Education in Illinois – good or bad?

Article originally published in the Bureau County Republican, May 21, 2009

What issue can get former Republican Go. Jim Edgar and former Democrat Commerce Secretary William Daley to agree?

How about the education of Illinois’ youth?

“It’s obviously no secret that Gov. Edgar and I view many aspects of the world differently, but we do agree that it’s time to make education not only bipartisan but a non-partisan issue,” Daley said Monday.

Daley was one fo the speakers at a town hall meeting held Monday at the Mendota Civic Center and sponsored by the North Central Regional Betterment Coalition and Advance Illinois. About 165 Bureau, LaSalle and Putnam county teachers and administrators, school board members and area business people attended the meeting, which was titled, “Transition to World Class Education.”

Daley, who is the co-chairman of Advance Illinois, said the meeting one of several being held with parents and educators, was to hear the concerns of those attending about educations and their ideas about how to fix it.

“Advance Illinois believes in putting children first, to make sure they are work and college-ready,” Daley said. “In other words, to make sure that they are world-ready.”

Education is a problem across the country, but Daley said the problems are more severe in Illinois, in part, because it has under-invested in education for a long time. While Illinois has the fifth largest economy in the country, it shoulders a smaller share of the school funding burden than almost any other state.

Daley said Illinois’ problems not only cause trouble for its students but for businesses and the economy in the state as well.

Also speaking was Robin Seans, executive director of Advance Illinois, who said according to any national educational measure, Illinois is either average or below average.

“The performance of our children in reading and math is below the national average, be it in fourth grade or be it in eighth grade,” she said.

It’s bad enough that Illinois students are below average, but the problem is made worse by the fact that the average is dropping. Steans said U.S. performance levels in math, science and reading are dropping against other countries.

Part of the problem is how Illinois tests its students. Steans said that according to JSAT tests, Illinois students are doing better.

“The twist is that we get to set our own proficiency rates on those tests,” she said. “If you compare our performance against our own measures against how we do on national measures, you’ll see it tells a very, very different story. On national measures, we’re below the averages.”

Steans said there was a recent study about a group of students who met standards in eighth grade. Of those students, less than 10 percent got a 20 or higher on their ACT tests – the lowest students can score and still be expected to be successful in college.

On a more positive note, Steans said Illinois’ high school graduation rate is slightly above average, but the school system is still losing 41,000 students each year.

“For the very first time in Illinois, the next generation is at risk of being less well-educated than their parents,” she said.