Letter from Chicago Policy Fellows to Illinois State Board of Education: Feedback on ESSA State Plan and Use of Title II Funds

Letter from Chicago Policy Fellows to Illinois State Board of Education: Feedback on ESSA State Plan and Use of Title II Funds

Illinois State Board of Education

100 N. First Street

Springfield, IL 62777

Members of the Board, Superintendent Tony Smith, and ISBE Staff,

As the Illinois State Board of Education works to finalize the state ESSA plan, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the current use of Title II funds in Illinois and how those funds can best support effective teaching in the future. As current teachers in Illinois and Teaching Policy Fellows with Teach Plus, we applaud ISBE’s efforts to cast a wide net and solicit feedback from across the state. We have taken a close look at the provisions of Title II and how those funds are currently being spent by ISBE and districts across the state, and we wish to add our voices to the conversation. We have identified two highly effective uses of ESSA funding at the state level, as well as an important gap in oversight that should be filled as the new law is implemented. In short, our recommendations are:

1.    Ensure Title II funds are used for high-quality professional development that is consistent, ongoing, collaborative, led by teachers and based on models of excellence currently in place in Illinois.

2.    Improve retention and quality through the creation of career pathways, by providing guidance and funding for districts to implement career pathways

3.    Collect and share information the use and effectiveness of Title II funds in Illinois

Professional Development

One of the most important and effective factors in improving teacher quality is relevant, research-based professional development. For professional development to be effective, it must be ongoing, consistent, and meaningful to participants, and allow for collaboration.[1] Despite ISBE’s adoption of the Standards for Professional Learning, and the standards’ insistence on timely, differentiated PD that meets the individual needs of each educator, much of the PD provided in districts still follows an outdated “one-size-fits-all” model and is directed by administrators rather than teachers. Professional teaching requires professional autonomy, including the selection and implementation of relevant professional learning.

In order to help districts provide teachers with meaningful professional learning, we recommend that ISBE utilize state ESSA funds to endorse one or more models for implementing high-quality, teacher-led professional development that can be reproduced in districts across the state. Some larger districts have already developed effective programs that can serve as starting points: U-46 in Elgin, for instance, has created District Collaborative Days in which the District plans PD sessions for teachers to attend. Sessions may be facilitated by peers who have been trained in adult learning principles and been active in the content area in which they are presenting. Most of what is offered is a one-time PD opportunity. The professional development opportunities are offered on 5 different District Collaboration Days, but there are 5 other Personal Professional Development days bargained into the contract that allow ETA members full control over planning and organizing their own PD.The National Board Resource Center at Illinois State University has also developed a PD Schools program that facilitates collaboration over a sustained period. ISBE endorsement of these models, and others, would lead to their adoption by more schools across the state. However, smaller districts may not have the resources to sustain a comprehensive in-house PD program and would benefit from connections across district lines. ISBE has already developed regional partnerships through its Common Core partnership with the IBHE; these could be expanded into regional professional development networks that would help smaller schools connect and share best practices. Regardless of the type, professional development should be grounded in teachers’ identification of their own professional learning needs and supported by student data and observations.

Career Pathways

In order to improve teacher quality, it is also critical for the best teachers to have opportunities to lead and to share their expertise. Unfortunately, most teachers have the same job title their first day on the job as they will on the day they retire. In addition to creating models for districts to provide the best possible professional learning, ISBE should develop a flexible model that districts can adapt locally to implement career pathways for teachers. This work is not practical at the district level, and individual district attempts would likely have a steep learning curve to overcome that districts could not afford. But by providing a model based on best practices, ISBE could help districts leverage the expertise of their best teachers to improve instruction in every classroom. When the best teachers are able to take on leadership, mentoring, and coaching roles without leaving the classroom, everyone benefits from their expertise. Career pathway models are supported by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which has established a general model, and are also endorsed by the P-20 Council’s TLE Committee, ILSTOY/NNSTOY, and the Center for Teacher Quality, among others. Career pathways that enable teacher leadership are key to ensuring the greatest number of students benefit from the expertise of our best teachers.

Collection and Dissemination of Title II Spending and Effectiveness Data

Finally, as we researched current uses of Title II funding across the state, we found that many school and district administrators were unable to note specifically how those funds were spent. One regional administrator involved in the application process told us she had seen a district submit the example form–without changing the name of the district–and still receive funding. It appears to us that the greatest roadblock is a lack of manpower to screen these applications. We find this lack of oversight troubling, as these funds are earmarked for the specific purpose of improving teacher quality.

We recommend that state-level funds be set aside to ensure adequate resources to create a more meaningful and effective system for districts that receive Title II funding. This should not be intended to punish or “catch” districts, but to learn how funds are actually being used, ensure districts have involved teachers in the process, and highlight best practices.  Furthermore, we advocate for the collection of long-term data in order to gain insights into the manner in which districts spend Title II funds, the problems being addressed through those interventions, and the effectiveness of these solutions. Over time, this data will allow ISBE to provide districts with a list of recommended best practices proven to show results, streamlining the approval process and ensuring that districts have meaningful information on which to base their decisions.  

If ISBE provides guidance for districts to conduct teacher-led, differentiated professional learning and to implement career pathways for teachers, we are confident that districts will be better equipped to make these needed changes. Empowering teachers to identify and meet their own professional learning needs, and to take on leadership and mentoring roles while remaining in the classroom, will ensure that they can respond effectively to the individual needs of the students in their schools. In addition, collecting information about the effectiveness of Title II interventions will, over time, enable ISBE to provide research-backed guidance on best practices to meet the needs districts identify in their schools. Taking these steps at the state level today will lay the groundwork that will help Illinois schools adopt best practices to prepare students for a rapidly changing world.

Respectfully submitted,

Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows

Brighid Bennett

Gina Caneva

Bill Curtin, NBCT

Katie Curtin

Traci Dean

Maggie DePoy

Jennifer Hartmann

Sarah Kuntzman

Cynthia R. O’Brien

Paige Passman, NBCT

Michelle Poelsterl, NBCT

Amanda Purkeypile

Keira Quintero

Shonda Ronen

Kali Skiles, NBCT

Jennifer Smith, NBCT

Nick Vassolo, NBCT

Rebecca Wattleworth

Sarah White

Stacy Wright, NBCT