In the past 10 years, District 65 School Board members who have proposed change have often been accused of micro-managing the District. Those charges were resurrected in the past few weeks. We do not think the School Board has engaged in micro-management. Proposals made by School Board members have benefited this District and all its students.

Five issues are germane.

Raising Measures of Success 

Beginning in 2007, a study, “The Proficiency Illusion,” found that Illinois set its benchmark to “meet standards” on the ISATs at about the 20th national percentile, a benchmark so low that students who were at risk of serious academic failure could meet it. Subsequent studies found that students who just barely “met standards” on the ISATs had less than a 10 percent chance of being on track to college and career readiness by eleventh grade. Still others found that Illinois’ benchmarks to “meet standards” on the ISATs were among the lowest in the nation.

The benchmarks gave a grossly misleading picture about how Illinois students, including those in District 65, were doing academically. The Illinois State Board of Education acknowledged this in 2012 in filings with the U.S. Department of Education. In January 2013 ISBE publicly announced that the low benchmarks “did our students a disservice by not adequately assessing their ability to succeed after high school.”

Soon after her election to the Board in 2009, Tracy Quattrocki, now president of the Board, repeatedly raised concerns about the low benchmarks. She urged the District to measure student achievement using higher benchmarks, including grade-level performance (the 50th percentile) and being on-track to college and career readiness (the 60th percentile in reading and the 68th in math). For an extended time, former Superintendent Hardy Murphy fought doing so. In August 2011, the School Board unanimously adopted goals that the District increase the percentage of students who performed at grade level, and the percentage who were on-track to college and career readiness.

These Board goals substantially increased expectations for all students, in particular minority students. The goals were pivotal in providing a more accurate picture of student achievement, and they put the focus on preparing students for college and careers, rather than on crossing a “meet standards” benchmark that was set so low it was meaningless. These goals were ultimately embraced by Dr. Murphy.

Changing IEPs

Starting in about January 2012, Board member Richard Rykhus began to press for an amendment to the Board’s policies that would specify the manner in which IEPs could be altered. He raised three instances which, he said, justified the change. In those instances, the District made programmatic changes or changes in the location of a program over the summer, and then told parents their child’s IEPs would need to be changed. It appeared that programmatic changes might be influencing or predetermining individual students’ IEPs.

After Mr. Rykhus raised the issue at five or six meetings, the Board adopted an amendment to its policies providing that an IEP would not be altered unless an IEP team reconvened (subject to applicable laws) and reached a consensus that the change appropriately met the individual needs of the child. Dr. Murphy maintained this was already covered in the Board’s policies and was unnecessary.

We think it is appropriate for School Board members to raise concerns about how the District is preparing IEPs. In June 2013, a federal court held that District 65 violated the Disabilities Law by, in part, predetermining a student’s IEP. While the programmatic changes raised by Mr. Rykhus were not at issue in the federal case, the court’s ruling is instructive.

The Teacher Appraisal System 

The District has had a teacher appraisal plan that takes student growth into account since 2010. That model essentially evaluated teachers based on whether more students scored above the 50th percentile at the end of a school year than at the start. In late August 2012, Dr. Murphy unilaterally imposed a new appraisal system on teachers for the 2012-13 school year.

Administrators presented the new appraisal system to the School Board in an open meeting for the first time on Nov. 6, 2013. More than 200 teachers packed the Board’s meeting room to demonstrate their opposition. Leaders of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) said the methodology used to measure student growth under that system was unreliable, statistically flawed and inequitable for a host of reasons. They said teacher morale was at an all time low and the new system would negatively impact the District’s ability to retain and attract high quality teachers.

One key issue was that the new system divided each class into four subgroups and planned to rate teachers on how each of those small subgroups performed. While in concept this seemed to be a creative idea, researchers found in numerous studies that using groups of between 20 and 30 students produced inconsistent results for the same teachers from year to year. One researcher says that rating a teacher based on a group of five students would be “extreme” and that “there is simply not enough information in that case to draw a conclusion with confidence.” 

On Dec. 3, the School Board decided, by a 4-3 vote, that it would vote on whether to defer implementation of the appraisal system until the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. Four Board members said they were concerned that the system was statistically unreliable because it was based on extremely small groupings of students and did not take into account the non-random assignment of students, as well as other reasons.

On Dec. 17, Dr. Murphy announced that he had reached an agreement with DEC to treat the appraisal system as a “shadow system” for the year. He said this would allow the District to review and statistically verify the model. In June 2013, Dr. Murphy signed off on a revamped teacher appraisal system worked out by a committee of administrators and teachers with technical assistance of the ECRA Group, research consultants.

Reporting BMI

Last year, the District’s weighing of students and reporting their Body Mass Index (BMI) came into question because of concerns raised by parents. While BMI numbers were made available to individual students on private pages online, this was done in a public classroom setting, and word spread in the classroom and on the playground about individual student’s BMI numbers. Some parents reported that their children were humiliated when their BMI became known.

Community members, teachers and physicians debated this issue at several meetings. The Board decided to keep reporting BMI, but to report the number only to parents. The Board also decided that the District should reach out to parents of students with a BMI number in an unhealthy zone, and line them up with a doctor or other services that might assist them. The District had not done this before.

The Algebra Pilot

To our recollection, School Boards approved every curriculum program that Dr. Murphy proposed to improve the achievement of African American or Hispanic students, with the possible exception of a proposal made in June 2013 to eliminate tracking of algebra classes in eighth grade at the middle schools. Dr. Murphy pointed to the results of a pilot algebra class in the magnet schools to support his proposal. Several Board members questioned whether the results of the pilot in the magnet schools would apply to the middle schools which have much larger class sizes and a different achievement profile. In addition, the data showed that students performing in the bottom quartile did better in tracked courses than in those in which tracking was eliminated. The Board approved continuation of the pilot, but not an expansion. They also asked for more data.

We do not think that School Boards should micromanage. That is not their function. However, members of the Board are elected officials who have a responsibility to act if they see something that is potentially harming students, impacting the District’s ability to retain and attract high quality teachers, or violating the law.

Board members were not micromanaging when they brought up the foregoing issues for discussion and proposed changes. They were spearheading important concerns, and all children, including minority children, benefited as a result of their actions.