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Letter from Illinois Policy Fellows to Illinois State Board of Education on the ESSA Draft Plan #3

February 13, 2017

Tony Smith, State Superintendent, Illinois State Board of Education
Jason Helfer, Deputy State Superintendent, Illinois State Board of Education

 

Members of the Board: 

 

The release of the third draft of Illinois’ ESSA law allows for the opportunity for final thoughts before the governor’s review of the law.  As classroom teachers and Policy Fellows with Teach Plus, we applaud ISBE’s efforts to continue working towards a fair and fully transparent school accountability system and new and inventive uses for Title II funds. We have examined the draft and have several areas of praise for the revisions ISBE made since Draft #2.  These positive improvements include the selection of Academic and Nonacademic indicators (pg. 32-40).  Teach Plus Policy Fellows collected survey data from teachers statewide this November to determine which indicators they would like to see included in the final draft of the law.  All but one of the recommendations made by Teach Plus fellows and teachers surveyed were included in Draft #3.  The reinforcement of rigorous standards for data collection and reporting for all districts also sets the law up for data-tracking statewide that will allow for schools to easily track success over the years through the Illinois Data FIRST program (pg. 66).  The inclusion of the Teacher Residency program (pg. 65-66) is another important aspect of the law, as it emphasizes the importance of extended, in-depth, practical classroom experience in teacher preparation.  Although it is clear that strides have been made in crafting a final school accountability tool and opportunities for new uses of Title II funds to promote teacher leadership, several concerns remain.

 

The most important point to be addressed in this draft is the IL-EMPOWER network, which is referenced throughout the plan and designated to provide comprehensive and targeted supports to schools. However, the draft lacks details describing what IL-EMPOWER is, how providers will be selected or approved, and how those interventions will be directed to districts. Because so much of the ESSA implementation plan depends on this network, the most important revision needed to the plan is that it be clear about the composition and selection of IL-EMPOWER, and what supports and benefits individual providers will provide to districts. When it comes to evaluating vendors, it is imperative that teachers and teacher groups are a part of selecting and evaluating these vendors at the district level, because they must be partners in implementing these supports with their students. One possible solution is to have vendors go through a process similar to charter application/renewal, providing ISBE or a state-wide coalition of teachers and stakeholders with details about their programs before being selected for inclusion in IL-EMPOWER.

 

In addition, as this network is implemented, public information must be provided about how much each IL-EMPOWER support or intervention costs. For districts identified for support, the interventions and their funding should be included on the school accountability report every year. This way schools will be accountable to their stakeholders to appropriately invest the funds given by ISBE through the IL-EMPOWER network on the items included in their approved school improvement documents. This will also allow ISBE to keep track of which interventions are being chosen across the state, how much they cost, and how successful they are over time. This will create a bridge between the state, the vendors on the IL-EMPOWER network, local school districts, and stakeholders at all levels of the state while making the reevaluation of ESSA and IL-EMPOWER data-rich and easy to evaluate longitudinally.

 

Another issue to be addressed is the summative ratings for schools. These are important, as they allow all stakeholders to quickly and clearly understand a school’s performance. However, the proposed five-level system of summative ratings is confusing. The labels for the levels themselves are misleading--such as the “leading” indicator assigned to schools in the fourth category. The language should clearly indicate the level of success. Also, the proposed accountability system assigns those levels based on a school’s percentile ranking against others. In theory, it should be possible for every school to achieve the highest level of success. We propose a model similar to that used in Massachusetts that first yields a criterion-referenced summative score and automatically assigns labels based on that raw score. Then, those in the lowest tier are then individually identified for support after a review of their challenges and successes.

 

Another concern relates to the important issue of monitoring Title II funding. On page 27, the plan states that "existing district oversight mechanisms" will be used to monitor the use of funds. After investigating, it became clear that these existing forms of oversight have been inadequate in the past. They must be strengthened considerably to ensure that the uses of Title II funds are appropriate and result in tangible improvements in teacher quality, as the law intends. Collecting and analyzing effectiveness data is an important long-term step, but the more immediate problem is a lack of transparency that prevents stakeholders from understanding how these funds are spent. To be fully transparent, districts should clearly identify how much Title II money is received and exactly how it is spent. For its part, ISBE should collect this information to provide an overview of how funds are used across the state, enabling stakeholders to determine which investments have the greatest impact.

 

Some specific clarification regarding terminology included in the draft is also suggested. For example, in the description regarding the manner in which LEA’s will apply for funding (page 24), the plan notes that, “Each of these plans and applications are driven by (1) stakeholder consultation on the local level and (2) data-driven decision-making.” The term consultation is open to interpretation, and we recommend that the definition be clarified to ensure that teachers, parents, and community stakeholders are meaningfully and thoughtfully involved in the creation of LEA plans. Teacher voice is especially vital in determining how Title II funds will be used, in order to ensure teacher buy-in and the effectiveness of professional development opportunities. Similarly, the inclusion of teacher leaders (page 66) as school leaders is encouraging, yet open to interpretation and easily overlooked in implementation. Teacher leadership should be specifically included as one of the options in the bullet-point list that follows to ensure it is considered at the district level. In addition, by expanding upon and clarifying the definition of a teacher leader, ISBE could lay the groundwork for a system of teacher leadership that allows for advancement within the teaching profession. We echo the suggestions of our colleagues from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards when they encourage “[s]tates [to] use the flexibility provided in ESSA to create functions that would strengthen the teaching continuum. This could include novice teacher support through residency and induction programs, professional learning and growth systems that lead to board certification, and teacher leadership opportunities that spread the expertise of accomplished professionals.” (http://www.nbpts.org/sites/default/files/Policy/essa-one-pager-state.pdf)

 

Finally, we want to recognize and thank ISBE for continually hearing stakeholder feedback throughout the process of adopting the new law.  In order for the law to be implemented in a fair and appropriate fashion to improve educational practices throughout the state, IL-EMPOWER, the final accountability measures, and Title II funding transparency must be clearly articulated and followed.  Continued partnership with teachers can make ESSA’s implementation a positive force for change in Illinois schools.

 

Respectfully,

 

Bill Curtin, Carbondale Community High School

Brighid Bennett, Amandla Charter School

Gina Caneva, Lindblom Math and Science Academy

Jennifer Hartmann, PFC Omar E. Torres UNO Charter School

Jennifer Smith, Monticello Middle School

Michelle Poelsterl, Anderson Elementary School

Nick Vassolo, Streamwood High School

Sarah Kuntzman, Plano Middle School

Stacy Wright, Spencer Technology Academy