Education Rewrite: Illinois adjusts to the requirements of federal law

Jun 1, 2004

While campaigning for president, George W. Bush borrowed a phrase from the Children’s Defense Fund to sell his education message: “No child left behind.” Attaching it to the most recent rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Republican-led Congress approved the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and President Bush signed it into law.

Several states found the requirements so demanding they considered rejecting the federal funds tied to them. For Illinois, which has faced the largest budget deficit in recent history, that wasn’t an option. The federal government is providing this state with an additional $778.3 million to fund the programs.
Illinois Issues examines three aspects of the sweeping changes required by the federal law: diminished resources for gifted students, tutors for low-achieving students and university help for public schoolteachers.

The Editors

 

Gifted programs

Illinois’ next generation of intellectuals and virtuosos may have to make its mark on the world without the help of state government. In part because of pressures from the federal No Child Left Behind law, Gov. Rod Blagojevich stripped mandates on local schools to educate gifted students and, in this fiscal year, shifted dollars for those programs into school districts’ general funds.

For next fiscal year’s budget, which begins July 1, the Illinois State Board of Education recommended reinstating the requirement that districts identify and develop programs to serve high-achieving students. It also recommended reinstating the $19 million grant that supported the specialized learning. 

“If you don’t have programs that are focused on the gifted, then those students are adversely affected, and they get left behind because there are not special programs to keep them interested,” says Karen Craven, spokeswoman for the state board. 

Brenda Holmes, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for education, says the governor wanted to eliminate mandates and allow school districts to spend as they see fit. Last year, the state added $381 million new dollars to education, including $29 million to identify low-income preschoolers at risk of failure.

That shift in emphasis to the weakest students, spurred by penalties in the No Child Left Behind law, meant schools across the state had to shuffle funding to continue serving students identified as gifted. 
“The $25,000 we did get from the state had to come from other places in our budget,” says Bob Meixner, assistant superintendent for Macomb Community Unit School District 185. But, he says, the students still have advanced placement classes in the high school and teachers are still getting what they need to teach gifted children, including professional training and resource materials.

Robert Evans, a board member of Rockford School District 205, says,“It broke my heart” to vote to diminish the funding for the gifted program. A college professor, he says his daughter is a product of Rockford’s gifted education classes and has her choice of colleges because her talents were nurtured by the program. Gifted education will continue for the more than 1,000 students who qualify, says Tom Hoffman, the district’s chief financial officer, but the program had to be cut by about $35,000.

The story is similar throughout the state. Of the roughly 2 million Illinois public education students, more than 160,000 qualify for gifted programs. 
In 2002, the state board pegged that number at 7.9 percent of all Illinois students. For funding purposes, the state defines gifted as children who are in the top 5 percent of students. Before those dollars were eliminated, the state gave each school district $200 for each gifted student.

That was a “pittance” compared to what is needed to serve the gifted population, says Susan Rhodes, principal at Iles Elementary School, Springfield’s magnet school for gifted students in grades one through five. She also has been the gifted education coordinator for Springfield School District 186 for 
11 years. The $155,000 that district received barely paid for three teachers, she says. Yet it was providing gifted programs for 522 students in grades one to five in 21 elementary schools before elimination of the funding.

But this year, gifted programming is limited to the magnet school’s 249 students, some additional curriculum at one middle school and advanced coursework and advanced placement classes in the high schools.

Students no longer participate in pull-out programs, where they leave their classrooms to get instruction from teachers trained to challenge them. Such resource teachers have been eliminated throughout the district. As a result, their students face the frustration of boredom in the classroom.

Rhodes says research has shown that when teachers introduce a new concept, students achieving in the middle of the bell curve need 17 to 22 contacts or repetitions to master the material. Gifted children need one to five. “They make connections much faster. Once you’ve explained it to them, they’re ready to move on.” 

However, with No Child Left Behind, which requires measurable, yearly progress for all students, teachers 
want to make sure everybody meets those standards. So, Rhodes says, they may repeat a lesson 25 or 30 times to make sure that happens. “Then the gifted kids are sitting in those classrooms bored out of their minds.” 

Minority gifted children and those from small school districts are especially vulnerable because their 
parents often do not have resources or the option of sending them to private schools. 

Thirty percent of high school dropouts are gifted students, she says. “School is just not relevant to them any more.”

Private tutors
This spring, Illinois schoolchildren took tests that will determine whether more of them will be eligible through the federal No Child Left Behind law to hire private tutors at taxpayer expense. Those scores could add up to trouble this fall for a handful of small, downstate districts where such services are not readily available.

A provision in federal law requiring schools to give low-achieving students extra academic help will kick in with full force this year as more schools fall into the failing-to-meet-standards category. About two dozen small, downstate districts are on the cusp of sanctions that will require them to offer tutoring services that are not always available outside of cities. 

“Urban districts have more access to the service providers than do rural districts,” says Madlene Hamilton, a researcher with the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group studying tutoring programs across the nation. Most rural school districts are geographically distant from the companies providing the services, as most are located in urban or suburban areas. “The providers require that a certain number of students take advantage of their services before they provide services to a particular district. In a rural area, they might have fewer students taking advantage, so the provider’s tendency is to not service areas where only one or two students need services.”

Online tutoring, she says, often do not fill the gap because small districts may not have the required Internet access. 

Nevertheless, thousands of new companies are starting up, pitching their plans to parents fed up with the performance of public schools. Nationwide, districts with failing schools could spend as much as $2.7 billion on supplemental services and choice options. Districts can use up to 20 percent of federal Title I funds to pay for private tutors. Illinois’ share of federal funds for disadvantaged students for 2003-2004 was $478.8 million.

Currently, private tutoring is an $8 billion industry that is growing rapidly across the country and expects to tap into those federal dollars. Ed Gordon, a tutoring expert who ran a private service in northern Illinois for 30 years, says the No Child Left Behind law has begun the “institutionalization” of tutoring. Parents of low-achieving students will be given a voucher, he says, to choose a tutor from a state-approved list.
Indeed, the State Board of Education recommends 31 private tutoring companies from which parents can choose. Costs range from $6 to $75 per hour.

However, even as the experiment in educational consumerism gains increased acceptance among parents and school administrators in urban areas where it has had a year or two to work through early kinks, many children already have been left behind. 
A report by State Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office, citing statistics from the Illinois State Board of 
Education, notes that because of a lack of funds only about 20 percent of students eligible for tutoring received those services. This year, Chicago schools served approximately 57,000 of the 135,000 students eligible for supplemental services. About 16,000 received instruction from private vendors, and the rest attended after-school programs.

Downstate schools face a different scenario. In some small schools, where one child’s bad day during standardized testing is enough to skew scores, the result could be the opposite of what the law intended.
“Here’s what’s happening,” says Len Defend, superintendent of Cowden-Herrick Community Unit School District 3A in Shelby County. “Schools are going to take their high school buildings, or whichever, in our case it’s the high school, and take them off the Title I eligible list.” What that means, he says, is that those funds from the federal government targeted toward helping disadvantaged students — and in small high school settings it often translates to tutorial help — will be forfeited so that schools are not forced onto the list of failing schools, and, ironically, required to hire private tutors.“It’s going to happen,” he says. “I’ve already seen it in neighboring districts.”

Urban areas have to deal with hitches, too. Xavier Botana, director of No Child Left Behind ccountability for Chicago Public Schools, says fewer parents than expected signed their children up for tutoring last year. The Chicago school board reallocated the remaining funds and expanded after-school 
programs at the 231 schools deemed to be failing. “It was a way for the kids to get what the law actually wanted them to get, which was extended learning opportunities,” he says.

The private tutor program did work at James Monroe Elementary School on the city’s Northwest Side. Principal James Menconi says everybody — parents, teachers and central office administrators — were “very satisfied.” Of the 1,250 students in the school, which is 92 percent Hispanic, about 200 received additional assistance from for-profit tutoring companies. “It helped that everyone had a healthy attitude towards it,” he says. “The key was to get across the idea that this extra help was to help the children, to bring them to grade level. It was not punitive in any way.”

For the upcoming school year, about 360 schools in the Chicago system will be on the school improvement list, and 270,000 children in those schools will be eligible for tutors and other supplemental education. Botana says this spring the system reached out “more aggressively” to parents about available tutoring services.

In rural Illinois, school districts will have few options to offer their parents and students. Robert Isom, superintendent of Cairo Unit School District 1 at the southern tip of the state, has tried for months to find a private company to serve his schools. 

The Cairo district would seem to be what the framers of the No Child Left Behind law had in mind when they designed the tutoring provision: 900 students, about 95 percent black, 87 percent low-income, all receiving free and discounted lunches. The latter two statistics are among the stated criteria to receive Title I federal funds. Cairo has had schools on the state’s academic watch and warning lists and has struggled financially for years. 

The district awaits its spring test scores, but expects to be on the school improvement list for another year. 
Isom says he spent the last few months looking for a private tutoring company, but he was disheartened by a common refrain. “When we talked with companies, they wanted to know how much money we had to spend,” he says, “rather than asking, ‘What are your needs?’” 

Teachers’ ed
By the 2005-2006 school year, Illinois schools receiving federal funds must prove to the government that all of their teachers are “highly qualified.”
To help school districts meet that requirement of the No Child Left Behind law, the Illinois Board of Higher Education has distributed $5.3 million in federal grants to 15 of the state’s universities. The projects are designed to help public schoolteachers educate more effectively, a factor supporters believe is key to meeting the federal and state goals for student achievement. Most grants are aimed at increasing achievement in math and science, a weakness in Illinois schoolchildren.

“There has been a long-term decline in math and science scores on statewide achievement tests in math and science. At the same time, we find many classrooms in math and the sciences staffed by teachers whose academic major was in other fields,’’ says Daniel LaVista, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “Moreover, these are two of the disciplines in which teacher shortages are identifiable and troubling. The focus on math and 
science also addresses the ongoing need for professional development measures to upgrade the qualifications of K-12 teachers in these fields.” 
One project at Illinois State University in Normal aims to help math teachers in the lower grades. The Teachers Teaching Teachers project, which received $195,000, will focus on techniques geared to teach children in a way that enables them to learn mathematics. In Decatur, 40 teachers of kindergarten through third grade will learn, then instruct other teachers in a research-based strategy that has proved to be effective. Teachers do an analysis of young students’ thinking and then plan instruction based on their findings, says Cheryl Lubinski, professor of mathematics at ISU and co-director of the project with Janet Warfield, assistant professor of mathematics. 

The project’s approach is a requirement of No Child Left Behind — that schools use scientifically based instruction in the classroom. The strategy used in Decatur aims to increase skill in solving problems. But Lubinski says children who have been exposed to the type of math instruction used in the project also have shown measurable gains in computation. 

“If teachers select numbers carefully,” she says, “young students see number relationships and learn their basic facts through problem solving.”
With this method, teachers learn how children develop mathematically, says Lubinski. “Teachers can use existing materials, but they learn to use them in very different ways.”

Illinois State also received $270,000 for a project to increase the number of trained teachers in the Chicago school system. The university received three grants in all, totaling nearly $745,000. 

The University of Illinois at Chicago received three grants totaling $770,000 to work with the Chicago Public Schools. One $260,000 grant will help math and science teachers receive certification to stay in the classroom. In Illinois a highly qualified teacher is one who is certified in the area she or he is teaching. To be certified, the state requires teachers to have earned a minimum number of hours of college instruction in their field. 

Another $230,000 grant aims to keep qualified teachers in the classroom and increase mentoring of student teachers so that they are prepared to teach low-achieving, inner city students. 

“We’re learning you need quadruple, quintuple, the amount of support that universities are currently able to give students in high-need schools,” says 
Victoria Chou, dean of the education department and director of the project. A student teacher in Oak Park or the North Shore, she says, will perform well under the normal standard of supervision, which is four to six visits. However, a student teacher working in a school on Chicago’s West Side does not have a lot of the same supports and may not have a cooperating teacher in the classroom.

“Someone could visit [that student teacher] every week and it wouldn’t be enough,” she says. And it’s difficult to keep experienced teachers in the classroom without sufficient support. “It’s so terribly hard to get the public on board because they think teaching is easy and dumb people teach,” she says. “We have smart people who are just drowning.” 
Math and science teachers in a mostly Hispanic district in the Quad Cities will get extra help from faculty at Western Illinois University, with $385,000 that will fund two projects. The largest amount, $320,000, will help math and science teachers in East Moline and the remainder targets physics instruction. 

WIU faculty will help teachers tighten their math and science curriculums so that ninth-graders from five elementary districts will enter United Township High School in the fall more evenly prepared. Math teachers for grades six through 12 also will get intense training in geometry, a subject local research showed was a weakness of those schools, says Donna McCaw, professor of educational leadership at Western and project co-director.

Science teachers will focus on building their knowledge of what they teach and on learning techniques for passing that refreshed subject matter on to at-risk students. Also, principals will get training in ways to best evaluate and guide math and science teachers. “How do you take a good teacher, through observation and feedback, and make her or him a great teacher,” says McCaw.

Educators and administrators welcome the grants and think they will bring the state closer to compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act. However, they are in agreement that this most recent rewrite of education law has unrealistic goals and that Congress will have to make more adjustments to it. 

“I think anything that comes from the top down,” says Lubinski of Illinois State University, “needs to be assessed.”

However, despite the frustrations, teachers admit that no one in government, education or the general public should continue to accept the truth that so many of the nation’s children are achieving at unacceptably low levels.

“There are pieces of No Child Left Behind that really stress and stretch [schools], but I think the intent of the law is long overdue,” says Western Illinois University’s McCaw. “What I tell my classes is that if we had been doing this all along, it wouldn’t have had to have been legislated.” 

 

Illinois Issues, June 2004