Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Illinois: The New Leader in Education Reform

By John Luczak, Dan Montgomery, Darren Reisberg & Ken Swanson — June 17, 2011 6 min read

Earlier this week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed what might be the boldest and most important piece of education legislation ever passed in the state. For the first time anywhere, a state’s key teachers’ unions helped draft dramatic changes in how teachers earn tenure, how layoff decisions are made, when teachers can be dismissed for poor performance, and what’s necessary for them to strike. The bill drew tremendous bipartisan support; it passed 59-0 in the Senate and 112-1 in the House.

Over the past few months, we, the authors, have been asked the same questions countless times. First, how did a state like Illinois, which was not known for being in the forefront of educational change, pass this law? And second, if there was so much agreement, is that a signal that the bill lacks transformative power?

Senate Bill 7, or SB 7, passed because of a broad consensus in Illinois that it is time to do something different. Stakeholders of all persuasions have been engaged in dialogue for several years about what it would take for our state to become a national leader in education. The final legislation does not represent the victory of one set of interests over another. It is a collective blueprint for ensuring that Illinois has among the highest standards for classroom instruction in the country, with accountability for all. At a time when many teachers understandably feel under attack, this bill celebrates effective teachers, recognizes their accomplishments, and helps keep them in classrooms.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the presidents of both national teachers’ unions, Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, have issued public statements of support, praising both the process and the content of the legislation. Duncan has addressed how Illinois has steadily built consensus among the state’s key stakeholders toward meaningful change. He issued a statement after the bill passed the legislature saying: “Illinois has done something truly remarkable and every state committed to education reform should take notice. ... For some time now I have been saying that tough-minded collaboration is more productive than confrontation, and this is the proof.”

Our ability to cooperate is a result of our near-constant dialogue. Representatives of labor unions, the state school board, major urban districts, and nonprofit organizations worked closely on both rounds of the state’s Race to the Top applications last year. With the help of elected leaders and the Illinois State Board of Education, the state passed five education laws in a 15-month span during 2009-10, addressing significant issues, including strengthening principal-preparation programs, expanding the charter school cap, and modernizing teacher and principal evaluations. Importantly, all those laws were also built in a bipartisan, collaborative style.

At a time when many teachers understandably feel under attack, this bill celebrates effective teachers, recognizes their accomplishments, and helps keep them in classrooms."

Though Illinois was twice a Race to the Top finalist, we did not secure a grant. It would have been easy to point fingers or to retreat to unproductive battle lines. Instead, Illinois did the opposite. The process of working together on two grueling federal grant applications built trust. Disparate groups learned to work through disagreements. Those involved started asking what else was necessary to finish the job our Race to the Top process started.

Even so, SB 7 did not come about easily: One of the state’s Race to the Top legislative leaders, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D–Maywood, and the state board led four months of negotiations among union, management, and reform groups. Those discussions, though heated, were always respectful. We believe SB7 is more likely to enhance teaching and learning in Illinois because the unions were at the table advocating for students as well as their members. All of those who have been involved in this process share the opinion that the bill’s goal is to elevate classroom instruction.

With this bill, teachers will no longer earn tenure based only on years of service; they must demonstrate a high level of proficiency during their first four years of teaching. And although experience still matters, teachers will no longer keep or lose their jobs based on their number of years in the classroom. An improved evaluation system with performance-based measures, including student-growth indicators and more-robust teacher observations, will allow school districts that are struggling financially to hold on to great young teachers in spite of their few years on the job. And ineffective teachers who have not demonstrated improvement within 90 days will be dismissed through a streamlined hearing process.

The legislative process in Illinois differed from those in other states this year. Gov. Quinn and Sen. Lightford ensured that, unlike our neighbors in Wisconsin and Ohio, Illinois education stakeholders would work together to craft an aggressive bill that could make our state the nation’s new leader in education reform, provided the reforms are well implemented. The experience was not reduced to realigning power or curtailing the influence of any group. Teachers were not painted as overprivileged burdens on the state economy. The collaboration was done patiently through shared work. We feel that this path positions Illinois especially well for the bill’s implementation, as the groups have emerged with a greater commitment to working together.

It is not our intention to argue that every state can follow the process that has been effective for Illinois. Each state has its own needs, politics, and leadership. However, given the divisiveness and acrimony that has dominated state and local education policymaking in recent months, it is important to recognize that combat is not the only answer. Reform can be rooted in respect.

Some have questioned whether the bill is “tough” enough. If tough is taken to mean “rigorous,” we are quite confident it will hold up to the most important scrutiny—implementation. What matters about policy is how it is plays out in schools. In contrast to other states, especially those that have passed similar reform laws opposed by the teachers they’re supposed to support, we believe Illinois has several advantages:

Local control. While experts will help state officials create evaluation options, teachers and administrators in each Illinois district have the flexibility to tailor their educator evaluations to address local needs.

Structure. Groups are working together to implement past legislation, and channels exist for cooperative design, issue resolution, and results sharing between practitioners.

Communication. The state is developing communications materials so districts, school boards, interested parents, and legislators can better understand how the reforms will be carried out.

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced that phase-two Race to the Top finalist states, including Illinois, could receive funding in the next round this fall. Our state may be eligible for up to $30 million to assist in the implementation of SB7 and the state’s other recent laws. That’s less money than we had hoped to win in earlier rounds, but this has never been about the money. It’s been about Illinois continuing on a path for true reform.

Through a collaborative process that is deservedly getting national attention, Illinois education stakeholders accomplished something remarkable. Now, it is time for the focus to shift from the Statehouse to public school classrooms across Illinois. Our students deserve the best we can deliver.

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Illinois: The New Leader in Education Reform

Events

School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Branding your district matters. This webinar will provide you with practical tips and strategies to elevate your brand from three veteran professionals, each of whom has been directly responsible for building their own district’s brand.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. school districts are using hybrid learning right now with varying degrees of success. Students and teachers are getting restless and frustrated with online learning, making curriculum engagement difficult and disjointed. While
Content provided by Samsung

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Clinical Director
Garden Prairie, IL, US
Camelot Education

Read Next

School & District Management Student Mental Health and Learning Loss Continue to Worry Principals
Months into the pandemic, elementary principals say they still want training in crucial areas to help students who are struggling.
3 min read
Student sitting alone with empty chairs around her.
Maria Casinos/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion A Road Map for Education Research in a Crisis
Here are five basic principles for a responsible and timely research agenda during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robin J. Lake
4 min read
Two opposing sides reaching out to work together
J.R. Bee for Education Week
School & District Management 1,000 Students, No Social Distancing, and a Fight to Keep the Virus Out
A principal describes the "nightmare" job of keeping more than 1,000 people safe in the fast-moving pandemic.
4 min read
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School, in West Jordan, Utah.
Dixie Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan, Utah, would have preferred a hybrid schedule and other social distancing measures.
Courtesy of Dixie Rae Garrison
School & District Management A School Leader Who Calls Her Own Shots on Battling the Coronavirus
A charter school founder uses her autonomy to move swiftly on everything from classroom shutdowns to remote schooling.
3 min read
Nigena Livingston, founder and head of School at the URBAN ACT Academy in Indianapolis, Ind.
Nigena Livingston, founder and head of school at the URBAN ACT Academy in Indianapolis, makes swift decisions in responding to the threat of COVID-19 in her school community.
Courtesy of Nigena Livingston