State sees some progress for students, but not poor kids: report

SHARE State sees some progress for students, but not poor kids: report

Illinois has made some modest progress educating public schoolchildren overall since 2012, but needs to do a better job of educating its poor children.

And that’s a problem now that low-income children make up more than half of Illinois public school children, while state investment in education has been dwindling, according to a new report to be published Thursday by Advance Illinois that’s designed to take a “hard look” every two years at the state of learning in Illinois.

Illinois already ranks among the bottom nationwide for state education funding, contributing just about a quarter of public education spending. Other states contribute about half.

The education advocacy organization wants 60 percent of the state’s students to graduate from college by 2025. As of 2014, that number is just 37 percent, the same as it was in 2012.

About 36 percent of children finish eighth grade ready for high school, compared with 33 percent two years ago, and 61 percent now enroll in college compared with 59 percent in 2012.

“Where there’s movement, the movement is positive, but you can see it’s really small,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois. “It’s again good news but it’s tempered by the fact that it needs to be better news in the future.”

State funding, which has always fallen short of the amount recommended by the state’s Education Finance Advisory Board, has declined in real dollars by 10 percent since 2004. Illinois currently spends $2,500 less per child than the recommended $8,672, according to Advance. A bill to rejigger the state’s funding formula to benefit poor districts has passed the Senate and had a House hearing during the legislature’s current veto session — but the measure doesn’t add more money to the pot.

“There’s a drag on the entire state when . . . you don’t educate all kids well,” Steans said, “and I think that is one of the messages of this report: We are not educating all kids well. It’s not good for those kids, and not good for the state as a whole.”

Only 34 percent of low-income eighth-graders are enrolled in college-track math, compared to 46 percent of eighth-graders statewide. Illinois’ poor children now constitute about 51 percent of the state’s schoolchildren, up from about 37 percent in 2000.

But Chicago Public Schools, which counted well over 80 percent of its students as low-income, outpaced the state average in growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is well-respected as a serious test used to fairly compare states, according to the report.

While Illinois’ fourth-graders saw a 3-point gain in reading scores between 2003 and 2013 on the test, Chicago’s saw a 7-point increase. For eighth-grade math, Illinois’ gain was 7 points and Chicago’s was 11, Advance found.

Tim Knowles, director of the  University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, chalked up the progress of CPS — which has seen a strike, massive closings and five superintendents in the past six years — to stability among individual school communities.

“All this churn in the system, and yet one of the most interesting things about the work on the high school front is that it has stuck. It’s gotten traction in spite of the inevitable churn,” Knowles said.

Groups such as the City Year volunteers and After School Matters have helped many high schools focus on their on-track rates — on how many ninth-graders were showing up to school every day and passing all their classes, he said. About 85 percent of Chicago freshman now are on track to graduate compared to just 55 percent about six years ago — a difference of about 25,000 kids.

“Civic Chicago has wrapped itself its imagination around many more thousands of kids . . . out of high school and into college,” Knowles said. “That level of civic engagement is rare and can trump the typical urban churn that you see.”

“If Chicago can hold its course, it will be on track to improve the high school graduation rate about 30 points in less than a decade, and that’s really unparalleled progress that not just Chicago should celebrate, but other communities across the state of Illinois and frankly other cities across the country should pay close attention to.”

Overall, though, Chicago’s scores remained low. Thirty-some percent of Illinois students scored as “proficient.” The percentage of Chicago students started in the teens in 2003 and ended up right around 20 percent in 2013, well below the state’s average.

Low-income fourth-graders scored a whopping 36 points lower on average in reading than the rest of Illinois’ fourth graders on the 2013 National Association of Educational Procurement tests.

About 36 percent of eighth-graders scored as proficient in math but just 18 percent of low-income students did. High school graduation rates are 82 percent statewide but only 73 percent for low-income students.

Those college rates are “the fundamental game” in life, Knowles said. “I think sometimes we can get distracted by shorter term indicators like incremental improvements on standardized tests, and miss the forest for the trees.”

And low-income students also proved less likely to graduate from college, whether or not they were ready.

Poor children need more help, more money, said Prudence L. Carter, faculty cirector of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University.

“Right now what we’re expected to do in our school system is ensure that all social classes of children reach the proverbial floor 16 — college and graduate from college with disparate resources,” she said. “They all have to get there at similar speeds or times.

Imagine rich kids traveling by bullet elevator, the middle classes on escalators and the poorest children “on broken stairwells with no handrails to hold onto. And they have to walk those 16 floors,” she said.

So allocating the same amount of money for each child doesn’t produce equity.  

“They already started so far behind, even if you given them as much per capita, kids at more affluent schools still have tons more resources with the private foundations, parents being able to do so much more to enrich and complement their children’s education, and also they’re attracting teachers with more experience,” Carter said.

Until state leaders commit to funding public education the way they’d want it for their own children, Carter said, “we will be talking about this issue for decades to come if we don’t get to the root of the problem.”

State funding, which has always fallen short of the amount recommended by the state’s Education Finance Advisory Board, has declined in real dollars by 10 percent since 2004. Illinois currently spends $2,500 less per child than the recommended $8,672, according to Advance.

Budget cuts have led to a dwindling number of state-funded slots for preschoolers. Illinois’ Preschool for All, once hailed as visionary, used to serve 95,000 children in 2009. But in 2014, the $379 million in funding was down to $300 million and 70,000 children.

“If what the state is doing is trying to get excellent results by doing the most minimal,” Carter said, “the returns are going to be very very modest.

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