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Education reform sparks questions

Area school superintendents seem happy with the what, concerned about the how

Published: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:27 a.m. CDT

Education reform bills were unanimously approved last week by the Senate and now go before the House, where some local school officials are hoping details will be ironed out.

“It’s a step in the right direction for kids, school districts and teachers,” said Superintendent Dr. Kent Bugg of Coal City Unit 1 School District. “It’s just, how is it going to turn out is what I’m anxious to see.”

The legislation, which includes Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 630, take measures to reform elementary and secondary education. The key components include making hiring and layoff decisions on teacher performance rather than seniority, requiring teachers to earn tenure status by more than just years of service, and making the strike process more public.

Passing this legislation through the Senate was a bipartisan effort, said Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris.

“Everybody was at the table with it asking what can we do to improve (education),” she said. It was lead by Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford and included the support of education stakeholders: the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Chicago Teachers’ Union, Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, children’s advocacy group Stand for the Children, and others.

“The encouraging part is the reform legislation was a collaborate effort,” said Superintendent Dr. Pat Halloran of Morris Community High School District 101. “The concern back in December was the reform was moving too quickly, so it’s nice they got all the parties together to discuss this impact.”

SKILL VS. SENIORITY

Perhaps the most significant component of the legislation locally will be the ability to base layoffs and promotions on teacher skill rather than seniority.

Currently, when a school district has to make reduction in force cuts, it is required to cut from the bottom of the totem pole.

But just because a teacher is the newest to the district, does not mean he or she is not more qualified. Sometimes the newest teachers are the freshest out of college and equipped with the most advanced teaching methods. As opposed to a teacher who may have been teaching for decades and is becoming burned out.

“I see this as a very positive reform in helping us keep our best teachers, not necessarily the teachers with the highest seniority,” Halloran said.

Layoffs would now be based on teacher performance from evaluations. But the question some administrators have is what is that evaluation process going to look like? Some fear it will be based on student scores on state tests.

Basing teacher evaluations on student performance is one thing, but on state test scores is another, Bugg said.

“We need to measure where the kids are when they come in and where they measure at the end of the year,” he said.

For example, he said students should be measured at the beginning and end of their freshman and sophomore years, and then the teacher should be evaluated on the student’s growth, not their score on the Prairie State Exam.

“Some students are ready for school when we get them and some are not,” said Al Gegenheimer, superintendent of Minooka Community Consolidated School District 201. “It’s our responsibility to prepare them. Measuring them all on the same scale is not accurate.”

If an eighth-grader comes in with a third-grade reading level, it is unrealistic to expect him or her to score at an eighth-grade reading level by the end of the year on a state exam, he continued.

“Just because they don’t meet the Prairie State Exam doesn’t mean the teacher failed that child,” Gegenheimer said. “If there are no gains, then we need to be held accountable. But we can make tremendous gains with our children and still are getting told we’re failing our children.”

The evaluation process expected from this legislation has to compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges, administrators agree.

Making evaluations the deciding factor for hiring and firing means administrators need to step up as well. Administrators will have to follow student data to familiarize themselves with what the mosteffective teaching practice are, Halloran said.

“It’s going to cause the evaluation process to be more meaningful than it has been in the past,” Bugg said.

TENURE CHANGES

The legislation also allows for a simpler removal process of poor-performing tenured teachers.

Right now teachers earn tenure status after four years with a school district.

Currently, if there is a problem with a tenured teacher, schools cannot just fire the teacher with school board approval. School administrations have to go through a remediation process for a poor-performing tenured teacher, which can be time-consuming and costly.

If the law passes, a tenured teacher with two poor evaluations in seven years could lose their teaching certificate.

“I predict there will be some discussion about this in the House, particularly with state Rep. (Roger) Eddy (who is also a superintendent),” Halloran said. “It may not be as streamlined as intended.”

In addition, tenure status could no longer be given automatically after four years, but rather based on performance ratings. With that, if a teacher is performing well and it’s before their four years, they could be granted tenure status earlier, Rezin said.

This portion of the legislation also makes evaluations even more important and holds accountable the administrators who perform the evaluations.

STAVING OFF STRIKES

Teacher union strike proceedings could also be changed.

“It will make it more difficult for teachers to strike,” Rezin said.

Before striking, mediation is required and both parties will have to release to the public their final offers so the public is aware of what both the teachers and administrators are offering. But it does keep collective bargaining rights in tact.

In Morris and Coal City, superintendents agree the relationship between the district and its unions is strong and striking would be the last thing either side wants.

“But I do think anything we can do to avoid the situation is best for kids,” Bugg said.

Also part of the legislation is required training for school board members so they are a part of the accountability.

The House is expected to look at the education reform legislation this week.

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