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Advance Illinois Report Upholds the Failed Status Quo

by CTU Communications  |  11/14/2012

The Advance Illinois report thoroughly identifies a wide variety of metrics that reflect the steep challenges that so many students and communities face in trying to achieve educational equality. Yet Advance Illinois’ diagnosis for remedying these challenges reveals the fundamental illiteracy within the corporate school-reform movement in how to improve schools and properly mitigate the impact of poverty on children’s life trajectories. Their policy recommendations are fundamentally about amplifying the status quo approach to wrangling schools through overhauled curriculum, standards, and assessments and pushing the cold rationale of business practices onto the institution of public schools. The inequitable life and learning outcomes that face Illinois’ students is a testament to the need for research-based innovations, sustained resource investments, and positive working and learning conditions in all of our schools.

The Advance Illinois report pays lip service to the importance of teacher collaboration while advancing policy recommendations that neither improve teaching, nor foster collaboration. Innovations and investments need to focus on the generation and sharing of knowledge about teaching at the school-level.  Advance Illinois’ recommendations will amount to diverting millions of dollars towards generating data about the performance of individual teachers, pushing test-based certification standards that are irrelevant to effective practice but highly discriminatory against teachers of color, and pushing policies that are hostile to developing stable teaching environments where staffs’ collective knowledge and experience can accumulate and drive improvement. Such approaches to ‘developing’ teachers are already rampant in Chicago’s charter school networks. Their results are sky-high turnover rates with some charters losing 40% of their teachers each year.

School districts needs to invest in ways that teachers can lead instructional improvements through collaboration and professional development. These innovations in teaching are valuable because they build on the investments   that the school staffs have made in their schools in order to drive learning improvements, and they prioritize the development of school-level capacity for further professional development. Investing in environments where teachers can effectively collaborate has another significant benefit – such environments retain teachers.  This is why one of the authors of the study on the organizational characteristics of improved Chicago schools, which Advance Illinois cites, has concluded: “More critical than identifying those few especially effective or ineffective teachers is to develop collaborative relationships among teachers, school leaders, and families.”

More fundamentally, schools must be lifted from the suffocating web of sticks and carrots that pushes performance on standardized tests as the premier goal of the learning and development work that schools do. Advance Illinois, while acknowledging the crucial need for further investments in early childhood education, insists on advancing test-based standards  and accountability “birth through age 5”. With the toxic encroachment of mandated tests and its associated curricula into even the earliest grades, it is ever more important to instead reinvigorate programs that are developmentally appropriate, geared towards developing children’s participation in learning, and enhance social skills such as cooperation and empathy.

The Advance Illinois report also acknowledges the woefully large student to counselor ratios that exist across Illinois school districts. This is an issue the Chicago Teachers Union, dedicated clinicians and other national and state-wide networks of social workers have been fighting to bring awareness to. However, none of Advance Illinois’ recommendations put any teeth to their alleged support. What Illinois needs is a mandated student to counselor ratio cap in line with professional recommendations, with a corresponding increase in state-level funding. Can Advance Illinois get behind that?

Perhaps the most telling piece of the Advance Illinois report is what they have left out of their findings. Illinois has been consistently ranked at the bottom when it comes to education funding fairness. Any report on the state of education in Illinois that fails to report this fact and consider its implications, is not a serious analysis of education, nor can its authors claim to be an advocate of educational equality.

The consistent dedication that these education ‘reform’ groups have towards ignoring the relevance of resources in education is a key component of the corporate right-wing endeavor to defund public education. Education reform groups, or “deformers”, aligned with corporate leaders and hedge-funds often position themselves as the agents of change in public schools against a failed status quo. The agenda is simple – privatize, destabilize and defund. Sound similar to what’s been going on in CPS for over a decade? When teachers, parents, the unions, and community groups stand against school closings and privatization and fight for fair funding, we are painted by deformers as obstructionists to change and defenders of the status quo. The more these deformers cling to their shallow campaign, the more parents, teachers and students will unite to fight against the status quo and for the schools Chicago’s students deserve.

The real status quo in Chicago public schools is the lack of guarantees to a diverse curriculum and to wraparound supports. The status quo is the use of standardized tests to determine the instruction and success of our students and to decide the survival of their neighborhood schools. The status quo is the constant churn of school-improvement programs, district administrators, and so-called school leaders, and the top-down decision-making that places the views of corporate leaders and hedge-fund managers over the voices of parents and communities. Ultimately, the status quo is the notion that we can improve education and life outcomes for poor and disadvantaged children by cutting funding for public schools and instead imposing competition, profit-making, risk and other failed free-market concepts onto our schools and communities. Our communities do not need constant top-down assaults and turnarounds of their teachers and learning institutions. What schools need are the resources to succeed, and the freedom to create environments where meaningful inquiry-based learning is top priority, not outcomes on a bubble sheet. 

Chicago Teachers Union