Elmhurst College: Raising the Bar for Illinois Schools

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Raising the Bar for Illinois Schools

Success in the classroom is going to become tougher for teachers and students as a result of reforms designed to improve performance in Illinois public schools, civic leader Gery Chico said in delivering The César Chávez Guestship Lecture.

Chico, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, said attracting bright, dedicated college students to the teaching profession will be essential to achieving those goals.

“We need your best and brightest students to take on this profession,” Chico told an audience of nearly 200 at the Frick Center on September 12. “We constantly need good, bright people dedicated to getting the best out of students. If we don’t get good people to go into that profession, we will fall further behind (other countries).”  Teachers should be held in higher regard by American society, he added.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a study that measured math and science literacy among 15-year-old students in more than 60 countries and found that 23 countries had higher average scores than the U.S. in math and 18 had higher average scores in science.

Chico was appointed in June to head the statewide agency that oversees pre-kindergarten through high school programs in nearly 900 school districts with more than 2 million students and 175,000 teachers. Many districts are strapped for cash and struggling to control costs at a time the state is looking for ways to cut education spending to balance its budget.

Illinois’ benchmarks for measuring students’ knowledge and skills were adopted in 1997, and Chico said those standards are out of date, particularly for science and technology.

Mastering the fundamentals
The state is setting tougher “common core standards” for all subjects and grade levels, and language arts and math will be the first to get the new standards, he said. They are scheduled to be in place for the 2014-2015 school year, and eventually all subjects will have more stringent competency standards.

Subjects will be taught in a more engaging and practical approach instead of by rote, he said, but stressed that the basic requirements students have to meet will be more rigorous. “If you can’t master the fundamentals, good luck in dealing with the higher levels,” he said. “By the time students are in high school, if they don’t know basic math, it’s an exercise in futility for them to try to learn algebra or geometry. Those are the students who are more likely to drop out.”

Becoming a teacher in Illinois already has gotten tougher. A year ago, the basic skills test that Illinois college students had to pass to become candidates for an education degree became more rigorous, with a passing grade raised to 75 percent from 50 percent. Despite complaints from some college administrators that as few as 10 percent of their students passed the tougher test on their first try, Chico said the state is not backing off.

“Doctors and lawyers have to pass strict, rigorous exams, and that’s going to happen with teachers too,” he said.

The state also is working with teachers on setting new standards to measure teacher performance in the classroom, to make them more accountable for the progress shown by their students.

He foresees a time when data on students’ results on standardized test scores will be available to teachers immediately rather than in a matter of weeks. That way, teachers will know which academic areas require attention. In addition, teachers will be more closely monitored to see where they can improve.

The annual César Chávez Guestship is part of the College’s celebration of Latino heritage and culture. Chávez was the founder of the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers union) and an activist for education. Chico’s talk also was part of the Democracy Forum, a series of lectures and events that explore democracy and civic engagement.

Chico previously served as the board president of the Chicago Public Schools and the City Colleges of Chicago. He also served as chief of staff to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and earlier this year ran for mayor of Chicago.

After his speech, Chico met with 15 honors students and said, “The job of teaching is tough, and we’re going to make it tougher, but teaching is absolutely essential to the future of our society.”

An advertising campaign that promotes the challenges and rewards of working with students would help attract talented students who might not otherwise consider teaching as a profession, he said.

“We need a classy, sophisticated approach so that teaching has the allure of law, medicine or accounting,” he told the honors students.

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