The Superintendents of School Districts 65 and 202 each signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, with the State of Illinois, agreeing – at least on a preliminary basis – to participate in the state’s educational reform initiatives that are part of the state’s application for a federal “Race to the Top” grant. School District 65 took the additional step of having its School Board president sign the MOU and having its Board ratify the signing of the agreement.

The federal Race to the Top program is a competitive, $4.35 billion education program designed to encourage and reward states that are promoting education reform. In a Dec. 18 letter State Superintendent of Education, Christopher A. Koch invited school districts throughout the state to submit an MOU by Jan.11. He said the State of Illinois intends to apply for more than $500 million in Race to the Top funds and that at least half of any grant will go to school districts that sign the MOU and commit to implement the educational reform initiatives in the state’s application.

As part of its educational reform initiatives, Illinois contemplates revising the state’s learning standards and assessments, improving the effectiveness of principals and teachers by making student growth a significant factor in evaluations, increasing students’ readiness for college by using the ACT family of tests, and requiring collaboration between elementary, middle schools and high schools to work toward that goal.

Revised Learning Standards

And Assessments

The MOU requires participating school districts to support the transition to enhanced learning standards and to high-quality student assessments. “Illinois education reform is designed to ensure world class standards and assessment for students, teachers and school leaders …,” said District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy at a joint School Board meeting on Jan. 11.

In June 2009, Illinois joined 48 other states and territories to develop common learning standards in English and math for elementary and secondary students in a project called the “Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

 In September that coalition issued its first official public draft of “college- and career-readiness standards.” The preamble to the draft says the standards are “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked” and define the skills and knowledge in English language arts and mathematics needed for students to succeed in “college entry courses and in workforce training programs.” The goal is to “ensure all American students are prepared for the global economic workplace.”

The coalition of states is now working back from those standards to develop K-12 standards that will allow students to achieve the college- and career-readiness standards by the 12th grade. A public draft of the K-12 standards is expected later this month.

Illinois has also committed to work with a coalition of states to “develop and implement common, high-quality assessments aligned with the Common Core K-12 standards.” These new assessments would likely replace the Illinois Standard Achievement Test and the Prairie State Achievement Test.

In the MOUs, School Districts 65 and 202 agree to support the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments, and they also agree to align their curriculum to the new learning standards and to implement the new assessments. 

Teacher and Principal Evaluations

Another key goal in the Race to the Top program is to improve principal and teacher effectiveness through redesigned evaluation systems. Subject to the education labor relations act and other laws, the MOU requires participating school districts to include student growth as part of the evaluations of principals and teachers by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

 “At least 50 percent of teacher- and principal-performance evaluations will be based on student growth,” says the MOU.

School District 65 implemented a teacher appraisal system this year that takes student academic growth into account. In its Dec. 10 report, “Can Illinois ‘Race to the Top’?” Advance Illinois, an education reform group, 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.

 Currently School District 202 does not use student growth in its teacher appraisal system. In response to a question at the Jan. 11 joint school board meeting, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said if the State receives Race to the Top funds, “there will be an application procedure and, of course, as we always do at ETHS, we would be highly collaborative with our teachers’ council or with our faculties in taking a look at what would work for us.”

On Jan. 15, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 2010, which requires school districts to consider “student growth as a significant factor in the rating of the teacher’s performance.” The new law requires school districts to work with its local teacher union to meet the new requirement.

Transition to High School

Dr. Murphy told Board members on Jan. 11 that the MOU provides that the ACT family of tests, EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT, will constitute the state’s “Educational Planning and Assessment System.” Starting in the 2010-11 school year, the State will require participating school districts to administer EXPORE during eighth grade “to better address the transition from middle school to high school.”

 School District 202 has been administering the EXPORE, PLAN and ACT tests for many years; and it has given EXPLORE to District 65 eighth-graders as one of several measures to assess incoming freshmen. District 65, however, does not use the EXPLORE test as part of its assessment system. The District 65 School Board decided two months ago not to use EXPLORE as a measure of whether students are prepared for high school and beyond. The MOU may require a change in that policy.

The MOU also requires participating school districts to “create a common understanding among educators, parents and students that a student’s scores on eighth-grade and high school assessments [including EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT] are a predictor of the student’s readiness for non-remedial coursework.”

In addition, participating school districts must establish a “process for early identification of students who may need remedial assistance before transitioning to college.” This process is required to reach back to the elementary and middle school levels to address areas of deficiencies that may exist at those levels, as well as those at the high school level.

D65 Teachers Union Declines to Sign

Several District 65 Board members questioned why the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union at District 65) did not sign the MOU. While DEC’s signature was not required, Mr. Koch’s Dec. 13 letter said, since the State’s application “has a better chance of success if MOUs are signed by all parties” it will “preferably also be signed by the president or your local governing board… and the local teachers’ union leader…”

Jean Luft, president of DEC, said Mr. Koch’s letter was received three weeks ago and teachers were on winter-break for two of those weeks. She said DEC did not have time to explain all of the conditions of the MOU to teachers, and that DEC’s Executive Board was not “comfortable signing on to a program without our members knowledge and understanding and support.”

Board member Andy Pigozzi was visibly upset that DEC did not sign the MOU. He said he thought it would reduce the State’s and the District’s chances of securing Race to the Top funds.

District 202’s MOU was not signed by the president of its Board or the president of its teachers union. Dr. Witherspoon told the RoundTable their signatures were optional. He said he discussed the MOU with them, but felt it would be unfair to rush the Board and the teachers union to sign the MOU at this time. If the State is successful in obtaining a Race to the Top grant, he said District 202 will have 90 days to submit a final application. District 202 would collaborate with the teachers union in preparing that document, he said.  If a final application is not submitted, then the MOU is terminated. 

The State planned to submit its application on Jan. 19. The “Race to the Top” funds will be awarded in two rounds, in April and in 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, which are due in June. According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s website, 356 school districts in the State signed the MOU.

If the State is not awarded Race to the Top funds, the MOU becomes null and void. ISBE has said, however, that it plans to continue implementing the school improvement initiatives even if it is not awarded Race to the Top funds.