Thursday, June 18, 2009

Merit pay tops panel's recommendations

By Jamey Dunn

A bipartisan reform group raised the concern today that the majority of Illinois high-school graduates are not prepared for college or the workforce.

According to Robin Steans, Advance Illinois executive director and sister of Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago, one out of every four incoming high-school freshmen in Illinois will drop out. Two will not be prepared for college or work upon graduating, which leaves only one graduate out of the four prepared for the next step.

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, Advance Illinois co-chair and brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, said that ensuring kids are ready for college or work would benefit Illinois businesses by creating a stronger workforce. “If we can close this gap of the number of students who are either college-ready or work-ready, it would have a tremendous impact on the economy of our state,” Daley said.

The group laid out some sweeping changes in it’s report, released today, which focused on three areas of reform:

  1. Radically shift personnel policy. Teachers' pay and tenure would be determined by student achievement, not by the number of years a teacher is on the job. Former Gov. Jim Edgar, co-chair of Advance Illinois, said that automatically giving teachers a pay increase for getting a master's degree should be reconsidered because, he said, there is no correlation between teachers who hold degrees and students who perform better in the classroom. Edgar said the money could be better spent on other training programs that prove more effective. 

  2. Increase standards for test scores. Raising the standards for test scores and the requirements for high-school graduation would help ensure that Illinois is on par with the rest of the country and that students are prepared for life after high school.
  3. Create a special fund to encourage innovative solutions. The “Race to the Top Fund” was inspired by a federal program and would allow schools to compete for grants for specific problems in their districts. Schools that received the money would have to illustrate that students improved before they could get renewed funding. 

Members of Advance Illinois, a non-profit organization funded by several philanthropic groups, set out in November of last year to tour the state and talk to parents, educators and interested groups. They also have been researching reform methods. Their report will be submitted to the General Assembly.

The report did not address school funding. Edgar said the group plans to take up that issue later. He said the next step is for members to rally support for these proposals. “It's going to take some major battles to get some of these things,” he said, adding that the current budget crisis will probably keep the legislature from taking up education reform until next year.

UPDATE: Gail Purkey, spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said that rating educators on students' test scores alone does not consider all the traits needed to be a good teacher. “Test scores in a vacuum is not the best way to evaluate teachers,” she said. However, she added, the group's recommendations are in their earliest stages, and her organization wants to work with Advance Illinois to create viable reforms. “These are bullet points, and there’s going to be a lot of discussion.”

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