Why Illinois might be a model for education reform


Illinois' drafting partnership serves as an example to other states struggling with education reform.

Illinois’ Senate Bill 7, passed in June, ushered in numerous changes designed to improve teaching and learning—and it demonstrates the power of collaboration between education policy makers and teachers’ unions, according to a panel discussion held July 13.

The panel, “Illinois—The New Leader in Education Reform?” highlighted the unlikely conglomeration of education leaders who helped write and pass the bill, from legislators to teachers’ unions.

“In some states, the debate has been contentious, with partisan efforts to limit the role of unions and collective bargaining,” said Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress. “But common sense, along with our research and the research of others, have shown that consensus-oriented reform is the more successful way to go.”

Illinois’ bipartisan passage of Senate Bill 7, which passed 59-0 in the Senate and 112-1 in the House, is being examined as a case study for state education reform. The bill made dramatic policy changes in how teachers earn tenure, how layoff decisions are made, when teachers may be dismissed for poor performance, and what’s necessary for them to strike.

More news about union-district collaboration:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

And for the latest news and opinions about education reform, see:

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Senate Bill 7 was established after Illinois failed twice to secure a federal Race to the Top grant, despite being a finalist both times.

“They made such progress in those discussions that they decided to continue even without the money,” Brown said of state leaders.

Kimberly Lightford, assistant majority leader for the Illinois Senate, took a lead role in organizing the variety of voices that pitched ideas.

“Some of the premise of us coming together was that we had no choice. The Race to the Top application brought together so many points of view, but what I saw as a legislator for the first time was that we could work together for the good of our students,” said Lightford. “If we work in that vein, then we should come up with some meaningful legislation. We’re all professionals, we have a job to do, and we have to respect each others’ opinions.”

Lightford said the meetings originally were too large to work effectively.

“The meetings had over 80 people, and for me, I needed input; a smaller roundtable where there were people [who] could make decisions. I minimized the meetings, and I was criticized for it,” she said.  “There were some challenges, because sometimes we want to venture off and do it our own way instead of sticking with the course of the group. That was my challenge, keeping everyone at the table.”

The inclusion of key teachers’ unions in the drafting process was a first for the state.

More news about union-district collaboration:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

And for the latest news and opinions about education reform, see:

School Reform Center at eSN Online

“Overall, what we did was really insist that the voice of the practitioner would be heard in the discussions,” said Audrey Soglin, executive director of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “Someone suggested that unions can or should only do one kind of advocacy. We reject that notion. It is both our practice and our mission to improve education and be the advocate for the adult.”

While striking capabilities were focused on by the Chicago mass media, it was the tenure and lay-off procedures that caused more discussion during drafting. Parties disagreed whether the tenure process should be made more difficult or whether seniority and performance evaluations should factor into reductions in forces (RIFs).

“Seniority experience is a plus. You cannot say that experience and seniority doesn’t matter,” said Soglin. “If you spend 25 years as a teacher, and you have to learn to teach reading four times and you change grade levels, if you’re actually evaluated correctly you might not be [graded] excellent one year. So our point is to put that kind of pressure on to say ‘if you’re not excellent, you’re vulnerable to RIF’ is just unacceptable.”

However, the difficulty in removing a tenured teacher with continuously poor performance was made easier.

“Historically, the tenured teacher dismissal process in Illinois has been very lengthy and very costly, so we streamlined that,” said Darren Reisberg, deputy superintendent and general counsel for the Illinois State Board of Education. He added that the bill defined the word “incompetency” to help stakeholders feel comfortable in bringing a tenure dismissal issue to a hearing.

“Tenure, the way we look at it, is access to due process and access to just causes,” said Soglin. “It isn’t lifetime access to a job.” Soglin said her organization was concerned that if it were made difficult to get tenure, then teachers would not be as comfortable questioning their district policies and acting as an advocate for students. “To have tenure be branded because no one is paying attention to what is going on in the school or the district doesn’t help any of us,” Soglin said.

More news about union-district collaboration:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

And for the latest news and opinions about education reform, see:

School Reform Center at eSN Online

The bill changed the requirements for tenure from a four-year probationary period to a four-year probationary period with eligibility only if the teacher has received proficient or excellent ratings in two of the past three years and a proficient or excellent rating in the fourth year. Accelerated tenure is a possibility for teachers who receive three excellent ratings in their first three years.

While passage of the bill does give other states reason to believe in compromise, there are still many more trials ahead for Illinois in terms of implementation.

“We jumped a major hurdle in passing this, and we’re extremely excited about it, but there’s a major challenge ahead in getting this implemented in all 869 districts and explaining what this is all about,” said Reisberg.

Soglin agreed.

“I do believe that we need that same kind of collaborative effort now in looking towards implementing this in the spirit and intent that it was created,” she said.

Regardless, the example that the drafting partnership sets for other states and even the national government cannot be overlooked.

“It’s really great to hear a story like this in such great detail, because it’s complicated stuff. We sit here in Washington, D.C., watching argument after argument, and it seems like there can never be any bipartisan agreement,” said Brown.

More news about union-district collaboration:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

And for the latest news and opinions about education reform, see:

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Brad Jupp, senior program advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Education, was also impressed by the endeavor.

“We’re heartened and optimistic by not only Illinois’ example but the examples of other states, where you’ve seen these powerful efforts to create improvements in student performance and quality of teaching,” Jupp said. “I think that there’s a final lesson, which is there is so much more to be gotten done when you can get together.”

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.

Comments are closed.

New Resource Center
Explore the latest information we’ve curated to help educators understand and embrace the ever-evolving science of reading.
Get Free Access Today!

"*" indicates required fields

Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Hidden
Email Newsletters:

By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

IT SchoolLeadership

Your source for IT solutions and innovations to support school-wide success.
Weekly on Wednesday.

  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Please enter your work email address.
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.