What Next For Illinois Schools?

The results of the first year of PARCC academic assessments in Illinois public schools that are aligned to the more rigorous Common Core Standards are now available – and the news is not good. The abysmally low proficiency percentages now posted for our state’s high school students – 19% in Math and 35% in English Language Arts – are quite disturbing. The bald fact is that very few of last year’s Illinois high school juniors were able to demonstrate they are actually college and career ready.

So here we are. Over the weeks and months ahead we will sift through the numbers and search for answers to why a broad swath of our soon-to-be high school graduates are soon to be enrolling in remedial reading, writing, and math courses when they start college – a fact that will both increase their student debt load and drastically lower their chances for college success.

I have an explanation to offer regarding the dismal outcomes now in front of us: too many of our state’s high school students are still being pencil-whipped through dumbed down curriculum and busywork assignments in order to raise the graduation percentages for local school districts. This is happening both because many state school officials are more interested in public relations than actual learning outcomes and local school administrators understand that nothing riles up local voters more than keeping Janie and Johnny off that graduation stage – even if they can barely read their high school diplomas. After all, what could be the possible harm in allowing them to receive their meaningless credentials?

This year’s Illinois PARCC Test results, which serve only to throw decades of concerns about both Illinois and U.S. public school outcomes into ever starker relief, also lead to a more provocative question: Are we dutifully paying our school taxes in order to support a broken system that is robbing our nation of any hope for a better economic future?

A very intriguing study recently carried out by the economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford and Ludger Woessmann and Jens Ruhose of the University of Munich suggests that educational improvements that would bring every U.S. student to the level of competency – or perhaps mastery – across all basic academic measures would add $32 to $76 trillion to our nation’s GDP over the next several decades. Imagine a country where the career aspirations of so many adults were not routinely hobbled by deficits in reading, writing, and math skills – the explosion of human potential that is now being wasted would be an economic miracle of the first order.

We, unfortunately, seem to continue to believe that substandard educational outcomes are inevitable – despite worldwide evidence to the contrary which amply demonstrates that students can routinely achieve much more than what we expect in American public schools. To placidly presume that American children and teenagers are less able than those living within the borders of virtually all of our major economic competitors surpasses all understanding.

After over thirty years of promised improvements, “edu-speak” blather, and hundreds upon hundreds of billions of public dollars spent, it is time to put the power to change our state’s public schools right where it should have been from the beginning: in the hands of parents and students.

I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our state’s entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school – public, private, or religious – anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their PARCC Test scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.

Individual student funding levels and test score targets for retention at a school of choice still would need to be determined through our legislative process, but I believe this plan of action would be an important first step toward both empowering our students and putting the responsibility for their success squarely on their own shoulders. This would, moreover, provide school districts with a clear choice: improve instruction and measured student outcomes or watch your students go elsewhere for better teachers and curriculum.

The biggest question is, of course, whether bold action is possible in the face of the headwinds of partisan politics that protect the dysfunctional status quo at the expense of our students and our state’s future. This is, I am afraid, still a very open question, and I cannot help but wonder whether I will be re-running this very same commentary several decades down the road because we are still trapped in the same system – but still dreaming that the results will be different some day in the far, far distant future.

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