Thoughts on Senate Bill 7…

Last Monday, (6/13) Governor Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 7– a new education reform bill.

The bill’s provisions will enable Illinois School Districts to…

1) Lengthen the school day and/or extend the school year

2) Fire poorly performing teachers more easily

3) Offer merit pay to teachers

Apparently, the bill’s provisions will also make it more difficult for teacher’s unions to strike. (This addition comes at a good time for Rahm, who announced earlier this week that  CTU teachers will not be given scheduled pay raises).

Overall, I’d say the provisions in this bill represent a specific political and ideological orientation towards education reform. It’s an orientation my education policy professor labels “business minded”. Put simply, business minded reformers are typically pro-charter, pro-merit pay and anti-union. In other words, the business minded camp is interested in  applying business principles (choice, competition, & incentives) in education policy.

Personally, I’m worried that Senate Bill 7 reflects “business minded” reform concepts more than it reflects research about what matters for improving student achievement.

I  do think that extending the school day is a good change (kids in Illinois spend less time in school than kids in any other state), however, it’s unclear how the state will fund longer school days without an increase in education funding. (This point is currently being argued by Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group here in Chicago).

I’m also not opposed to firing poorly performing teachers, however– I think it’s important to point out that the image of the lazy, incompetent inner-city teacher (or the so-called “lemons” depicted in Waiting for Superman) is largely a myth (* See “Chicago School Reform: Myths Realities and Visions“). The “bad teacher” is a scapegoat (much like Reagan’s welfare queens) which enables us to avoid dealing with the root causes of urban social problems.

In my own experience working in two different inner-city schools–the vast majority of teachers I met were hard-working and cared deeply about their students. I suspect some of these teachers (myself included) could have been more effective if they had received more supports (like high-quality school leadership, training in cultural competency or classroom management, or access to more student data). There were of course, a few bad teachers (many of whom were persuaded to leave after a year of teaching). A much bigger problem, however, was that many of the most promising teachers left after just a few years . In most cases these teachers snagged jobs in the suburbs or at well-regarded charter schools where they could count on a less stressful work environment. Sure, firing incompetent teachers will benefit our schools–but it doesn’t really get at the larger issue of how to recruit and keep high quality teachers in urban schools.

As for merit pay… with the present budget crisis it seems unlikely to me that many districts will be experimenting with merit pay programs. Without more funding, this provision seems rather meaningless. Overall, I feel rather  ambivalent about the concept of merit pay. I think that teachers should be rewarded for their hard work–but in order to do this we need to find a holistic way to evaluate teachers (i.e. the idea of determining teacher pay on test scores alone strikes me a highly problematic). Personally, I prefer the idea of career ladders for teachers (i.e. exceptional teachers take on new positions as “teacher mentors” or “lead teachers” and receive a pay increase– much like a promotion).

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