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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 02:26 pm

Education in Illinois not getting any better

Illinois students not prepared for college

More than two thirds of Illinois students won’t earn a college degree. In the modern economy, that’s not good enough to compete, says education advocacy group Advance Illinois in a recent report on the state’s public school system.

While Illinois does have changes in the works, Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, says performance among Illinois students at all grade levels hasn’t improved in a decade.

“We haven’t moved those numbers in 10 years,” Steans said. “There have been pockets of improvement, but all of those little ripples amount to a flat trajectory.”

Advance Illinois analyzed existing state data on attendance, standardized test scores, graduation rates and other benchmarks from 2001 to 2011. The group’s findings show for every 100 children who start ninth grade in Illinois, 71 will graduate high school. Of those, only 55 will go on to college, and only 29 will actually earn a college degree. At the same time, eight out of 10 Illinois jobs require a college degree, but only 40 percent of adults in Illinois have earned one.

The report highlights a gap in achievement between white and non-white students, as well as between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. As of 2011, 45 percent of white students read proficiently by fourth grade, compared with only 18 percent of Latino students and 12 percent of African-American students. Meanwhile, 16 percent of students from low-income households could read proficiently by fourth grade, compared with 49 percent of students not coming from low-income households. The number of students living in poverty appears to be increasing, too. In 2001, 38 percent of Illinois K-12 students came from low-income households. By 2011, that number had shot up to 49 percent.

The disparity extends beyond learning benchmarks: One out of every four African-American students in Illinois is suspended from school at least once, while only one in 25 white students is suspended.

“Out-of-school suspensions often leave struggling students even further behind their peers,” the report says.

The Illinois State Board of Education is rolling out several new measures meant to provide better information about student achievement, along with new standards for teachers and principals. One reform includes a “longitudinal data system” that tracks individual student achievement over time and from school to school. Steans says the program should allow educators to fine-tune each school’s efforts. When a child leaves a school through graduation or transfer, the current system does a poor job of accounting for their achievements between systems and in different subjects, she says.

“We had no idea what happened to kids once they left my high school,” Steans said, referring to her time as a high school teacher. “We couldn’t follow them across systems, so we didn’t know how many had gone on to post-secondary education, and when they got there, we didn’t know how they did. If I found out that 15 percent of the students from my high school needed broad remediation, that’s one type of problem.  If 60 percent of students need remediation in math, that’s a very different problem. If you can follow someone across systems, it allows you to understand what’s working and what’s not, and how to better prepare kids for what’s coming next.”

While the report draws on the example of Massachusetts, which enacted sweeping reforms in 1993 and saw significant improvements, Steans says that state is just one of a handful that have turned around poorly performing systems. Massachusetts’ reforms included higher standards for students, better recruiting and support systems for teachers and equitable funding across school districts.

“There isn’t one correct formula,” Steans said. “You need to be comprehensive and you need to be sustained. One of the reasons you don’t see more of that around the country is you can’t just borrow someone else’s strategies. They’ve got to be tailored; they’ve got to fit the circumstances in your state, and every one is a bit different.”

The report stops short of making specific policy prescriptions, and Steans says the solution won’t be to throw money at the problem.

“We tend to have a compulsion to try and find single-shot magical answers,” she said. “If we’re trying to communicate anything, it’s that this problem is bigger than that.”  

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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