From the way our esteemed Illinois politicians and their supporters have been preening the past couple of days, you'd think they had cured cancer or ended racism. Nope, it's what they and the media have been relentlessly calling a "historic" new education reform law.
Parents across Chicago haven't been so impressed. In fact, a lot of us are scratching our heads wondering what the hoopla is all about. We're wondering, for example:
- Will the new school reform law provide adequate school funding? Illinois currently ranks 49th out of 50 states in paying its share of school funding, has one of the largest school funding gaps, and is 34th in per pupil spending, although we are the seventh wealthiest state in the nation.
- Will the new law cut back the amount of testing in schools? Will we now offer our children more art, science, history, sports and other programs that have been lost as schools increasingly focus on test preparation?
- Will our children's teachers have enough supplies and equipment or more mentoring and high-quality professional development? Will classes be small enough to provide individualized attention? Will this law help build trust among teachers, administrators, and parents?
- Will our children be safer going to school? Will they have more support services to address their emotional needs or more after school and summer programs to keep them off the streets?
- Will parents have more opportunities for involvement or a more respected voice in school decision making?
The answer to all of those questions is NO.
The new Illinois "education reform" law clearly fails to address the main concerns of parents about schools or the major areas where education researchers believe schools need to improve.
Here's all that this "historic" legislation will do: it will now be more difficult for teachers to strike. While no one wants a teachers' strike, it's been 24 years since the last strike in Chicago.
The new law will make student test scores a significant factor in teacher evaluation, even though research shows that judging teachers on test results is unreliable, ineffective in raising student achievement, and only serves to increase testing pressure.
The new law also makes seniority less important in firing decisions. While no one wants their child to have a bad teacher, parents do want teachers with solid credentials and experience. Too often in the recent past, districts have fired excellent older teachers in what looks more like a cost-cutting move than an effort to place the "best and the brightest" in front of our children. We now worry that the most gifted potential teachers will simply choose another profession.
One more point. Much is being made of the "collaborative" nature of the process that created this law. Here's what really happened. First, the corporate advocacy groups Advance Illinois and Stand for Children tried to push their own, union-destroying version of the law through during the 2010 Christmas holidays via a new "Education Reform" Committee set up for that purpose. To their credit, a few lawmakers refused to play along with that, but the message was very clear that the $600,000 that SFC dropped on the November state legislative election was going to buy them something very much like what they initially demanded.
The meetings that were held to hammer out the final law took place in Springfield over the course of several weeks this spring, so the only groups that had a real voice in the process were those with the money to have a team of lobbyists there at all times. The Chicago Tribune reported, for example, that SFC hired a dozen lobbyists to manage their interests.
So, is it real collaboration when only heavily resourced groups can participate? And is it really collaboration when one of the parties has a gun to its head?
For all these reasons, the new "education reform" law looks more like an attempt to distract parents and the public from the real work of school improvement, and not a historic step for education.