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Revisiting the 1985 education reforms:
Is the 'old school bus' running better?

This is the first of two articles dealing with reforms of public education in Illinois.

"We have moved to the head of the class in the United States in educational reforms," Gov. James R. Thompson declared in July 1985 as he signed legislation that culminated what had come to be called the "Year of Education" in Illinois. But now six years later, it is clear that the former governor was engaging in characteristic hyperbole, or perhaps wishful thinking.

"In a general sense, I don't think the reforms have been very successful," says James Ward, associate dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

"The reforms of 1985 have not resulted in much fundamental change. Frankly, you can't find tangible evidence that anything has changed at all." There may be some hyperbole there; some things have changed. Yet, it remains true that the Year of Education was to schooling what an engine tune-up is to an old school bus it may run a little smoother but it's still the same old jalopy.

A few worthwhile doodads were added to the vehicle in 1985 notably, an emphasis on early childhood education and some changes of attitude about the goals of learning. But overall, the omnibus school reform package of 1985 was more a legislative palliative for a public uneasy about the quality of schools and restless for change than it was a fundamental rethinking of what schools do and how they do it. Says Ward,' 'Much of what happened in 1985 was largely symbolic, a response to political criticism of schools."

There is little question that the sense of crisis that pervaded the 1985 spring legislative session was grounded as much in politics as in education. It had been two years since the Nation at Risk commission concluded with stirring melodrama that public schools in the United States were drowning in a "rising tide of mediocrity." In the wake of the national commission's disheartening assessment of public education, the General Assembly established a special legislative commission to study the state of schooling in Illinois. The Illinois Commission on the Improvement of Elementary and Secondary Education was but one of a mosaic of groups and individuals seeking to reform education. House Speaker Michael J. Madigan of Chicago convened a statewide conference on education. Gov. Thompson devoted a State of the State speech to school reform and proposed a Better Schools Program. A university-based Illinois Project for School Reform, the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce and the state's two leading teachers' unions all had a hand in trying to fix that rusty sputtering old school bus.

Legislatively, the results were staggering. So sweeping was the package of school reform measures that in March of this year, state school Supt. Robert Leininger, who as the chief lobbyist for the State Board of Education in 1985 helped shepherd the reforms through the legislature, could say, "Some of them I've forgotten about."

Small wonder. In all, there were 169 initiatives contained in a passel of House and Senate bills that constituted the reform package. There were new programs and substantial funding for early childhood education, reading improvement in elementary grades, dropout prevention, minority student achievement. The legislature mandated that prospective teachers be tested before they become certified and existing teachers be evaluated and provided in-service training. There were scholarships to recruit more minority teachers and administrators. The law ordered that principals be instructional leaders rather than paper-shuffling bureaucrats, that they be periodically recertified and that they receive training at an administrators' academy. Lawmakers demanded that the State Board of Education create model goals for student learning and institute a statewide testing program to measure how well schools and school districts meet the goals. School districts were told to establish learning objectives based on what students should know as a consequence of their schooling and devise tests to assess student progress. At the behest of Gov. Thompson, the legislature directed all districts to issue an annual school report card to parents and taxpayers.

When Leininger is asked for a report card on the Year of Education six years later, he says, "A 'B' or 'B-minus'. Not an 'A,' but certainly above average." There is not much agreement on what grade the 1985 Illinois school reform should receive nor, for the most part, about which of the scores of measures and initiatives proved effective and which did not. Most people, however, agree with Leininger that the ability to truly gauge the reform drive has been undercut by the failure of legislators and Thompson to fund it as they had promised in 1985. "It's hard to tell what worked and what didn't when it didn't get funded adequately," says Lee Betterman, president of the Illinois Education Association (IEA).

Even so, some consensus is evident. For example, there is virtually universal praise for the effort to increase preschool opportunities for educationally disadvantaged youngsters, so-called "at-risk" children. "There is a wealth of evidence that says early childhood is the most effective time for intervention," says Betterman. So, give it an "A" for concept. "But," adds

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Betterman, "again, there is not enough money to expand it." So, give it a "D-minus" for effort. If early childhood programs get all the money sought by Gov. Jim Edgar and the State Board of Education this year, the number of children in preschool programs next year will total 30,000 less than a third of the 112,000 children the state board estimates in need of such schooling.

Some other programs undertaken in 1985 have proven useful, or at least popular. School administrators are enthusiastic about a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade "reading improvement program," which started at $38 million in fiscal 1986 and now stands at $41 million. However, it became part of the reform package in 1985 not because the money would pay to explore new ideas about teaching reading, but because it was widely viewed as a convenient way for elementary schools to recoup the loss of a similar amount of state funding that resulted from a change in the school aid formula. "It was a recovery of dollars for elementary districts,'' says one state official. "You can't find that the money has had a helluva lot of effect on reading scores."

Leininger and others question the effectiveness of programs aimed at chronic truants and dropouts, which have gone from $10 million in fiscal 1986 to $18 million this fiscal year. Mean-

'It gives the state one realm of accountability, says Betterman. 'But it doesn't test how well they can teach'

while, the statewide dropout rate hovers stubbornly at 26 percent, meaning more than one in four youngsters who enter high school as freshmen drop out without a diploma. Leininger: "Intervention programs at later grades are becoming highly questionable."

There is widespread agreement that the effects of other features of the reform package have become negligible. Leininger says of the administrators' academy in Bloomington: "We ought to change it or get rid of it. Everybody's been academied by now." Of the $15 million spent on summer school for gifted and remedial students, the superintendent says: "I'm not sure school districts have been super creative with this." Pilot studies of merit pay for teachers and so-called "career ladders" for teacher advancement have been abandoned, State Board of Education officials say, after demonstrating that such matters are best left to collective bargaining. All new teachers must now pass a basic skills test as a result of the 1985 reforms, but Alan Brown, assistant superintendent for curriculum in the Springfield public schools, says, "We have not sensed any change in the quality of the teachers we're getting. The test may weed out potential illiterates, but I thought that was what college does. That, in effect, is what the test is saying we don't trust the diploma." Lee Betterman of the IEA notes that 93 percent of prospective teachers pass the test. "It gives the state one realm of accountability," says Betterman. "But it doesn't test how well they can teach."

Accountability was the impetus of the school report card, which Gov. Thompson proposed after polls revealed that the public found school officials distant and unaccountable. School administators have maligned the report card because it has led to sometimes unfair, or embarrassing, comparisons of schools and school districts. Betterman: "To the extent that parents look at the report cards and question what's going on in their schools, they're useful. I don't know many parents who do that." Says Wayne Sampson, director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, "I'm not sure it's a good accountability tool or even a good informational tool."

"This was accountability reform," says Michael Bakalis, a former state superintendent of education and now president of Triton College, of the Year of Education. "It was a response to the 1983 Nation at Risk report. Everybody in the country was doing something, so Illinois felt it must too. Gov. Thompson was saying, 'You educators are always crying for more money, well, I want more accountability.' The majority of the measures were saying in essence, let's get a handle on what we're doing." Says James Ward of the University of Illinois: "The '85 reforms were to respond to the notion we had a bunch of incompetents in the classroom."

Of all the measures enacted in 1985 to make schools accountable, none has created more controversy than the effort to hold schools to account for student performance. "The 1985 reforms placed an exaggerated emphasis on standardized testing," says Fred Coombs, an associate dean of education at the University of Illinois. "There is only so much you can do to get a true measure of a school through standardized tests. But the legislature and the public see that as the most convenient measurement."

The center of this controversy is the Illinois Goal Assessment Program (known as the IGAP), a standardized test developed by the State Board of Education to measure student performance in reading, writing, math, social studies, science and the fine arts. The State Board of Education staff customized the IGAP to closely parallel the learning goals and objectives developed by committees of educators under the leadership of John Corbally, then president of the MacArthur Foundation and former University of Illinois president. School districts are required to administer the IGAP test to third, sixth, eighth and tenth graders every spring (though the test won't be fully phased in for all grades in all subject matters until 1994).

The complaints against the IGAP are many, and legislation has been introduced annually to repeal the testing requirement. One criticism is that kids are tested too much. Another complaint is that there is an exodus of teachers from the testing grades, particularly third and sixth, because of the pressure imposed by the IGAP test. Notes the IEA's Lee Betterman: "Long-time third grade teachers are going to second or fourth because pressure from the district is making them teach to the test, and they don't think the test accurately reflects student ability."

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This criticism underscores still another objection, that a statewide test will produce a statewide curriculum. Alan Brown of the Springfield school district notes, "Once the state starts mandating a particular test, like the IGAP, it will drive curriculum. That has happened." He says the Springfield district abandoned a phonics-based reading progam this year in favor of a "whole-language" approach because IGAP measures the kind of reading skills taught through the whole-language method. "Any school district that wanted to adopt a phonics-based reading program would be out of step," Brown says. He says Springfield officials believe whole language is a superior method of teaching reading and so agreed with the approach that the state test, in effect, foisted upon them. But he suggests the test could be a two-edged sword. "Where the system could fall apart would be if the state moves toward a curriculum that we don't agree with," says Brown. "That could happen in science,"

State officials acknowledge that the testing program is not flawless and say some changes could be in store, such as giving districts the flexibility to choose which primary grade they will test. Still, they defend it as a valid measurement of learning objectives devised by educators who ought to know something about what students should know as a consequence of their schooling. Moreover, they say IGAP should be but one measure of how well a school is educating its students, an "early warning" system as one State Board of Education official calls it.

Also, despite its shortcomings, many people regard the state test and the learning goals tied to it as the initiative most likely to actually reform schooling, that is, to introduce a fundamentally new way of thinking about what happens in the classroom. "It's converted us to looking at the outcomes of education," says Alan Brown. "It's forced those districts that wouldn't have done it to do it." Professor Coombs, who is no fan of standardized testing, says: "Readdressing priorities of schooling to give more attention to academic achievement was a needed correction. Certainly we have focused on academic achievement in a way not done before."

That was the whole point back in 1985. Led by the State Board of Education, many reformers pushed "learning outcomes" as an approach to pedagogy and curriculum that would get away from the conventional view of schooling, which simply forced students to meet certain course requirements on the belief that a couple years of this and a few years of that would produce an educated high school graduate. The outcomes approach focuses instead on what students should know and on what they have learned. IGAP is an integral part of forcing schools to focus on student outcomes. For example, Tom Kerins, who heads student testing programs for the State Board of Education, notes: "The state goals emphasize geometry and algebra skills as much as computational skills. So, we developed an assessment that asks as many algebra questions as simple computational questions. That will affect curriculum."

Coombs sees some risk in that connection. "To the extent that state goals drive curriculum, then local schoolteachers lose ownership in the process," he says. "You can't bring about change unless the people in the classroom are partners in that change. It is so important not to have those changes imposed from above.'' Ward, his colleague at the University of Illinois, agrees: "The reforms of '85 were very much in keeping with the traditional model of top-down reform by mandate and regulation. This doesn't produce fundamental change."

Ward is director of the Education Policy Assembly, a group of education and civic leaders from throughout Illinois, which earlier this year urged yet another major overhaul of the old school bus. In a statement issued in February, the assembly urged a clearer definition of the goals of education in the state, a longer minimum school year, a "program watch list" for schools not meeting state expectations, a balanced tax program to provide sufficient revenues for the state's schools, a reduction in the large disparities in resources available among school districts, and a legislative solution to current school problems.

"These issues cannot wait for action by others; solutions must come through the legislative process now," the assembly concluded. Says Coombs: "We need a basic break from the past. Reform is needed."

Not suprisingly, many educators believe Illinois schools have had about all the legislative reform they can stand for awhile,

'You can't bring about change unless the people in the classroom are partners in that change'

Alan Brown: "I'm not suggesting that the reforms have substantially improved education, but I think generally they have been good. I'm not sure we need to try to fix it now just because after five years we haven't seen substantial progress. It would be a mistake to launch new initiatives; we have a good model in place, and we can't afford new programs. We just need to catch our breath and do a really good job with what we have."

And there are those who believe the 1985 reforms went too far. As the head of state testing programs, Tom Kerins is accustomed to fielding complaints from educators about IGAP, a centerpiece of the 1985 reforms. He recalls one grievance from an eighth-grade teacher who called Kerins to complain that the state achievement test his office designed was interfering with her time-honored approach to teaching English. "All I have done in the past is teach how to diagram sentences," she told Kerins. "Now I'm getting pressure from the principal to teach writing.'' She wanted Kerins to know personally that she would teach writing skills during March in preparation for the April IGAP test. "But then I'm going back to diagraming sentences." Kerins concludes, "Some people may never be ready for reform."

Donald Sevener is editor of the Illinois Times in Springfield. Prior to the enactment of the 1985 education reforms, he contributed to a series of articles for Illinois Issues on the problems of education in Illinois public schools.

16/May 1991/Illinois Issues

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