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Moving the Needle: Illinois Is Notorious for Its Politics, but Compromise on Performance-Based Education Reform Inches Forward PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 17 March 2011 05:23

Education reform in Illinois features two major storylines: politics and policy. On the political front, two powerful forces – the business community and teacher unions – have competing proposals. On the policy end of things, the primary educational question is whether and to what degree teacher performance will be a factor in school-district workforce decisions, from budget-related layoffs to dismissals to tenure.

As the law stands now, layoffs and tenure are simply functions of teachers’ years of service and don’t take into account whether students are actually learning. Firing a tenured teacher is time-consuming and costly, and the current teacher-evaluation system, all sides agree, is ineffective. Common-sense reform is long overdue.

Given Illinois’ history and reputation, however, one might expect politics to dictate the outcome at the expense of sound policy. Somewhat surprisingly, the substance of the different proposals appears to be getting a careful vetting, and politics have thus far taken a back seat.

Senator Kimberly A. LightfordThat’s largely because of state Senator Kimberly A. Lightford, a Democrat who has facilitated weekly negotiations since December among a group of 25 people representing all the stakeholders.

“This is very serious,” Lightford said in an interview last week. “It’s not something I think should be rushed.” She said she hopes to have a compromise bill ready by April 1, and she added that she’s kept the group on-track with a simple question: “How do we get the best outcomes for our students?”

While Lightford and other people involved in the discussions would not discuss the specifics of their negotiations, interviews over the past three weeks indicate there has been steady progress, with the group reaching basic agreement on a number of key and potentially contentious issues. On March 9, Lightford said compromises had been reached on the role of performance in restrictions on teaching certificates, filling new and vacant and positions, the attainment of tenure, and reductions in force (layoffs for budgetary reasons).

To be clear, a compromise that all parties will support is not a foregone conclusion. Lightford and teacher-union representatives indicated last week that changes to collective bargaining – an element of the proposal supported by the business community – could be a major stumbling block and had not yet been discussed.

But Lightford said she was optimistic – “I’m pretty happy” – and representatives from two statewide teacher unions emphasized that the negotiations were characterized by “good faith” by all participants.

“I think when we get to the final result, what you’ll see is a reasonable compromise by all parties,” said Steve Preckwinkle, director of political activities for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

The situation could easily deteriorate, but it’s heartening that on the core issue that most directly impacts what happens in the classroom – namely, the performance of the person at the front of the room – there has already been compromise and agreement.

Shared Principles, Different Approaches

Lightford and the education stakeholders are considering the components of three proposals. One is Performance Counts, supported by Illinois Business Roundtable, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and Advance Illinois – whose board includes former Governor Jim Edgar, the president of the Joyce Foundation, the president and CFO of The Boeing Company, and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Another key supporter is Stand for Children, whose nascent Illinois political arm raised eyebrows last year with both its fundraising ($2.8 million in December alone, according to political columnist Rich Miller) and its contributions to legislative candidates ($610,000 in the fall campaign).

The second is Accountability for All, crafted by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Education Association, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

And the third comes from the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance – which represents school boards and administrators.

One can see the political battle lines, particularly between the unions and business leaders.

Yet the proposals share much common ground in their scopes and basic principles. All recommend new restrictions on teaching certificates based on teacher performance; all recommend that teacher evaluations be a factor in filling new and vacant positions, granting tenure, and determining who gets laid off and recalled; and all recommend a streamlined dismissal process for tenured teachers whose performance is lacking.

Teacher evaluations will incorporate measures of student learning and will likely be tied to implementation of the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010, which begins in September 2012. The law allows school districts, in concert with teachers, to establish what data and indicators of student growth they will use in evaluating educators, and there will also be a default state system. While standardized tests might be included, evaluation systems will probably involve determining what students have learned over the course of the year – through subject-area tests at the beginnings and ends of school years.

IEA Executive Director Audrey SoglinAs one might expect, the current proposals differ in their details. “We can identify some of the same issues that we need to look at, but the differences are in what the solutions are,” said Illinois Education Association Executive Director Audrey Soglin. The key difference between Performance Counts and Accountability for All is the weight they give to performance evaluations; under the union proposal, evaluations would be no more than equal to seniority and other factors in staffing decisions, while Performance Counts would make years of service secondary to performance.

The proposals also differ in components not shared by other plans. Performance Counts is alone in adding collective-bargaining changes, most crucially a new impasse-resolution procedure that would curb teachers’ strike power and would allow a school board to approve its own contract proposal by a two-thirds vote.

Accountability for All is the only proposal to add changes to the state pension code and increased professional development and mentoring for teachers. It also differs from other proposals in requiring four hours of training for school-board members in the areas of education and labor law, financial oversight and accountability, and fiduciary responsibilities. And it would create a two-tiered certification system for principals that is absent from the other plans.

“The issues facing public education today can’t be solved by a single set of proposals that address teacher issues only,” Preckwinkle said. “That is not real education reform. ... School administrators can improve, school boards can improve ... .”

(There are also differing measures in Accountability for All and Performance Counts that apply only to Chicago schools.)

Yet despite the differences, negotiations have so far been described as civil. And a lot of that has to do with the premise of Accountability for All, which at the outset diverged significantly from the status quo when it comes to the role of teacher performance evaluations.