Letter from Chicago Policy Fellows to Illinois State Board of Education: Feedback on ESSA State Plan and Proposed Accountability Tools

Letter from Chicago Policy Fellows to Illinois State Board of Education: Feedback on ESSA State Plan and Proposed Accountability Tools

Illinois State Board of Education

100 North First Street

Springfield, IL 62777

Members of the Board:

As the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) goes into effect, we have the chance to re-think how accountability tools are used to ensure all students have access to high quality schools.  As Teaching Policy Fellows with Teach Plus, we have reviewed ESSA State Plan Draft #2, taking a close look at the section dedicated to school interventions.  We recognize that ISBE is taking time to develop a thorough accountability tool that will highlight the areas in which schools are excelling and struggling.  We also appreciate that once schools are identified as failing, ISBE is not looking to jump to punitive measures without first providing supports and interventions.  However, to ensure all schools are providing a quality education to our students, we need to make sure that struggling schools are being held accountable to improve.  We see that there is a clear identification process as well as exit criteria and this transparency is a crucial piece for holding all schools to high standards.  However, there is some ambiguity as to how exactly interventions will be funded, implemented, and monitored.  As a result we have the following recommendations:

1.    Create a process for vetting IL-Empower vendors, and for tracking the effectiveness of their work and satisfaction of districts that receive their services

2.    Strengthen the review of district applications by creating clarity around the “commitment to implement” criteria and through a panel of reviewers that includes teachers

3.    Greater transparency on the effectiveness of interventions and use of school improvement funds

Vetting and Monitoring IL-EMPOWER Vendors

The organization of IL-EMPOWER and how it will function are two large grey areas within the second draft of the ESSA plan.  Initially, it is important to understand what IL-EMPOWER is and how the professionals that are part of the organization are chosen.  What type of qualifications will be required to become part of the IL-EMPOWER network of possible providers?  More explanation is needed on the “rigorous review and approval process” for IL-EMPOWER providers.  Teachers need to have transparency on the selection process to be able to have confidence in IL-EMPOWER’s representatives; teachers will need to know that these outside providers are true experts in their fields.  In addition to the initial vetting process that would allow a person or organization to become part of IL-EMPOWER’s bank of resources, there also needs to be an opportunity for feedback from schools that have used a specific resource and that feedback needs to be available to other schools considering using that particular resource in the future.  If an organization under IL-EMPOWER is consistently receiving poor reviews from the schools that it is assisting or if those schools are not showing an adequate level of growth, there needs to be a quality control mechanism in place to ensure IL-EMPOWER continues to provide quality support for failing schools.  

Strengthen the Review of District Applications

We have three suggestions to improve the currently outlined process of applying for school improvement funds.  First, there is little guidance for what constitutes the required “stakeholder input.”  Explicitly requiring input from current classroom teachers in school plans, would help to ensure that plans are realistic, feasible, and in the best interest of the students.  

Secondly, there is still some ambiguity about how a school is to demonstrate the “strongest commitment to implement.” How is commitment to implement going to be measured?  By whom?  And how is this commitment to be tracked over the 4 years of the targeted or comprehensive improvement plans? In addition, if a school is not ready to implement a proposed plan, what is the next step?  Are there supports available or a potential deadline to demonstrate readiness?

Finally, the plans must have a uniform and fair method of being assessed.  We recommend that a committee of experts, which includes a membership that is made up of at least 50% of current classroom teachers, should examine these plans with a uniform assessment rubric.  This panel would use rubric assess the three criteria set forth by ISBE in the creation of a comprehensive high-quality plan (greatest need, readiness to implement, and strongest commitment to implement).

Greater Transparency on the Effectiveness of Interventions and Use of Funds

ESSA clearly defines four levels of research-based requirements that qualify interventions to be included in school plans.  A helpful tool to include in the IL-EMPOWER network would be to have these levels included in the descriptors of each intervention so that schools can access this information prior to selection of a particular intervention or program offered by a vendor.  Fellows strongly recommend that each intervention offered on the IL-EMPOWER network includes the school accountability record of the schools that have used that intervention in the past, surveys completed by districts that have used that particular program before, and other information so that schools can choose the best options to include in their school improvement planning based on their local needs.

We also feel it is a vitally important for ISBE to be fully transparent about the funds each school is receiving and how much each IL-EMPOWER support or intervention costs.  In order to reduce redundant efforts on the part of both ISBE and local school districts,  the school improvement interventions 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 are costing, and how successful they are over the course of a period of many years.  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 Illinois educational process while making the re-evaluation of ESSA and IL-EMPOWER data-rich and easy to longitudinally evaluate as time passes.

Finally, we want to recognize that the biggest factor for ESSA to truly work in Illinois is adequate funding for all Illinois schools.  Revamping the Illinois funding formula and increasing the Per Pupil Cost is imperative. If we really want to change the face of education in Illinois for ALL students regardless of race, where they live or socioeconomic status, Illinois must make a true investment in education. These limited school improvement funds will not suffice to close the gap in historically underfunded districts.  The state must develop pathways that lead to funding equity for ALL students in Illinois.  The future of our children and state depends on it.


Teach Plus Policy Fellows

Brighid Bennett

Jennifer Hartmann

Sarah Kuntzman

Michelle Poelsterl, NBCT

Stacy Wright, NBCT