Posted Online: Dec. 03, 2012, 6:00 am

Advance Illinois gives the state's public schools weak marks

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By Jim Nowlan

A recent analysis of Illinois schools by a leading education reform group gave the state's schools an overall grade of C and had harsh words for our lack of accomplishments.

Nevertheless, Advance Illinois has high hopes for future improvements. I have my doubts, however, until we change the cultural values placed on education by poor-performing groups among us, to include African-Americans, Latinos, and rural whites.

Advance Illinois, which is chaired by Bill Daley of the famous Chicago political family, pointed out in its report that only 29 percent of high school freshmen later earn a two or four-year college degree. This at a time when 8 out of 10 new jobs will require postsecondary education or training.

The report also pointed out dramatic changes in the mix of youngsters attending school. Because Latinos and blacks have higher birth rates than whites, half of today's Illinois public school students are non-white and half are from low-income families. Soon minorities will be the majorities in our schools.

Illinois has never set the bar very high for its students. The minimum required number of instructional hours for Illinois schools per year is 880, ranking us near the bottom among the states, at five hours per day.

Texas requires a minimum of 1260 hours, or seven-plus hours per day. I do know that most Illinois schools teach for more than five hours a day, generally about six or so, though until this year Chicago public schools had a five-hour instructional day.

But Advance Illinois trumpets several recent reforms the group believes will bear fruit. They note, for example, implementation soon of rigorous new "Common Core" learning standards that emphasize critical problem solving skills in addition to traditional fact-based learning.

The reform group also lauds new performance-based evaluation procedures for both principals and teachers, which the group had a hand in navigating through the legislative process.
Massachusetts is presented as the model state for educational policy and achievement. Beginning in 1993, this state set high expectations for students, improved the pedagogy to include a common core of learning standards (such as those to be implemented in other states, including Illinois), and pledged equitable funding across school districts (something not done in Illinois).

In the past decade or more, the percentage of students in Massachusetts performing at or above "proficient" on 8th grade math tests increased from 30 percent to 51 percent, while in Illinois the gains were much more modest, from 26 to 33 percent.

On reading tests during the same period, Illinois slipped a bit, to 34 percent at proficient or above, while Massachusetts students improved to 46 percent.

Advance Illinois gave the state a grade of incomplete for early education. Illinois is the national leader in the percentage of 3-year-olds enrolled in publicly funded preschool, at 20 percent. Yet only 29 percent of 4-year-olds are so enrolled, in contrast to 76 percent of 4-year-olds in Florida, the leader for that age group.

Illinois ranks right in the middle among the states in 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores, with about one-third scoring at the proficient level or above. The gap between scores for whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Latinos on the other is especially stark. Whereas nearly half of white youngsters in these grades score well, only between 10 and 20 percent of the minority students do so. And so a grade of C-.

I live in a rural school district where we worship at the altar of football and basketball. We are happy to be average in statewide academic test scores, though if you took Chicago with its very low scores out of the mix, we would then be far below average. No matter. Expectations aren't high.

Recently a new member of our community, originally from Asia, came to see her daughter's teacher. "Education is so important to us," said the mother. "What can we do to help her succeed?" The teacher about cried. She had never had a parent come to her with that question.

Can our culture in rural America and inner cities be changed to place a higher value on education? We have changed cultural values about smoking and drinking-and-driving. Presidents and governors and community leaders are going to have to preach education achievement until their faces turn blue.
Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He is a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.