How we're skirting around the core of public school reform

Advance Illinois Board Co-Chair Bill Daley and Executive Director Robin Steans speak to members of the City Club of Chicago at a breakfast meeting at Maggiano's Banquets in Chicago on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 (HEATHER CHARLES/CHICAGO TRIBUNE).

 

A few days ago, my colleague wrote about an editorial business meeting at the Tribune with Advance Illinois, an organization that promotes the public education system in Illinois. Granted the meeting’s freshness has passed, but what was missing from the conversation remains just as germane. So here’s what’s on everyone’s mind but isn’t being said by them, by reporters, by just about everyone.

To start off, the meeting featured Bill Daley, co-chair of the organization, former White House chief of staff and former secretary of commerce. He’s also, of course, the brother of former Chicago mayor Richard Daley and a potential gubernatorial candidate.

Also at the editorial board meeting in a lavishly adorned, room with beautiful wooden furniture were Executive Director Robin Steans and Tim Knowles, John Dewey director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

And speaking of talking heads, what was said during this meeting? Nothing really that couldn’t be gleaned from the report they handed out. The abysmal statistics about our defective public school system said it all.

Of more than 2 million public school students in Illinois, 33 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, 33 percent of eighth-graders are ready for high school, and 27 percent of high school grads are equipped with skills for college and work, states their 2012 report. That puts them at pretty low odds of being economically independent and successful and generally educated adults, among other things.

So we’re behind.

The Advance people said repeatedly that we can’t pick apart foci, age groups, nor techniques, apply them in isolation and expect miracle results. Improvement — which should really be measured at the long-term level — will only happen with a holistic approach and years of effort, which they acknowledged.

What they didn’t talk about sufficiently is why that is exactly. The role of culture, for instance, was missing from the conversation.

I’m not referring specifically to race, but rather to culture. Odds are you’ll practice the values instilled in you by your family and peers, good or bad. No matter how good a teacher is, if neither the family nor community you’re in contact with as an impressionable child isn’t putting education at the forefront of your life – regardless of why – you’re probably not going to perform well nor reap the benefits of an education.

Someone suggested making charters out of all schools, but Daley rejected the idea. He strongly defended the very institution of the public school system as one of the pillars of our society, however much it may be struggling.

No one can deny we’re struggling, whether we compare ourselves to Minnesota, as Daley said, or to other countries. That whetted my curiosity, but I was disappointed when they didn’t talk about that either. Why are we comparing ourselves to other countries?

Probably because it’s embarrassing. Here we are at the top of the world — though who knows for how long, given the tired topic of the economy — and our public school system, a pride of our democratic system, is crumbling before our eyes. Meanwhile, countries like Japan, Germany and India are cranking out kids who are well-read and not afraid of math. They’re making us look bad.

At least that’s been the nature of the discourse so far — competition. So much for actually developing our children into responsible, hard-working intellectuals. We just want to be number one. Anyone stop to consider that maybe our neo-Cold War obsession with outdoing the rising global economies is distracting from our work at home? Such as with our kids?

Of course you can read the report online, but this was just my two cents worth (and not a penny more) of what was said and not said beyond the print of a glossy 30-page brochure I’m skeptical most parents would read anyway. Or at least the ones that should.

It’s too bad that Advance Illinois didn’t cut through some of the bureaucratic language and break the cycle of circumnavigating around the groups most affected by the struggling public school system, like minorities and low-income families. Maybe next time they’ll actually take that step toward advancing the state.


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azrahalilovic es contribuidor Vívelohoy

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