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Advance Illinois, an education reform group co-chaired by former Governor Jim Edgar and former Secretary of Commerce William Daley, called for Illinois to make bold legislative and regulatory changes to improve the State’s chance to obtain between $200 and $400 million in “Race to the Top” funds. “Race to the Top” is a $4.35 billion dollar competitive grant award program being made available by the U.S. Department of Education to state education agencies.

“We can’t miss the moment,” said former Governor Edgar. “Our performance on just about every measure of student achievement shows we’re failing our kids. If Washington is offering to help, and all they’re asking is for us to make the reforms we need to make anyway, we should take action right away.”

The competition asks states to make critical reforms that support student achievement and close achievement gaps. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is seeking reforms that establish a common core of rigorous standards and assessments; ensure top-quality teachers and principals in every school; build powerful longitudinal data systems to inform decision-making at all levels; and shape a plan to intervene in chronically failing schools.

The “Race to the Top” funds will be awarded in two rounds, in April and September. If Illinois does not win in the first round, feedback from the U.S. Department of Education in April will give the state a chance to make adjustments before second-round proposals are due in June.  

In its report, “Can Illinois ‘Race to the Top’?,” released on Dec. 10, Advance Illinois says “Illinois is ‘on the bubble’ in this competition, neither a front-runner nor out of the running. Only a handful of states will be awarded ‘Race to the Top’ grants, so Illinois must make the legislative and regulatory changes to set it apart from other states, some of which have already been taking strong action.”  

Because there is a short timeline, the report recommends that Illinois’ political leadership act quickly and focus in the “near term” on legislation to revise how teachers and principals are evaluated; open more pathways to teaching, especially for those who want to teach math and science; and strengthen its strategy for turning around struggling schools.

 The report cites School District 65’s teacher evaluation model as an example of a way to take student achievement into account in the teacher evaluation process.

In the area of standards and assessments, the report says “Race to the Top” asks states to raise the bar on student achievement ‘to better prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.’”  

The report says, “It’s clear that our present standards are too low. At the elementary level, our progress on state tests does not match up with progress charted on national tests. At the secondary level, too many of our students are graduating from high school with passing grades but are then forced to take remedial classes in college or they can’t find work because they don’t have skills needed for the modern workforce.”

Illinois can improve its chances of winning “Race to the Top” dollars by, among other things, continuing its efforts to adopt new learning standards through its participation in the American Diploma Project and the multi-state Common Core standards Initiative; by defining kindergarten readiness and college readiness standards; and by adopting a common method for measuring student academic growth during the school year, says the report.

“These reforms are needed now. In fact, state leadership had already identified many of these reforms as priorities before the federal stimulus was announced,” said former Secretary Daley. “Legislation is already in the works that could make our schools better and improve our “Race to the Top” position. Let’s get it passed and help every student in the state.”  

“Illinois has already taken some strong steps at the state and district level to fix what’s wrong with our schools, thanks to good leadership from State Board of Education, the Board of Higher Education, and the Community College Board, as well as key legislators,” said Advance Illinois Executive Director Robin Steans. “We just need to keep that momentum into 2010. We have a lot of work to do, but it can be done.”

A copy of the report is available at http://www.advanceillinois.org/pages/race_to_the_top/150.php