December 04, 2014

Illinois Set To Test Common Core Standards

Illinois students are scheduled to take the new Common Core test this spring, despite a growing chorus of parents and educators opposing it.

To get some idea of how controversial the test is, consider this: The number of states that have legalized marijuana use -- 23 -- is double the number of states that have agreed to use this test -- just 11. Of those 11, only eight have agreed to use both the elementary and high school portions of the test. Illinois is one of these states.

It’s known by the acronym PARCC -- Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- and will replace both the ISAT and Prairie State Assessment Exam, although high school juniors will still take the ACT this year. The PARCC involves students taking two tests -- one in March, and a shorter one in May. Math and Language Arts are the only subjects covered this year.

The argument against the test was summed up by Peter Bavis, an assistant superintendent at Evanston Township High School, in his October presentation to the Evanston school board.

“The PARCC test is neither valid nor reliable as a measure, and the reason for that is because it’s never been given to a large population," Bavis says. "So we’re paying to have a private testing company norm their instrument on the backs of Illinois students. That’s a big problem.”

Chicago Public Schools sought a one-year delay in using the test, and a half dozen states have established the right of students to opt out of taking it. But Chris Koch, superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education, has tried to quash any such efforts here. On his agency's website, Koch wrote: “Opting out of PARCC is not an option.”

What makes this test so radioactive? For starters, it’s based on the Common Core learning standards -- a radical overhaul of language arts and math benchmarks that was initially embraced by educators. In the recent mid-term elections, however, several candidates successfully ran on anti-Common Core platforms. They framed the argument as federal authorities dictating to locals.

Contrary to popular belief, these standards were not formulated by the federal government. They’re the result of an initiative launched by 48 governors and state school officers. But they establish a progression of academic milestones designed to apply throughout the country. And the government did provide an incentive for states to adopt Common Core.

"In order to submit a bid for a federal grant, you had to sign on to the standards," says Scott Filkins, a literacy support teacher at Champaign Central High School. He is the co-author of a paper released by the National Council of Teachers of English called “Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction” -- and they italicized the word TRULY for a reason: They don’t think PARCC is the kind of test they need.

“I feel, and lots of others in the field feel, that we need to work more on helping teachers assess in the classroom context all along the way. Because a kid’s score on the PARCC is not going to tell you how to teach him better,” Filkins says.

He also believes that the tests and the Common Core standards were “reverse engineered,” formulated by starting at the goal for high school juniors and then working backwards, dividing milestones grade by grade down to kindergarten.

“It puts kids on a weird developmental trajectory that’s not necessarily true," Filkins says, "but it makes the standards look like a neat progression.”

On the other hand, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics enthusiastically support Common Core. Lynn Narasimhan, a professor of mathematical sciences at DePaul University, says the standards introduce fewer math topics, so teachers can go more in-depth.

“Part of that also is that they’re very well designed as progressions from grade to grade,” she says.

So Common Core has its supporters and its critics. And in Illinois, as school districts prepare to administer the PARCC test in the spring, the controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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November 04, 2014

Champaign Unit Four Voters Defeat Bond Referendum

Champaign Public Schools will have to try again for the money to build a new high school and renovate an existing one. The referendum for a $149 million-dollar bond sale failed last night — 52 percent voting no and 47 percent voting yes.

School Board President Laurie Bonnett says the district plans to do a voter analysis study, to find which residents might need more convincing. She says the district's high schools are already overcrowded, and it will only get worse without an increase to property taxes to fund construction.

"There are some that say, 'You know, I can't afford that.' And I get that," she said. "But I also don't know that we can afford not to have a place for our kids at the table, in the classroom ... So if there are community members that have a suggestion as how to add 500 seats, and, no, trailers don't count--then I'd be happy to hear their suggestions."

The bonds would have paid for construction of a new high school on the north end of Champaign, to replace the 76-year-old Champaign Central High School building, and for the expansion and renovation of 47-year-old Centennial High School.

Unit Four officials noted overcrowding at both schools, and a lack of athletic fields at Central, as well as modern learning facilities like science labs and collaborative spaces.

But many residents expressed opposition to building a “new Central High School” on the very northern edge of the city, instead of in a more central location. School officials say there was no central location available that would offer the space the new high school campus would need.

Bonnett says the district might try again on the April ballot, but may have to table the effort for the time being.


November 04, 2014

Catlin, Jamaica School Districts Vote To Consolidate

The tiny Jamaica and Catlin school districts will become a little less tiny next summer. Voters in both South Vermilion County districts approved a referendum to consolidate into the new Salt Fork.

The consolidation referendum won with majorities of 56% in Catlin School District 5, and 57% in Jamaica School District 12. Voters also elected a 7 member board to govern the new Salt Fork school district when it becomes a legal entity on July 1st, 2015.

Catlin School Board President Jeff Fauver supported consolidation, and was also elected to the new Salt Fork School Board. He says when the new board takes over Jamaica and Catlin schools next July 1st, they’ll build on the cooperation the two districts have had for several years in their cooperative high school sports programs.

"We have worked together for over 20 years in our sports cooperative", said Fauver. "And I think now we’re taking this to a new level in regards to academics. We’re excited about the opportunity to offer our kids more curriculum than is being offered today in either district. And we’re real excited about the opportunity, looking forward for the Salt Fork District."

Under consolidation, Jamaica High School and Catlin Middle School will close. Backers say the resulting efficiencies and combined tax base will help them restore educational programs they’ve had to cut over the years. But they still expect to have to look for new options in the 2020’s.

Jared Fritz, a Jamaica parent, who worked against consolidation on the Thrive For Better Education Committee says he wishes the new Salt Fork school board well. But he has concerns about unforeseen problems that may crop up along the way. Fritz’ group had wanted to study other options, such as partnering with other school districts, and other types of partnerships, like a cooperative high school.


Teacher Kelsey Schoenecke goes through a book with 2nd graders in a dual language immersion class at Urbana's Prairie School.
(Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media)
October 15, 2014

ISBE Members Tour C-U Schools

Members of the Illinois State Board of Education meeting in Champaign-Urbana Wednesday were greeted with a song in both Spanish and English, when they visited a bilingual kindergarten class at the Prairie Elementary School in Urbana.

“We are from many places, Africa and Europe and Central America”, sang the children in first Spanish, then English. The members of Mrs. Vivian Presiado’s Kindergarten class are taking part in a dual-language immersion program that places native speakers of Spanish and English together, with instruction partly in one language, and partly in the other. Urbana School District 116 also operates the program at its Leal Elementary School.

State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico was impressed by the program, praising it as a way to mix language learning with general curriculum.

“Not only does it make us more nimble around the globe, with the ability to understand someone else’s language and culture --- and they to understand ours --- but we’re finding, educationally, that the results, academically, of students in that program are surpassing those students not in that program”, said Chico.

The former Chicago Public Schools Board Chairman says access to dual-language immersion education around the state is “spotty”, because the programs take extra effort to set up, and require extra funding.

The Urbana school district launched its dual-language immersion program two years ago.

State Board of Education members also toured the Urbana Early Childhood School for children aged 3 to 5 … and the Champaign-Ford Regional READY Program for middle and high school students with discipline problems.


Phyllis Wise, the chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
(Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois)
September 04, 2014

Chancellor Wise Expresses Regret Over Salaita Case

The chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana campus expressed regret on Thursday about the way she came to a decision to withdraw a job offer to a professor who posted inflammatory comments on Twitter – a decision she said was “pretty unilateral.”

Chancellor Phyllis Wise said members of the Board of Trustees told her in July that they likely would not approve the appointment of Professor Steven Salaita. A week later, Wise sent a letter to Salaita rescinding the job offer.

“The judgment I made in writing him was to convey the sentiment of the Board of Trustees, it was not mine,” she said. “And I did it because I thought I was doing something humane for him.”

Humane, she said, because she didn’t want Salaita to move his family to Urbana only to learn his appointment was not approved.

Asked if she was taking the fall for the Board of Trustees, Wise said, “no,” she was sharing the responsibility. Wise said she regretted not consulting more people before sending the letter and promised to examine her process to avoid mistakes in the future. Last month, the board, U of I President Robert Easter and other top-level administrators publicly backed the chancellor.

Wise said she sent Salaita’s appointment to the board last Fall with her recommendation to approve it. She said Salaita pushed back his start date and when the Tweets came out, she said people starting looking closer at his record.

Wise spoke at an assembly of College of Media faculty on campus, and was repeatedly challenged about the decision and whether it violates principles of free speech and academic freedom. She promised to begin a campus-wide conversation about what that freedom means on a modern college campus.


A classroom (courtesy WFIU)
September 02, 2014

Illinois Schools In Pension Limbo

It’s expected to be some time before the courts decide whether Illinois can trim retirement benefits for public school teachers, university workers, and state employees. But the uncertainty continues to affect the credit outlook of schools and community colleges across the state.  

Much of the political class in Illinois continues to insist the state’s pension problems have been solved. This summer, the Illinois Supreme Court decided the state Constitution prohibits the more modest step of making state retirees pay health insurance premiums. But self-styled reformers were undeterred.

The day of the court decision, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office said: “We believe the pension reform law is constitutional.”

Not everyone is so sanguine. Tucked into the flurry of reports issued by credit rating agencies, one phrase has been appearing again and again, undercutting the financial outlook for many public schools and community colleges across Illinois. Under headings such as “Challenges” or “What could make the rating go down,” there’s often a warning along the lines of “increased budgetary pressures due to a shift in pension costs from the state.”

Tom Aaron, with Moody’s Public Finance Group in Chicago, says that’s because of “the likelihood that the state may have to search for additional pension answers.” Despite prognostications by Quinn and others, Aaron says it’s not certain whether last year’s pension overhauls will be upheld by the Supreme Court.

“So in the event they are not, there is a risk that the state is going to have to go back to the drawing board in terms of trying to solve its pension issues,” he said.

And that could include a shift in pension costs from the state onto individual school districts, colleges and universities.

Though no one in state government is talking much about it these days, the cost-shift was once a key component of pension proposals. House Speaker Michael Madigan decried the “free lunch,”  in which school boards set employee pay without worrying about future pension costs, since those would be borne by the state.

Even as recently as March 2014, Senate President John Cullerton mentioned it in a speech at the Union League Club of Chicago:

“We’ve suggested to the suburban and downstate areas, ‘You’ve got to start paying a little bit of your employers’ portion of the pensions.’ It’s called a cost-shift. … It’s important. This makes good public policy,” Cullerton said.

More recently, Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said while the Senate president remains interested in the idea, “we’ll have to wait and see how the 2015 legislative agenda takes shape.”

Moody’s doesn’t think schools can afford to wait. Moody’s Public Finance Vice President Rachel Cortez says the agency asks whether districts are bracing themselves for the possibility of a cost-shift:

“The stronger credits, the stronger management teams tend to be aware that that could be coming, and are preparing for it, making contingency plans," she added.

One recently downgraded district is Lincoln-Way, serving the southwest suburbs of Frankfort, Mokena, and New Lenox. It expanded from two to four schools in the last decade, but the housing bust and economic downturn have hurt the district’s finances. Superintendent R. Scott Tingley says a pension shift would cost at least an additional $600,000 per year. But he says ongoing reductions in state funding are already a problem. And that’s not all:

"Our fear is that if the funding formula changes and we’re hit even harder, then that puts us in a more difficult situation,” Tingley said.

Tingley says the new state funding formula proposed in Senate Bill 16 would have cost Lincoln-Way $2 million a year.

Earlier this year, the Illinois State Board of Education reported nearly 62 percent of school districts had budget deficits. That’s up from just 18 percent in 2011. With state funding already wilting, there’s only so much districts can do to shore up for a cost-shift.

You can read more about the topic in the latest Illinois Issues magazine.

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