Illinois education leader: We are judging schools wrong

State superintendent talks about findings of Generations at Risk series

  • Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Smith

    Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Smith Associated Press

  • Illinois state superintendent of Education Tony Smith hosts a webinar for administrators in May.

    Illinois state superintendent of Education Tony Smith hosts a webinar for administrators in May. Courtesy of Matthew Vanover/ISBE

Updated 6/25/2015 1:07 PM

We asked Tony Smith, who became the 28th Illinois State Superintendent of Education on May 1, to talk about the findings of Generations at Risk and how Illinois can improve the academic performance of low-income children.

Smith comes to Illinois from California, where he led the Oakland schools for four years and before that had shorter stints in Emeryville and San Francisco. Between leaving Oakland and being named state superintendent he was executive director of the W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, which annually awards more than $5 million in grants that support children's development and education.


What follows is a transcript of a telephone interview.

Q. Why are poverty and education so linked?

Smith: The good place to start is not necessarily with where we are today. I am a student of our history -- looking at the policies and decisions that been made over time that have resulted in concentrated poverty and increasing the gap in income and wealth in this country.

The charge and challenge for public schools is to educate every child well. Many times, people in the community and folks doing reports say, "Why can't schools fix these problems?" The context that schools fit in is part of the much larger political and structural environment in our cities, regions and states where policies over time have essentially (paved the road for what we face today) -- whether it's the Federal Highway Administration's choices about where and when roads got built or looking at the New Deal and policies in the New Deal about where wealth was placed and who had access to it or who didn't.

There are deep histories in our country for whom policies were structured and who got included in those policies.

The moment we're sitting in is as a result of long historic choices in policymaking. You have districts across the country and in Illinois that are closest to the impact of those choices and are trying desperately to meet the needs of every child and trying to create the conditions where kids have their needs met. They're held to high expectations.

I do think that there is evidence of growth in some high-need places through shared resources. There are places in communities where people have come together to find ways to deal with the impacts of poverty, family stress and other issues in complex and wraparound ways that just aren't about the schools.

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The impact of poverty has to be included in our conversation. It's a big deal it needs to be paid attention to. Issues of racism and classism have to be in the conversation. It's not just about poverty -- it's about the creation of the conditions in which poverty has grown in this country.

Q. Are we judging schools wrong?

Smith: Yes ... in fact, it's crucial that we pay attention to the conditions and context in which kids live and their families reside, we have to. As predictive as those demographics are ... in some of the most economically, resource-constrained spaces -- groups of children are performing really well. It is not solely and singularly predictive if a kid is in a low-income community that they will necessarily have low educational attainment or their school won't be great. It's crucial but it's not the only thing.

There are places where adults have made agreements about how to work together, how to pay attention to kids, how to distribute student contacts, how the more veteran teachers will have a heavier course load.

There are places that have been really explicit that we as adults can help these kids attain great things. It's hard, it takes time energy and effort. It's not uniform across all districts or all states certainly. But there are places where it's happening.


To whom you're born shouldn't predict if you go to college or not, as much as that does play out, there are places that buck that pattern and trend and we have to figure out how to have more of that.

And yet it's crucial we pay attention to the lived experience, the stress. The daily wearing down of our kids is actually in their bodies at this point in some of our most distressed communities. We better be finding ways to counsel and support them. Kids need more help if they have that kind of daily grind. It is really, really hard to care for and educate a class of 30 kids who have extraordinary stress in the time that they aren't in school. It's bigger than just saying we have to fix poverty and then kids can achieve.

It's also different from saying, "Great teaching fixes everything." The conditions for that broader, complex more engaged response is not necessarily what people are excited about hearing.

Q. What is/should/can ISBE do to fix this?

Smith: Funding is a big and significant part of this. The way that the school funding structure is organized in Illinois makes it less likely and more difficult to accelerate performance for kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities.

This question of proration or equal cuts is fundamentally inequitable. People have been trained and taught that equal is fair. But, if I have three meals a day and you have one and we all agree that we should cut one meal, that is a massively unequal outcome. Now you have no meals and I have two.

The people with the least amount of power and resources have limited access to say anything about the choice. We're at a moment where after the cuts of the last few years, that inequity in the formula and the way it's structured is so stark that it's almost impossible to argue for the system as it is now.

If you are spending more than $18,000, $19,000 or $20,000 per child and others are struggling to pay for $5,000 or $6,000 per pupil and they are in a situation with very little resource in the community and the other has remarkable opportunity infrastructure -- just based on where a kid happens to be born, that's pretty unfair.

This question of fairness is really starting to emerge. We need to understand the need to have honest, hard, real conversations about the distribution of dollars that will have a more common floor.

Q. Why should parents in more affluent districts want to be a part of this conversation?

Smith: I'm not saying people have to stop supporting their children wherever they are, but I think we're linked in this -- outcomes in one place matter to another place.

Our conversations about funding equity, amount and distribution have to be held in the context of, if we don't do that, the amount of wasted human capital potential, the future health and wealth being of Illinois and ultimately the safety and security of the country are in jeopardy.

It's not fighting for yours or mine, it's what's in the best interest of us all.

Q. How likely is it that a funding fix will it happen?

Smith: There's definitely going to be movement -- the notion of "a fix" is elusive.

I do think things will get better, if not entirely this year or next, at least incrementally. There's enough will politically, enough clarity.

Any formula -- federal or state -- already has winners and losers in it. The current status quo has people getting more and people who have less. Any new formula will dislocate people, either who were already getting or were not getting enough, people will be moved around.

What's the best next formula that both tries to have more, but also considers thoughtfully the distribution in ways that are more equitable. I think there will be more progress on this. I don't know that there's any place that has the fixed or perfect formula on this, but there are people who have made progress.

The desire to do something is strong. I think there will definitely be progress.

Q. Why has nothing in the last 10 years worked?

Smith: At the root of this question about poverty and the impact of poverty is the structural inequity that's in our communities, whether rural or urban. The impact of poverty is deep and real and lived every day. Here's where the kind of work and history and the study of poverty is helpful. Jeffrey Sachs wrote a great book called, "The End of Poverty."

The way we talk about this is usually "What can the poor do to help themselves?" but the actual and harder question that we're staying away from is "Can the rich afford to help the poor?"

The knee jerk reaction is "of course they're rich, they have money." But the question about 'afford' is can people who a have wealth and have hoarded or gathered opportunity, can they afford to engage in this conversation in ways that might jeopardize the very structure that resulted in them having that wealth in the first place.

The kind of community conversations that are necessary -- they go right or left really fast. It gets polarized so fast.

The issue is, can we actually look at systems of distribution of wealth? We are losing so much economic opportunity in the country, jeopardizing our health in communities in terms of violence, employment, quality of living.

The answer ultimately is, "Yes, they can afford it if it's engaged in a way of broader systemic restructuring not just a redistribution of wealth."

There are thoughtful ways to go about this. I think the primary place this work has to be done is in our public education systems. The common good demands uncommonly good public systems. There is a compact that we exist in as citizens and taxpayers that the public infrastructure is for the common good.

Our public education system is not perfect, but we sit in a system that has created extraordinary inequity, extracted human capital since the founding of the country. How do you invest, develop and create opportunities for kids -- that's what I believe in and what to work on.

Q. So all the attempts at reform failed?

Smith: We have to transform what the work is. People want to go to programs or work on formulas, but the narrative still is about who deserves our help. This idea about how far the dominant power structure is willing to go is still guided by this notion of a "culture of poverty."

The story that we believe in and that the mainstream tells is still one of meritocracy: "If you work hard there's still opportunity here," but that's without a deep awareness of some of the ways these opportunities are structured.

If you have a public park and you've got places where the kid can play sports ... those kids are typically going to have more chances to be on teams. But when there's no safe place to play, it's not that the poorer kids don't want to play, they don't have a place to play.

The story we still tell is about blaming folks who are in those places and the fixes are, "If they will just do those things."

Many of these conversations start with what the "other" has to do -- demonstrate they want to by doing these things, then they can have access to this new program. At the heart of this is some of the hardest work in the country.

In the United States, the majority of the poor are white. That is still a hard concept. The greatest number of low-income children in the U.S. are white, however, higher percentages of entire populations -- African Americans, some southeast Asian, Latino -- are in poverty. The gross number is lower, but the percentage compared to their total population is higher.

This is some of the deepest, most important work we have in front of us.

The move to testing, to evaluation, to trying to figure out equity -- that part of NCLB, I think that was a good move to reveal the gaps. But, the insistence on testing more and measuring more does miss the mark. What is the set of opportunities a group of children is missing in a certain neighborhood, that would be a much more interesting study in my opinion, but it's harder to do.

Q. So is America no longer a meritocracy?

Smith: No. That's the story we tell. This issue we're facing -- there's still the story you blame the person for not achieving instead of looking at the conditions. This is where it's so hard. Despite the conditions there are kids who are making it through regardless.

You wouldn't see patterns like this play out so starkly across race and class if there weren't more structural issues at play. You can't tell me that only kids in high wealth, white neighborhoods have the college DNA -- that's ridiculous.

There's something about how we're structured that is sorting opportunity. We're wasting massive, massive human potential by not figuring out a way to increase access and support for all of our kids.

Q. Is there any hope for students in poverty?

Smith: Yes. People created these systems in the first place, people made choices over time that resulted in the outcomes we got. I think there's a growing consensus and awareness that if we continue doing what we've done and continue to foster this widening gap, income inequality, differences by race, class, newcomer status -- we will tear apart.

The kind of energy and consciousness around being the number one country in terms of prison population, we incarcerate faster, longer and strip rights faster -- people are getting it clear, we are not situating ourselves a healthy, secure, economically-booming future. We better start creating new systems, we better start looking at the outcomes. This is a growing awareness across the political spectrum.

One of the reasons I'm most hopeful is around early childhood. Regardless of political party, if you're not supporting investment in early childhood -- that's not very smart. It has become clear that all of our children deserve investment. It's smart economically and good for our kids and community. I see changes you could not have predicted 10 or 15 years ago that are now more broadly understood across the political spectrum. I'm hopeful we can take on issues of funding, poverty.

Q. What are some of the policy implications of judging schools without context of income?

Smith: Getting clear about what "good" looks like, what is a quality school regardless of where it is. There are things that are just true across schools that you can see when you walk in. I really believe -- this is something still hotly debated -- student growth matters.

Some people don't like that because in a very affluent school kids come in at or above grade level, so there's going to be more growth in the high-need, low-income school. But if it's always against an absolute standard, those kids might not yet be at grade level but they're making progress. They've gained a couple years but they are still behind.

The outcomes could look very different, however. Growth (metrics) could say this school is really cranking and doing an amazing job in this really high-need place.

There are teachers that choose to go into places of higher need. I have seen unbelievably high-quality amazing teaching in places.

There's a way we need to talk about growth and how we measure progress over time in more complex ways.

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