By Douglas Fehlen
A Change for Illinois Educators
Last month, Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed into law an education bill that features profound changes for educators in the state. Whereas seniority was previously more important than performance in making personnel decisions, the opposite will now be the case. If districts find it necessary to cut staff, an unfortunately common occurrence today, they will do so based on educators' expertise and effectiveness. Seniority will only serve to break ties in this new formula for determining layoffs. Additionally, teachers demonstrating a high level of performance in their first three years will be placed on a fast track for tenure. At a bill signing ceremony, Governor Quinn remarked, 'These historic reforms will help us make sure that students across Illinois learn from the best teachers.'
Long at the heart of education reform debate has been how to identify the 'best teachers,' and SB7 (as the bill is titled) marks a change in how that is done. In many previous attempts at reform, accountability has been determined largely based on students' scores on standardized tests. Teachers, unions and advocacy groups have deemed such evaluation systems as unfair, suggesting they doesn't account for the full scope of student learning (and educator teaching). SB7 calls for a new system of evaluation that accounts for considerations beyond testing, a factor has made the bill palatable to those previously positioned against such accountability measures.
Another important factor in building support for SB7 was the process by which it was developed. Lawmakers crafted the legislation in consultation with all education stakeholders - including teachers, union representatives, education reform advocates, parents and school leaders. Lauding the efforts of all involved, Governor Quinn stated, 'When we have a big issue in our state, we don't push people aside. We bring everyone together.'
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A Model for National Reform?
Evaluating teacher effectiveness - and tying performance to decisions on hiring, firing and paying educators - is a topic of national debate. Legislation incorporating teacher accountability is being considered in many other states and Race to the Top, a national grant program rewarding schools implementing reform, is serving as a primary motivator. Education officials, often dealing with significant budget shortfalls, hope to earn grants to help offset deficits; teacher accountability measures are seen as a way to improve schools' chances of winning grants.
In states outside of Illinois, though, efforts to implement teacher accountability have been much more contentious. This divisiveness is representative of the greater national debate on education reform. Teachers have often expressed that they feel under attack by many reforms, saying they haven't had a place at the negotiating table when it comes to developing measures. The Illinois process, which involved all education stakeholders, has been identified as a promising approach that could prove effective across the country.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was on hand for the SB7 bill signing ceremony, voiced emphatic support for what had been achieved in Illinois. 'While some states are engaging in noisy and unproductive battles around education reform,' he said, 'Illinois is showing what can happen when adults work through their differences together.'
School reform is a subject of vigorous debate around the nation. Get insight on the future of school reform.