News analysis


Illinois has awful record on equity No Child Left Behind law a welcome jolt By Linda Lenz

Linda Lenz  

When it comes to the goals of Brown v. Board of Education-racially integrated schools and equal educational opportunity-Illinois has perhaps the worst record in the country.

In the Brown decision, handed down 50 years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court found that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal.

Today, Illinois schools are among the worst in the nation on every measure of racial integration. For example, three out of five African-American students in Illinois attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority, according to The Civil Rights Project based at Harvard University. That puts Illinois second only to Michigan in the degree of such intense segregation of blacks. Among Latinos, two out of five students attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority, which puts Illinois in fifth place after New York, Texas, California and New Jersey.

Perhaps worse, Illinois doesn't even meet the standards of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that was overturned by Brown, which said racially segregated separate facilities were constitutional so long as they were equal. With per-pupil funding that ranges from an average of $6,341 in the bottom quarter of schools to $12,177 in the top quarter, Illinois has the most inequitable school finance system in the country, according to an analysis by Education Week, the newspaper of record for education. Across the state, the better-funded districts tend to be whiter and score higher on standardized tests.

Against this background, the federal No Child Left Behind Act is welcome medicine despite its faults. Adopted in 2001, the law decrees that by 2014 states must ensure all children are proficient in reading and math. With such a mandate, advocates for minority and other disadvantaged children have a strong new wind for their sails.

Indeed, the goals of No Child have been universally praised. It's the gory details that have drawn howls of protest.

Given the complexity of improving schools, it's not surprising that legislators produced a bit of a mess. Throw in opposing ideologies, and it's amazing they got the basics right: gradual growth in student achievement and better qualified teachers and teacher aides.

In return for increased federal funding-in the first year, at least-Republicans got provisions that allow some students to transfer to better-performing schools and to get tutoring from outside organizations, with the school district footing the bill. Now Republicans are learning how ineffectual the school-choice measure is, in part because most parents cannot or do not want to send their kids too far from home. And they should be biting their nails about the outcome of tutoring that was quickly arranged and is unconnected to school programs. Despite the aggravations these measures have created, educators should rejoice for the spotlight they have thrown on reality.

The law's testing provisions are more problematic because they threaten to lump schools with widely varying success and challenges into the same "needs improvement" category, thereby diluting resources for the most needy. The federal government already has made some important adjustments regarding bilingual and special needs students and the percentage of students who must be tested each year.

As the accountability measures play out and legislators are forced to revisit No Child regulations, the demand for more substantial changes will grow. A prime target should be the nutty notion that each state needs to develop its own test of elementary-level reading and math.

In the meantime, educators can stop making bad choices about how they respond to the law.

"Teaching to the test" through drill and practice is a bad way to raise test scores. A 2001 study of reading and math assignments at 19 Chicago schools by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found students who received assignments requiring more challenging intellectual work also achieved greater than average gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in reading and mathematics. These students also demonstrated higher performance in reading, math and writing on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program.

But to get more schools to choose challenging assignments over rote skills, the broader school reform community must continue to invest in leadership development and support. Chicago has years of experience with the kind of accountability system imposed by No Child Left Behind. Research shows that in Chicago the threat of sanctions motivated some schools to find new solutions while others scurried to ineffective quick fixes.

The key difference was leadership from the principal: Schools where teachers reported that they trusted and worked well with their colleagues were more likely to get off probation within the first two years, according to an analysis of Consortium data conducted by researcher Jennifer O'Day of the American Research Institutes.

O'Day selected 10 Chicago elementary schools for a case study. Those with strong leadership were the first to get off probation. The four schools still on probation at the end of the study had the weakest leadership-one had a principal who bombarded teachers with new programs, while another micromanaged them.

However, even well-run schools don't reach all their children, some of whom bring more problems to school than schools themselves can solve. But that's no reason to get rid of the goal of universal proficiency in reading and math. Rather, it is cause for stepped up political organizing and participation to get disadvantaged schools and families the resources they need.

Ultimately, school improvement is a political process. If educators want good laws, they need to step outside their schools to educate politicians and the public. If parents want good schools, they need to inform themselves and demand the best.

If we all want a country that continues to prosper and live up to its ideals, those of us who have standing need to speak on behalf of those who don't. The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education is a good time to start.

Linda Lenz is an award-winning Chicago journalist who has spent 25 years covering education issues. Lenz founded and is publisher and editor in chief of Catalyst Chicago, a publication of the Community Renewal Society that reports and analyzes the progress, problems and politics of school reform in Chicago. Catalyst can be found online at For a free sample issue, call (312) 673-3866.


Kids Eat Chicago

Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint