Illinois set to launch ambitious package of school reforms next fall

Next fall, the 997 school districts in Illinois will take part in a bit of school reforming that is unique in the past five years of school reform in America. Instead of a mandate to emphasize course work, grades, classes, and ``seat-time'' for students -- the approach taken in many high-profile reform states -- the Illinois approach will focus on student learning.

According to state laws passed in 1985, each Illinois district must develop a set of ``learning objectives'' -- basic knowledge and skills that students must master -- that meet or exceed a model set of objectives provided by the Illinois Board of Education. The state board will begin reviewing these objectives next October.

Just covering more chapters in a history textbook will not satisfy the new Illinois requirements. Districts must instead rethink schooling around such themes as: how to help students learn how ideas interrelate; how to write and give a speech; what specific types of knowledge in each of six subject areas students must learn. They also must devise a way to account for this learning.

According to Ted Sanders, chief state school officer of Illinois, the shift in emphasis represents a ``new view of schooling.'' So far ``most of what has been handed down in school reforms has been a proxy for learning, not learning itself,'' he says.

How well the local districts will rise to the challenge is still unknown. Learning is at the center of state reforms that are nothing less than massive -- more than 160 directives hammered out last year -- that cover initiatives ranging from new types of teacher preparation and retraining, to a turn-around in the way Illinois identifies and schools ``at risk'' youth, especially those who are younger than six years old.

(Early education is now a special focus in Illinois. Lawmakers feel it both cost effective and socially beneficial to avert dropouts and alienated youth at an early age. Already in place, for example, are statewide reading centers for ``at risk'' children in kindergarten through sixth grade -- one of eight new ``at risk'' programs.)

``The districts were reeling at first from all they've been given to do,'' says Nancy Cole, dean of the school of education at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. ``But there's a recognition that these changes are not fly-by-night. A lot of administrators are having to think about school quality.''

``We may be slow out here in the Midwest,'' remarks state education official Susan Bentz, ``but we're contemplative. And we've learned from the mistakes of other states.''

Observers say one of the mistakes Illinois is avoiding is to ``shoot in the dark,'' or to push some politically favored reform measures out in front of others. The entire package -- the role of principals, teachers, the learning emphasis, ``at-risk'' programs -- has been seen as an interdependant whole, says Ms. Bentz, that must be be carefully orchestrated as it works its way into the system. Teachers, for example, will have 18 ``educational centers,'' now being established around the state, where they can retool their own skills to fit the learning methods adopted by their district.

To launch a total reform effort in a careful and systematic manner in Illinois has required untold hours of coalition building among taxpayer unions, school boards, teacher unions, and the state legislature, resulting in a very delicately wrapped political package.

By virtually unanimous agreement, superindentent Ted Sanders has been the kingpin in this reform process. Mr. Sanders, who was hired away from the Nevada Board of Education by the Illinois Legislature in 1984, is seen as having been masterful in working with that body. Unlike elected state school officers such as Bill Honig of California, Sanders is not an especially flamboyant or voluble figure, but has become known as a tireless public servant, working 15-hour days, who is not afraid to roll up his cuffs and forge through dense legislative bogs.

It was Sanders, for example, who helped ``sell'' the idea of quality education to Gov. James Thompson. School reform has become the Cabbage Patch Kid of public policy, as one Illinois writer put it, and Thompson bought the Kid from Sanders for 400 million extra education dollars in 1985, and is expected to spend upward of $350 million for reform in 1986. Such numbers make reform efforts possible.

Sanders feels the reforms will take at least five years to implement. Others say their success depends solely on how well local districts enact them.

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