Moving the Needle: Illinois Is Notorious for Its Politics, but Compromise on Performance-Based Education Reform Inches Forward Print
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.

Insulated Teachers

Experienced teachers now enjoy significant job security. Tenure makes it difficult for a school district to dismiss a teacher for cause, and state law mandates that the last teachers hired are the first to be let go because of budget cuts. Furthermore, the evaluation process used by school districts rarely results in a teacher getting an unsatisfactory-performance rating.

Illinois Business Roundtable President Jeff Mays“The dismissal process in the state of Illinois ... is so cumbersome, so expensive, so time-consuming – all the while that teacher’s in the classroom – that most districts just don’t do it,” said Jeff Mays, president of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a school-board member in Quincy, and a spokesperson for Stand for Children.

He said that the vast majority of school districts in Illinois didn’t over two decades give a tenured teacher an unsatisfactory rating or take a teacher through remediation. The Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010 noted: “Many existing district performance-evaluation systems fail to adequately distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers and principals. A recent study of evaluation systems in three of the largest Illinois districts found that out of 41,174 teacher evaluations performed over a five-year period, 92.6 percent of teachers were rated ‘superior’ or ‘excellent,’ 7 percent were rated ‘satisfactory,’ and only 0.4 percent were rated ‘unsatisfactory.’”

In Quincy, Mays said, “the unspoken rule from administration down was: Don’t give an unsatisfactory rating unless you’re willing to take the teacher through remediation. And oh, by the way, we’re not willing to do that.”

Mays said that since he’s been on the school board, evaluations have become more rigorous, “but ... it’s been focused totally on the nontenured staff, on the young teachers.”

And reductions in force – or RIFing – can only be based on years of service. “It’s all seniority,” he said. “And it just strikes me as crazy, when we spend so much on mentoring and induction for the new teachers ... .”

He summarized: “The tenured teachers are absolutely insulated from RIFing. They’re insulated from any performance-evaluation consequences at all from a practical standpoint.”

In interviews, representatives of the teacher unions didn’t dispute Mays’ assertions – or the need to incorporate performance evaluations into staffing decisions.

“The current evaluation system is badly broken,” the Illinois Federation of Teachers’ Preckwinkle said. And he said his organization’s members “really have no desire to have procedures in place to keep teachers who aren’t cutting it in the classroom.”

“We’re not afraid of accountability,” the Illinois Education Association’s Soglin said.

Lightford said she wasn’t surprised that the unions are amenable to a greater emphasis on performance evaluations. “The unions were ready for education reform,” she said. “They bent a lot” last year with the state’s Race to the Top application and the Performance Evaluation Reform Act. She said that Accountability for All is consistent with the union’s recent positions on performance evaluation.

The unions, then, aren’t protecting what they currently have, but are trying to ensure that a new system provides their members with as much protection as possible. To that end, Accountability for All as proposed would include performance evaluations as one element in staffing decisions – but no more than equal to other factors.

“There’s a concern that when there are reductions in force – when people are facing the loss of their job because of budget cutbacks ... – that there be a fair process that recognizes that length of service has a role ... ,” Preckwinkle said. The goal is to find “compromises that protect the due-process rights of teachers ... , provide an objective way of measuring performance, and give that performance rating the appropriate but not total weight in the process.”

“We are saying that it’s a factor, but along with others, including years of service,” Soglin said. And while Accountability for All is a significant departure from the current situation, “the response from our membership has generally been an acknowledgment that we need to make some changes.”

The Potential Roadblock Ahead

While the unions have been willing to give on performance evaluations, at this point they’re suggesting that they’re going to be much more rigid on the collective-bargaining aspects of Performance Counts.

“We’ll have a great deal of difficulty with changes to the bargaining process as they’ve been presented,” Preckwinkle said. “Several of the proposals are really more extreme than what we’ve even seen in Wisconsin, and we’re not inclined to give up what we consider to be fundamental collective-bargaining rights that provide balance between the school districts and our unions and that have worked very, very successfully since they were passed in 1983 in favor of a process that really tips the scale overwhelming to one side of the negotiations. ...

“Should the Performance Counts advocates really choose to pursue those aggressively, those will be tougher issues to deal with than the ones we’ve dealt with so far.”

“We’re not in favor of any ... collective-bargaining modifications,” Soglin said. “Those collective-bargaining issues are not related to ed reform.”

Mays characterized collective bargaining as an issue of transparency. Under Performance Counts, a school district could employ a fact-finding process – which at the tail end includes publication of an independent panel’s report and recommendations. If the district and union can still not agree on a contract, the school board by a two-thirds vote could adopt its own proposal, the union’s proposal, or the fact-finding panel’s recommendation on each disputed issue. Only if the board cannot adopt a contract through that process would a union be allowed to strike.

“The public knows what the facts are. ... It sets transparency in the middle of that process,” Mays said.

The unions see it differently. “That to us really undermines the entire collective-bargaining process,” Preckwinkle said. “For one side to hold that much power in the process really distorts and we believe effectively destroys any real bargaining.”

This issue has the potential to hang up negotiations, and right now it sounds as if proponents of Performance Counts are standing firm, as well. In an e-mail, Mays wrote: “We have seen time and again the threat of a teacher strike to be the trump card at the bargaining table that has stymied education reforms from being implemented. ... It [the collective-bargaining proposal] is an integral component of Performance Counts because we don’t want to see the reforms that are ultimately enacted be stifled in the implementation phase by being bargained away.”

All the people interviewed for this article said they expect legislation to go to the full General Assembly this session, although Lightford declined to say whether she would move a bill forward without the collective-bargaining components of Performance Counts. If that element blocks a consensus compromise, any bill that results from the current negotiations might not have all the stakeholders behind it.

But it’s important to remember that there’s already been agreement on the issue at the heart of all the proposals: making teacher performance a factor in personnel decisions.

As Mays said: “There’s no silver bullet on school improvement. [But] every study shows that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most important determinant in the success of the kid. ... Look at all the stuff that we’ve tried. All of it. And how much has that moved the needle? We’ve been unable to talk about this [teacher performance] for years and decades, and we’ve done all these other things. ... This is going to make the quality of teaching better. And it ought to move the needle more than anything else we’ve done.”

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