U.S. adviser gets an earful on test scores at U-46 meeting
Jo Anderson got an earful Monday to take back to Washington.
The senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was among the two dozen teachers, community leaders and education officials at the new Elgin Area School District U-46 grass-roots group Focus on Reform's inaugural round-table discussion.
Educators expressed resounding frustration with an increased focus on test scores as one of the only sure ways to net additional funding.
Jane Jorgensen, who teaches at Ontarioville Elementary, questioned why the federal government would bail out the auto and banking industries when 300,000 teachers across the country stand to lose their jobs next year. "Why isn't the world freaking out?" she asked. "We're talking about the future here."
With a new Illinois law that ties student performance to teacher evaluations, passed this winter to help the state's bid in the federal Race to the Top education competition for federal stimulus dollars, "some teachers are now just teaching to the tests," Horizon Elementary teacher Johnnie Zurek said.
"We are assessment crazy. Who would want to teach at a (low-performing) school with these new rules?"
Race to the Top will reward $4.35 billion over two rounds to states that promise to implement innovative education reform plans. Last month, Delaware and Tennessee beat out 14 other states in the first round, including Illinois, after lawmakers and state board officials spent the winter changing education legislation and policies in the hopes winning funds.
Along with tying evaluations to student performance, Illinois' state board raised the bar for the basic skills test teachers take to get into their college of education's teaching program, raised the cap on charter schools and reconvened the governor's curriculum alignment council.
Still, Duncan, when announcing the first-round winners, described a "significant natural break" between the applications of Delaware and Tennessee and the rest of the competition, with "statewide buy-in" for implementing reforms.
Gary Lorber, a Bartlett High School teacher, told Anderson point blank that he does not support Race to the Top.
"It's a focus on assessments and teacher training and data," he said. "We should be putting all of this money into our students."
Focus on Reform, U-46 parent and Democratic state representative candidate Greg Brownfield of Bartlett said, came about just after the district announced $30 million in budget cuts, 1,100 employee layoffs among them.
"There were all of these different factions. Different people wanting certain things," he said. Brownfield decided to found the group to create a positive dialogue, to "spur folks to work together and have a positive dialogue."
The round-table discussion at the Bartlett Community Center was intentionally small, he said, to facilitate a better discussion.
Along with Anderson, U-46 school board President Ken Kaczynski and Mike Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials, served as panelists. Lieutenant governor candidate Sheila Simon of Carbondale withdrew at the last minute.
Anderson reminded the group that $100 billion of the $800 billion stimulus package went to education, he said.
"It saved 325,000 jobs and the economy hasn't yet turned around," Anderson said. "We can't expect the federal government to solve problems we behave ourselves into."
Illinois, Anderson suggested, needs better buy-in from all sectors of the education world to net second-round funds.
"You're not going to get money without doing something different," Anderson said. "We'll never get support politically without combining accountability with more money. Teachers, unions, all need to be a part of that conversation. There's great collaborative work to be done together."
Education: Better buy-in from teachers needed, adviser says