big data

Three out of four Illinois kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. Why that’s a problem.

PHOTO: Krisanapong Detraphiphat / Getty Images

Three out of four Illinois children starting kindergarten aren’t prepared. That’s according to data released Monday by the Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with a power list of early childhood advocates who’ve spent nearly a decade lobbying for a baseline assessment.

Only 16 percent of low-income students, measured by those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrated readiness in the three core benchmarks: social-emotional learning, literacy, and math. But perhaps more surprising, wealthier districts reported low readiness scores, too, challenging common assumptions that tend to link richer communities with higher test scores.

Statewide, by race, 32 percent of Asian children and 29 percent of white children demonstrated readiness. The percentages of black and Latino children demonstrating readiness were lower, at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Related: Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early childhood education in Illinois 

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, aka KIDS, must be completed in the first 40 days of school, so it is not intended to gauge performance of districts or individual schools or teachers, said Jaclyn Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state board.

Rather, said Geoff Nagle, CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago child development brain trust, the survey holds a mirror up to how communities, and our society, fail to prepare children for kindergarten.

“We don’t do that. There’s no system to do that,” Nagle said. “Then the kids enter the K-12 system, they come in at all different capacities. For years, the schools haven’t been able to close the disparities, and we have blamed them.”

“It’s sobering data,” agreed Theresa Hawley, vice president of policy at Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization that trains child care providers across the state. “It points to what we’ve known all along: We need to be doing a better job of preparing kids for success across the board.”

More than 100,000 Illinois kindergarteners, or 81 percent of those enrolled in public programs, were observed for the survey, which was developed by San Francisco-based WestEd. There was no pen-and-paper or electronic test; rather, children were asked to perform such tasks as sharing art materials, sorting objects like buttons by shape and size, recognizing multiple letters, and acting out stories. Dual language learners were encouraged to participate in their home language or in English.


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State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith praised districts for undertaking the project. “Illinois’ kindergarten teachers and school and district leaders have shown extraordinary leadership in making the first year of KIDS data collection a success,” said Smith. “The data give families, teachers, and communities a powerful tool to advocate for the resources and supports all children need.”

Statewide, 42 percent of kindergarteners failed to display readiness in any category. And only 24 percent — one in four — demonstrated readiness across all three. Students were more prepared in social-emotional learning — that is, sharing, asking for help from adults, and raising hands to speak in class; nearly half of state kindergarteners met the social-emotional learning benchmarks. But when it came to math, readiness percentages dramatically fell: Only one in three students met the survey’s benchmarks, showing critical need for better preparation in preschool and childcare settings when it comes to numbers, shapes, and patterns.

“Parents are comfortable with the concept of literacy and reading to their kids before they go to sleep,” said ISBE’s Matthews. “But they’re not so comfortable with the activities that you need to build early math skills.”

At this stage in a young child’s life, said Nagle of the Erikson Institute, you don’t expect kids to grow and develop at equal competencies. So it’s not worrisome if a child is strong in one area and weaker in another. But it is troubling that 42 percent of Illinois kindergarteners didn’t demonstrate readiness in any area.

Still, he wasn’t surprised by the data. “We have a K-12 system that is taking steps to (incorporate) pre-K, but we need to create something more: something that starts with paid parental leave and high-quality infant-toddler systems. We have a smattering of services and great ideas, but none of them is currently at a scale that is going to move the needle.”

Related: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on a high-speed timeline for his universal pre-K rollout

In Chicago, results tracked with state averages, with 22 percent, or one in five students, prepared for kindergarten. That percentage dropped to 17 percent when just low-income students were considered. However, only 68 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ kindergarteners’ evaluations were logged, reportedly due to a technical error. As with the state, a higher percentage of students demonstrated readiness in social-emotional learning (46 percent) and literacy (40 percent) compared with math (28 percent).  

Nine districts reported that 80 percent or more of their students were prepared: Albers, Allen-Otter Creek, Bannockburn, Cass, Community Consolidated District 2014 in Pickneyville, Gardner, Hartsburg Emden, Saunemin, and Vienna.

Conversely, dozens of districts reported that 10 percent or fewer of their students were ready, including the state’s second-largest district, Elgin’s U-46, and Cook County School District 130, which serves south suburban communities of Alsip, Blue Island, and Robbins. Both Elgin and the area around Blue Island are considered “child care deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress. A child care desert is a census tract where three children or more exceed each available licensed slot.   

Ginger Ostro, the executive director of Advance Illinois and a former budget director of Chicago schools, said the gaps in availability between seats and kids in need “absolutely cries out for additional investment.” Her group highlighted those gaps in a report in 2016.

“When you think about how important that connection is to what’s happening in the K-12 system, you want those systems aligned and reinforcing each other,” Ostro said. As kids grow up year by year, families don’t say, ‘now we’re in early childhood, now we’re in K12.’ They live their lives continuously, but we have disconnects in education systems that currently fail to reflect that continuity. The new KIDS data helps inform what we need to be doing to connect those important pieces and link the systems together.”

Hawley, of Illinois Action for Children, said Illinois communities should view the data as a rallying point to unite parents, educators, librarians, police, mental health providers and more over a common cause of better and earlier support for families. “It is not just a school issue.” Policy changes could include pushing more districts to adopt full-day preschool programs — following on the heels of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout — or adopting more widespread home visiting programs for newborns.

Whether states should measure kindergarten readiness, and exactly how to do it, is the subject of debate: According to the New America think tank, 40 states have adopted some kindergarten readiness assessment or are in process. In the vanguard are states such as Washington, which has touted a goal of 90 percent kindergarten preparedness by 2020.

 

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.