‘A good start’: There could be some changes coming for Illinois teachers

Amid the rush of bills that flooded the Illinois legislature in an effort to solve the state’s dire teacher shortage, a few key pieces of legislation made it through both chambers and onto the governor’s desk before the session ended last week.

That means teachers in Illinois could be looking at several small but significant changes, including laws that open the path to pay student teachers, who have worked for free, and an end to the basic skills test that critics argued kept out teachers of color.

Will these tweaks be enough to turn the tide for the teaching profession in Illinois, where a lack of teachers, especially special education and bilingual teachers, is only made worse by fewer would-be teachers entering the pipeline?

Pamela Jessee, director of accreditation at National Louis University, who spent 12 years as a special education teacher in the Chicago suburbs, said the bills are positive steps but aren’t likely to remove the biggest obstacles that make teaching a less attractive profession.

“Even more than the pay, the issue is the lack of respect,” Jessee said. “A lot of people who join the profession leave. We must prepare people for the rigors of the work and the burnout that happens.”

Kurt Hilgendorf, a policy adviser at the Chicago Teachers Union, called the bills “a good start in trying to address some of the issues caused by a very hostile anti-teacher environment with a heavy emphasis on standardized tests,” but said it was unlikely to move the ball significantly.

Education funding at large may also see a boost from a budget overhaul passed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that could bring increased revenue to Illinois schools by changing the state’s tax structure, legalizing recreational marijuana, and giving the green light for a Chicago casino.

Here are the bills most likely to affect Chicago teachers:

No more basic skills test

The basic skills test that teachers in Illinois have to pass to get a teaching license — the exam that has proven to be a stumbling block for aspiring teachers of color — could be no more if Gov. Pritzker signs Sen. Andy Manar’s omnibus education bill into law.

Teachers in Illinois currently must pass three exams: one testing their knowledge in the subject they teach, one examining their classroom practices, and a third that assesses their basic skills in math and reading.

Under SB 1952, teacher hopefuls would no longer have to take a basic skills test on the assumption that they were learning core skills in their teacher prep programs.

Stacy Davis Gates, the political director of the Chicago Teachers Union, applauded a possible end to the test. ”It was a barrier that kept many [would-be teachers] out of the profession, and, like most standardized tests, disproportionately kept black and Latinx candidates out the profession, at a time when teachers of color are sorely needed,” Gates said.

$$$ for student teachers

Manar’s omnibus bill would remove the prohibition on districts paying student teachers for their time in classrooms, usually around three months, during their training. This lack of pay could compound for them other difficult financial realities, including student loans and low starting salaries in some districts — realities, advocates say, that can be a roadblock to recruitment.

However, the bill doesn’t mandate that a district pay student teachers.

Retired Chicago teachers can work longer as substitutes

As school districts struggle to find qualified substitute teachers, retired educators looking to supplement their income have stepped up. Current law only allows them to work for 100 days per academic year without risking their pension, but SB 1584 would increase their yearly allowance of work days to 120 days.

Refunding the $300 cost of the EdTPA for some educators

Educators who teach in a Tier 1 district, which are considered underfunded and include Chicago, can get back the $300 cost of taking the EdTPA test, which tests classroom teaching skills, after one year in the classroom. That’s another one of the changes in Manar’s big education bill.

What the bill doesn’t do, however, is do away with the test, a plan for which was included in other legislation. The exam was considered an important innovation when it launched because it assesses authentic teaching practices rather than teachers’ answers about how they would behave in a classroom in theory.

But over time it has become clear that EdTPA, like basic skills exams, results in lower scores for teachers of color, who have been shown to be important to raising the scores of children of color. New York recently decided to keep EdTPA but lower the score required for teachers to gain a license.

The bills now head to Pritzker’s desk.