Amid Chaos in Illinois Education, A Small Sign of Hope

06/24/2010 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Any casual newspaper reader has probably noticed that the educational system in Illinois is on the verge of meltdown.

The Illinois state superintendent, Christopher Koch, has been forced to implement a swingeing $300 million budget cut, one that will devastate the state board of education's programs in areas ranging from arts education to alternative schools. Said the widely-respected Koch: "This makes me physically sick."

In Chicago, schools chief Ron Huberman has threatened to lay off 2,700 teachers and boost class sizes to 35 to deal with a crippling budget deficit. He also says that he wants to layoff lower performing teachers regardless of seniority. Newly-elected union leader Karen Lewis says that Huberman is hiding information and may be overstating the extent of the problem. She also argues (probably correctly) that layoffs not based on seniority are illegal.

So where's the hope? Right where all educators would prefer to spend their time: in determining what children are learning.

The current Illinois Learning Standards, like the standards in most states, are regarded by many educators as both woeful and hilarious. The standards are replete with meaningless educational jargon and often sound something like this: "Relate reading to prior knowledge and experience and make connections to related information."

As New York University historian Diane Ravitch writes in her tour-de-force critique of the educational system, states began to write such vapid standards after watching the demise of the voluntary national history standards in the early 1990s. "Standards would survive scrutiny only if they said nothing and changed nothing," she continues, adding that

Few states refer to a single significant work of literature that students are expected to read. [...] Instead, they babble about how students "interact with text," apply "word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections," [and] "make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections." Students should certainly think about what they read, but they should read something worth thinking about.

And that's where the hopeful story comes in. On Thursday, Illinois adopted a new set of standards, developed with federal encouragement by a consortium of 48 states and DC. (Predictably, the two holdouts were Texas and Alaska.) The standards, known as "Common Core," are considerably more specific, concrete, and rigorous -- and will hopefully do a world of good when fully implemented.

Instead of descending into the sort of irrelevance that Ravitch objects to, the new English standards contain lists of suggested texts, titles that have stood the test of time. High school upperclassmen, for example, will be expected to read five texts: the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, and one Shakespeare play. Tellingly, the list Ravitch provides in her book contains both Lincoln and Shakespeare as well.

Will stronger standards in English and math lead to more consistent and challenging curricula across the state? The devil will be in the details of the implementation -- particularly after 2014, when a new test aligned to the standards is developed.

But as Ravitch notes, a curriculum based on rigorous standards is an essential "starting point for other reforms," providing guidance for everyone from teachers and parents to assessment developers and textbook publishers. While schools and teachers are ultimately free to make their own pedagogical choices, the new standards establish a meaningful baseline. What's more, strengthening standards has widespread support: it's perhaps the one thing that the people who see Ravitch as a hero and the reformers who are often her target agree on.

As the state's fiscal calamity makes the condition of Illinois education downright depressing, we can take solace in the fact that at least one reform is going forward. And if we are feeling particularly optimistic, we can hope for a day where the state's revenues and obligations are consistently in line and everyone can focus on educational practices instead of budgetary fires.