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Can we make schools accountable?: Illinois lawmakers debate school spending

Advocacy groups argue that a one-size-fits-all policy to measure accountability is unfair, particularly in such an economically diverse state as Illinois.

At a minimum, lawmakers will need to agree this spring on how much to spend on elementary and secondary education this next fiscal year. They could, as some advocate, find new ways to come up with the dollars — and devise a more equitable way to distribute them. But even if they pass this test, there's another politically tricky question they could be called on to answer: How can schools be held more accountable for the money they get? So far, they're leaving that answer blank.

What, after all, does accountability mean? There's no clear set of definitions, says Mary Ellen Guest, a campaign manager for A+ Illinois, a coalition of education advocates. "Accountability is a very charged and loaded term, and when teachers hear it, they think about more testing and more pressure." 

Test scores do provide a means for measuring teachers' ability to get through to students. But one result of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act is that test-driven accountability is now the norm in public schools, according to the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit research institute and advocacy group in Washington, D.C. 

Under the federal act, students' test scores must improve each year or the district is penalized. The process is meant to highlight the academic areas that need improvement. Yet it has piled more pressure on some teachers in districts that have limited financial and staff resources. Those that fail to improve test scores from year to year may be subject to such sanctions as allowing students to transfer or requiring districts to offer tutoring services. Schools that haven't met the standards for five consecutive years or more can face a takeover by the state, which then would direct curriculum, leadership and staff. 

Advocacy groups argue that a one-size-fits-all policy to measure accountability is unfair, particularly in such an economically diverse state as Illinois. 

"How dare people compare teacher performance of New Trier district to those in Chicago or Effingham that have less resources," Guest says. That's why she favors an assessment that grades teachers on gains children have made throughout the year. Under that plan, if a child comes into a third-grade classroom reading at a first-grade level but advances by the end of the year, the teacher would receive recognition for that progress. 

But the challenges of dilapidated buildings, high teacher turnover and substandard resources affect teachers' abilities to do their jobs. 

"Teachers want to be accountable, but they also want the measures of accountability to be carefully thought out and applied," says Gail Purkey, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union affiliated with the Illinois AFL-CIO. 

The A+ Illinois coalition released its new policy platform last month with recommendations on ways districts should be critiqued. In addition to changing the way the state funds education, the group calls for a third party to serve as a watchdog for schools' operational and financial problems. It also wants evaluations on how well students are learning. 

This year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposes setting aside $10 billion for education over the next four years, starting with $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2008. His Helping Kids Learn plan includes provisions designed to make schools accountable for the education money they receive. 

Funding for these programs would be contingent on a so-called gross receipts tax on businesses. Under that proposal, companies would pay a tax on every Illinois-based business transaction, including sales, manufacturing, construction and services.

The governor's stated goal is to translate new education dollars into academic success, so his plan aims to improve the quality of teachers and the abilities of students. For instance, he would start a statewide mentoring program for teachers. And he would extend the school day and school year, as well as expand state-sponsored preschool for low- and middle-income families. He also proposes full-day kindergarten, after-school tutoring programs for underperforming schools and teacher bonuses based on students' federal test scores.

The Illinois Education Association opposes merit-based pay that's directly tied to students' test scores, according to Ken Swanson, association president. "Any merit-based pay should be subject to collective bargaining at the district level," he says, adding that teachers in districts with high percentages of low-income students may not have the same resources that have been proven to help students achieve.

This fall, a pilot program for merit-based pay will be started in 10 of Chicago's public schools. Seventy-five percent of the teachers in the targeted schools voted to approve the program,  a necessary step for implementation.

The program would give teachers financial rewards and enable them to receive leadership positions for their performance, says Mike Vaughn, press secretary for Chicago Public Schools. 

Veteran educators would mentor new teachers, sharing their expertise in dealing with behavioral and educational challenges. The main focus will be on building teamwork. 

A system for evaluating teachers has yet to be worked out. The possibilities include using students' test scores, reviewing teachers' instructional skills and monitoring whether students improve their skills to the next grade level.

"It would be unreasonable to expect teachers who have students that are way behind their grade level to get them up to standards in one year," Vaughn says.

The pilot also aims to retain experienced teachers. Forty percent to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, according to Swanson. He says factors that contribute to the high turnover include low starting salaries, inadequate resources and feelings of isolation. Also, some teachers aren't prepared for the challenges of teaching students in poor districts.

Advocacy groups say another way to build accountability would be to offer more programs designed to couple new teachers with mentors for support and help in developing effective teaching skills. New teachers also would be given a chance to earn leadership positions. A+ Illinois estimates that a sound mentoring program would cut teacher attrition, but could cost more than $78 million a year.

The Illinois State Board of Education has funded 10 pilot mentoring programs and is expected to provide $1.75 million in grants for fiscal year 2007.

The state also may have to figure out ways to attract teachers to low-income areas. Rep. Charles Jefferson, a Democrat from Rockford, who says he has hard-to-staff schools in his district, has introduced a proposal to address the problem. He would give a $20,000 stipend every year for teaching in schools that are in high-crime areas and have high teacher shortages and a substantial percentage of low-income students. 

These teachers would have to sign contracts agreeing to stay at the schools for five years in order to receive the grants, which could be collected at the end of each school year. Any teacher who meets the state's requirements for being highly qualified would be eligible. That means the teacher must have a bachelor's degree, full state certification and competence in core subjects.

The Illinois Teaching Excellence Program, started in 2001, already awards $3,000 to any public schoolteacher or counselor who holds a master teaching certificate and teaches at least 50 percent of the year. If funds are limited, those stipends are prorated. 

"As legislators, we need to do everything in our power we can to fix this problem, even if it means paying more money," says Jefferson. 

He hasn't come up with an estimate of the cost but says the money would have to come from existing funds. 

Purkey of the Illinois Federation of Teachers says a stipend might not be enough to recruit teachers to schools that are located in gang territory or are dilapidated and have inadequate resources. As a result, students in those districts may have a harder time meeting federal standards. 

One way to target low-performing schools, according to A+ Illinois, is to train more nationally certified teachers and recruit minorities into teaching and administration. The Grow Your Own Teachers initiative is one example.

"Most teachers end up working in communities similar to where they grew up," says Steve Andrews, resource coordinator for Grow Your Own Illinois, a collaboration of six education organizations. The coalition works closely with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. 

Out of 64 Chicago schools the group analyzed, new teachers left at a rate of about 40 percent after their first year, according to its report, Here One Year, Gone the Next. 

"Teacher turnover is very costly and problematic for teacher quality," says Andrews. "The whole process of providing support is very expensive, $20,000 to $75,000 a year to bring in one new teacher." 

He adds high turnover rates happen partially because schools cannot find teachers who come from similar backgrounds as the students. 

The Grow Your Own Teachers Act was signed into law in 2004 in an effort to address turnover rates and hard-to-staff schools. In 2005, $1.5 million was appropriated for groups to plan programs and another $3 million in 2006 to start programs in 11 communities. With 395 people currently in the program, Andrews says his organization hopes to expand the project this fall to Aurora, the Cairo area, Champaign, Rogers Park in Chicago and Peoria. The goal is to provide the state with 1,000 new teachers by 2016. 

"This program is very unique to Illinois," Andrews says. "Illinois is ahead of the curve. We have been getting inquiries from other states who are looking to do something similar."

A+ Illinois says the state could further improve student achievement by using such research-based strategies as reducing class sizes, offering full-day kindergarten, expanding after-school tutoring programs and training staff in low-performing areas.

Pennsylvania has put such strategies to the test with its Accountability Block Grant program, which puts education dollars in school districts with the greatest need as determined by low test scores. 

Seventy-five percent of education dollars are sent to the schools where students placed below federal standards, and 25 percent goes to schools that placed above standards. Money has been used for tutoring, mentoring programs and teacher coaching. 

In Illinois, a longstanding proposal has been revised and introduced in both chambers by Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, and Rep. David Miller, a Lynwood Democrat. The measure would increase spending per student, create a $300 million venture pool to start programs in struggling schools and provide property tax relief and tax credits for low- and moderate-income homeowners. The measure also calls for an increase in state income taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent and an expansion of the sales taxes to include services. The plan would be expected to generate annual net revenue of between $5 billion and $6 billion, according to Ralph Martire, executive director of the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

But the sponsors have yet to flesh out the provision that would establish new fiscal and academic accountability measures. 

Critics argue that, as it stands, the measure fails to hold school districts accountable for their spending of new state dollars, which Miller says is a valid argument. However, to move the bill forward and to put pressure on lawmakers to act now, he says that portion was left blank.

"This will give critics and supporters a chance to craft accountability measures." He says he hopes to work with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones Jr. to iron out the issue and gain support for the funding reforms.

For Swanson, the Illinois Education Association president, the time for that reform is now. "I have seen this for too long, lots of lip service and no action. 

Its time to take action this spring." 

Illinois Issues, April 2007

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