The reform group Advance Illinois says the
state is a long way from being a front-runner to win Race to the Top funds, at
least in the first round of proposals due Jan. 19.


The reform group Advance Illinois says the
state is a long way from being a front-runner to win Race to the Top funds, at
least in the first round of proposals due Jan. 19.

In a report released today, “Can
Illinois Race to the Top?” the group lays out specific steps the state needs to
take—including a more active role in turning around failing schools—to be
competitive for a share of the $4.6 billion that U.S. Education Secretary Arne
Duncan will dole out to a handful of states. Illinois could get an estimated $200 to $400
million. A national report released in September by The New Teacher Project
ranked Illinois as only “somewhat competitive” and behind 17 other states for money that some
insiders believe will be awarded to only 10 to 20 states.

“For us to be successful, it’s
going to be important for state leaders and local districts to act boldly,” says
Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois and a member of the
recently named P-20 Council, a state task force charged with building a longitudinal data system to track student outcomes. She
added that while Illinois may not be the strongest candidate at the moment, “don’t count us out either.”

If Illinois doesn’t win in the first round,
feedback from the U.S. Department of Education in April will give the state a
chance to make adjustments before second-round proposals are due in June.

One hurdle for the first deadline is
the tight time frame. The report says Illinoischances would be improved if legislators made student performance part of
teacher and principal evaluations and lifted the current 260-person cap on
alternative teacher certification programs. But the Legislature only goes back
into session on three days before Jan. 19, Steans says.

 The report also calls on
legislators to help struggling districts recruit quality teachers and
principals by offering incentives, improving school climate, or increasing
teacher support.

 Duncan has set out four criteria for grant eligibility: common,
rigorous standards and assessments; quality teachers and leaders; data systems
to support instruction; and a plan to turn around the lowest-performing

 Here are several steps the
Illinois State Board of Education should take, according to Advance Illinois report.

  • Develop
    readiness standards for kindergarten and college. At the moment, Illinois does not
    have these, so schools and the state can’t evaluate whether students are
    prepared to enter school or post-secondary education.
  • Do
    statewide school climate surveys that measure safety, working conditions,
    and student and parent engagement. These would provide incentives for
    schools to improve and give educators a quick indicator of whether new
    strategies are on the right track.
  • Replace
    the Prairie State Achievement Exam, the standardized test that juniors
    take, with statewide tests in common subjects like algebra – administered
    to students when they complete a course. This would allow students to
    prove their knowledge of material as soon as they learned it.
  • Provide
    more tools for teachers, principals and superintendents to use data;
    expand data-sharing agreements among Illinois’ many education agencies; and
    create more public data access. Along these lines, ISBE should create a
    statewide Education Research Collaborative that would draw on the expertise
    of the Illinois Education Research Council and the Consortium for Chicago
    School Research.

ISBE should also take a more
active role in helping with school turnarounds. “For good or for ill, Chicago has already set
itself on that path,” Steans says. “But not all the failing schools in the
state are in Chicago.”

Some other districts that lack Chicago’s turnaround
capacity are already on track to get state assistance. ISBE has laid the
groundwork for “partnership zones,” which would allow the state to direct
resources and help from experienced turnaround partners to struggling schools –
similar to the function served by CPS’ Office of School Turnarounds.

A state task force is already
working to come up with criteria to determine which schools to target, Steans
says. Next, the state will have to ensure it has the legal authority to
intervene – possibly by changing the school code.

Funding for dropout recovery and alternative
schools was not mentioned in the report, but Steans believes it will also be an
important part of Race to the Top efforts.

To close the achievement gap,
Steans says, “there’s no question that the applications ought to be looking at
dropout recovery programs and alternative schools with a proven track record.”

Though the list of steps the state
needs to take is lengthy, the report highlights several recent steps forward,
including steps to develop a statewide data system to link performance data to
teachers and teacher preparation programs; and the new law doubling the charter
cap to 120.

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