than their peers in three nearby classrooms, would they accept assignment of their third-grade graduate elsewhere? Moreover, why arm a father angry over a D with a weapon against a teacher who earned anything less than glowing marks?

But consider the counter concerns of media representatives and others who convinced lawmakers last year to bring more transparency to public bodies by strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. They resent being excluded from the discussions, view the disclosure ban as backtracking, foresee other public employee groups using this as precedent for similar shields and contend the teacher unions exploited their muscle and leverage in a time-sensitive atmosphere to again frustrate accountability.

To their great credit, the unions backed the far-reaching reforms embodied in the "Race to the Top" legislation. Nevertheless, they and some other major players in the education orbit historically have balked at changes that could benefit students but imperil uninspiring and even uncaring teachers and administrators. Incorrigibles are stoutly defended.

Meanwhile, performance evaluations generally have been more mockable than meaningful. For instance, 92.6 percent of teachers in three of Illinois' largest school districts reviewed during a recent five-year period received superior or excellent ratings, while 7 percent were deemed satisfactory and fewer than 1 percent were rated unsatisfactory.

All this has invited skepticism and punctuated calls for an openness that could fully inform parents, taxpayers and prospective employers. It has dampened, at least in some quarters, the enthusiasm for these latest substantial strides toward improving our schools. But there could well be several opportunities to revisit the transparency issue with less antagonism and more balance if and when Illinois corrals the federal dollars or private donations to fund the reforms.

The law contemplates fashioning and implementing an intricate system for assessments - including tests and other measures of student progress as well as fair, comprehensive templates for the more subjective parts of evaluations. That is more of a marathon than a sprint. Let's hope the current combatants are high-fiving each other at the finish line.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.