Published Online: January 15, 1997

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Ill. Districts Come Together in Quest of Math-Science Goal

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Here's a '90s concept: an education-reform initiative born in a book group.

It was a bit more than two years ago that a group of suburban Chicago school superintendents were getting together in a discussion group to fulfill credits that they needed to renew their state certification.

Out of that prosaic pursuit came an ambitious idea that turned the book group into a 20-district consortium pulling in federal grant money and intent on making its students the best in the world in mathematics and science.

To figure out how close or far the consortium's students stand from that high mark, the group of districts--most in Cook County north of Chicago--last year became the first and only non-state geographic region in the United States to participate in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS.

The first set of results on the performance of 7th and 8th graders from 41 nations was released in November, with U.S. students coming up about average in each subject. ("U.S. Students About Average in Global Study," Nov. 27, 1996.) Later this month, the Illinois consortium expects to learn how it stacked up against the United States as a whole and Germany, Japan, and other countries.

The U.S. Department of Education is offering six other districts, states, or consortia the chance to take part in the TIMSS this spring as long as they apply by the end of this month.

'Let's Do Something'

The consortium's birth in 1995 grew out of discussions the superintendents' group had about the disappointing academic achievement of U.S. students. Although the group largely dismissed the eight national education goals as just so much pie-in-the-sky politics, what would happen, they wondered, if educators took even one of those goals seriously?

The superintendents "all said, 'You know what? Let's stop sitting around a table going woe is me, and let's do something,'" said Linda Marks, the superintendent of Golf School District 67 in Morton Grove and a group member.

So the group decided to take on one of the goals it felt was both crucial and possible: making U.S. students first in the world in science and mathematics achievement by 2000. With such a lofty aim, the superintendents christened themselves with a name no less exalted: the "First in the World" consortium.

The superintendents set aside egos and turf issues to pledge to work collaboratively to improve teaching and learning in math and science. They say they want to understand what world-class standards are and revise, as needed, their districts' curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessment of student learning. And, with lots of hard work and a little luck, meet the 2000 deadline.

If they were going to pursue the goal of being first in math and science, they had to know what that meant, said Paul Kimmelman, the consortium coordinator and the superintendent of West Northfield School District 31 in Northbrook. "We discovered everyone talked about it, but no one was in a position to say, 'You will be number one in the world if you do X.'" Enter the TIMSS.

Participation in the global study, in which every U.S. district was invited to take part, didn't come cheap. Consortium districts divided up the $145,000 fee so that 3,000 of their students could take the math and science tests.

'A Major Risk'

Arguably, the districts in the consortium are not the ones that need to worry most about improving math and science achievement and instruction. They include prestigious schools and are located in some of the region's most affluent communities.

Four high school districts and 16 elementary ones, representing about 37,000 students, make up the consortium. The districts, on average, spend $6,847 per pupil, or 21 percent more than the statewide average of $5,670. The average performance of their 8th graders on the statewide math assessment in 1993 was 30 percent higher than the Illinois average.

"Our districts are already extremely competitive on a national basis," acknowledged Dan Johnson, the superintendent of Glenview Community Consolidated District 34 in Glenview. "We realize the next step is to become competitive internationally."

Indeed, part of the idea is for the consortium districts, with their plentiful resources, to be the pioneer for other districts and to spread the word about whatever they are able to do to improve math and science instruction and student achievement.

But with their sterling academic reputations on the line, Jean McGrew, the superintendent of Glenbrook High School District 225 in Glenview, called taking the TIMSS "a major PR risk. ... We've got nothing to gain by doing this and everything to lose."

The members' enthusiasm for their mission has attracted advice and encouragement--from their local school boards and the state department of education to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and the White House domestic policy office.

In November, the Education Department came through with a $150,000 grant. And last month, Illinois gave the consortium $300,000 in federal Goals 2000 money. The consortium plans to use the money from both grants over one to two years.

The money will help the consortium analyze, for example, how students did on questions from the statewide student achievement test compared with similar ones on the TIMSS.

The grants will also help pay for professional development and a curriculum and textbook analysis.

The federal agency has assigned the consortium its own coordinator in the office of educational research and improvement. And Maggie McNeely said the home-grown effort has impressed her.

"The superintendents came together on their own as part of their sort of book club," Ms. McNeely said. "To take that into a day-to-day project across a geographic region, to actually be able to work together, to convince their boards and parents it was important to share resources, to share a vision of teaching and learning--it simply isn't part of what we typically think of."

First in the World

The following Illinois districts and institutions are members of the consortium:

Avoca School District 37, Wilmette
Frankfort Community Consolidated School District 157-C, Frankfort
Glenbrook High School District 225, Glenview
Glencoe School District 35, Glencoe
Glenview Community Consolidated District 34, Glenview
Golf Elementary School District 67, Morton Grove
Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy, Aurora
Lincolnwood School District 74, Lincolnwood
Mount Prospect District 57, Mount Prospect
New Trier Township School District 203, Winnetka
Niles Elementary School District 71, Niles
Niles Township School District 219, Skokie
Northbrook School District 27, Northbrook
Northbrook School District 28, Northbrook
Northbrook/Glenview School District 30, Northbrook
Northern Suburban Special Education District, Highland Park
Sunset Ridge School District 29, Northfield
West Northfield School District 31, Northbrook
Wheeling School District 21, Wheeling
Wilmette School District 39, Wilmette

The consortium's coordinator is Paul Kimmelman, the superintendent of West Northfield School District 31. For more information, call (847) 272-6880, ext. 223, or check the World Wide Web at http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/firstwor.htm.

For information about taking part in the TIMSS, call the U.S. Department of Education at (202) 219-1828. The cost is $50,000 for each grade/age level.

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