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The State of the State

Stricter accountability for schools? rewards for success, consequences for failure

Michael D. Klemens


A time traveler from the ancient 1970s, landing in the Capitol today would be perplexed. First, the state's largest business lobbies, the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, have endorsed a tax hike (extension of the 1989 income tax surcharge). Second, the new president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois says that work force quality, not taxes, is the biggest issue facing the state. Third, business and education have hammered out a plan to make schools accountable for student performance.

Our time traveler would find the relationship between schools and business changing. Once business went its way, becoming involved only when taxes were raised. Following publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, business began to criticize schools. Educators, in turn, became defensive and countered that business should stick to business and leave schools to the educational professionals.

The new-found cooperation is no accident. The State Board of Education forced the issue with creation of the 29-member Regulatory Process Committee made up of business, community and education interests and charged the group to find a way to determine whether students were learning. Its recommendations were amended onto House Bill 885, and negotiations were continuing in mid-May.

The committee wants to redefine the relationship between local schools and the State Board of Education. Under current law the state checks to be sure that teachers are certified, that school board minutes are on file, that boilers have been inspected, etc. Those checks would be extended to include measures of how well schools are educating students.

The committee said the state board should gather the information, relying on the Illinois Goal Assessment Program testing in grades 3, 6, 8 and 11. It also said that factors like student attendance, retention, expulsion and graduation rates should be considered, along with student success after graduation.

The committee would have the state monitor schools for both performance and for improvement, with the emphasis on improvement. A school would compete with itself to improve its performance. The committee would also revise school report cards to provide clear information to citizens on school performance.

Finally, the committee wants a series of incremental rewards for improvement and consequences for no improvement. Rewards would include recognition and less state regulation but not money in cash-strapped Illinois. Consequences would include: first, placement of schools that do not show improvement on an academic watch list; second, for schools remaining two years on the list, appointment of trustees to supervise revision of school improvement plans; and third, for districts on the watch list for four years, takeover or shutdown of the schools. The committee hopes that the incremental nature of the consequences will make removal of school board members or closing schools unnecessary.

Throughout, the plan focuses on making the improvements at the school or school district level. Throughout, the plan called for the state board to work with schools and school districts to improve performance. And throughout, the question of how to teach is left to the local teachers and administration.

The final committee report earned the support of business interests. Thomas Reid, the Illinois Manufacturers' Association (IMA) vice president who handles educational issues, calls H.B. 885 a strong accountability bill. Reid says the chance for accountability are strengthened by the

8/June 1991/Illinois Issues

IMA's support for funding, by Gov. Jim Edgar's push for accountability and by the fact that H.B. 885 is a state board, not an IMA, bill.

Business's inability to find qualified workers sparked the new interest in education, says Robert Beckwith, who has monitored education for the state chamber for nearly 25 years. Once, Beckwith says, education issues "were a yawn" for most businesses.

Education interests have also embraced the final committee report. John Wargo, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, says his organization supports the changes: "It seems to me education ought to be more important than facilities.'' Wargo likes the notion that schools are compared with themselves to monitor improvement.

Wargo also sees a renewed interest in education by business after a period of fingerpointing. The criticisms of the schools by business have provoked educators' suspicions, he says. But at the same time Wargo sees the education establishment more aware of the need to market its efforts, to make nonparents aware of what is happening in schools.

Lee Betterman, president of the Illinois Education Association and a regulatory committee member, is also preaching cooperation: "We have to build bridges with business." Betterman says that while she has seen some efforts by business to understand schools, many still do not realize the problems that educators face.

One man with a foot in both camps calls the state's push for accountability "visionary." Don Ames, assistant general counsel to CNA Insurance Co. and a 15-year member of Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205, believes that H.B. 885 is necessary and worthwhile: "If people are going to have to be spending more money on schools, there ought to be something in place so the public knows that learning is taking place."

State school Superintendent Robert Leininger thinks the new measures will end business bashing of education. "This means, I think, the fight's over," he says. If Leininger is right, when our time traveler returns to the 1970s, he faces a formidable task. Imagine trying to convince people that in the near future business will support a tax increase, that schools will embrace accountability and that business and education will work together.

June 1991/Illinois Issues/9

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