An Interview with Robin Steans of Advance Illinois

An Interview with Robin Steans of Advance Illinois

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An Interview with Robin Steans of Advance Illinois

Reimagining K–12 Education in the U.S.

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  • In This Interview
    Robin Steans


    Law degree, University of Chicago Law School

    Master’s degree in education, Stanford University

    Bachelor’s degree in history and Russian studies, Brown University

    Career Highlights

    2008–present, executive director, Advance Illinois

    1997–1999, associate director, Leadership for Quality Education

    1995–1997, issues director, Small Schools Coalition

    1986–1995, law clerk for U.S. Federal Judge Marvin E. Aspen in Chicago; teacher at public high schools in Chicago, Boston, and San Mateo, California

    Outside Activities

    1995–present, on the board or advisory board at several organizations, including Annenberg Institute for School Reform, North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School, Institute for Community-based Service Learning at DePaul University, and Steans Family Foundation

    Robin Steans is the founding director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan policy and advocacy organization focused on education in Illinois. Among other things, the organization monitors the state’s progress on measures of academic achievement, college and career readiness, and higher-education attainment.

    Reimagining K–12 Education in the U.S.

    The Advance Illinois board is made up of senior-level politicians from both sides of the aisle, business and nonprofit executives, education leaders, and policy experts. And these leaders aren’t afraid to take on tough issues. For example, in 2010 the group produced the first “state report card” to assess Illinois’ educational performance from birth through higher education. (Illinois received a D grade for its K–12 testing and graduation results, and it received a C for its postsecondary graduation results.) Advance itself gets high marks for effectively partnering with a host of organizations to gain even more leverage for its policy positions.

    Steans recently spoke with Nneka Rimmer, a partner and managing director in the Chicago office of The Boston Consulting Group, as part of BCG’s series of interviews with education leaders titled “Reimagining K–12 Education in the U.S.” Edited excerpts from the discussion follow.

    Given the economic challenges that the U.S. faces, what should the educational system’s top priorities be for the next three to five years?

    One of the traps we have fallen into with education reform is that we want to find that one “magic bullet”: If we can do just one thing really well, all of the other problems will somehow magically fall into line. The truth is, all the issues are interconnected.

    If I tell you that the single most important thing we can do is make sure we have the best possible people in schools, I can’t limit myself just to hiring great teachers and principals. I have to care about the physical environment. I have to care about how those people are trained. I have to care about the resources that we’re making available to them. I have to care about the freedom and flexibility they have to make intelligent decisions. All of these things play a role in making sure that good people want to come into the system, that they can actually do things intelligently and with high impact—and that they then choose to stay.

    We have to make some hard decisions, because we don’t have a lot of money. The priority has to be putting decision making as close to the ground as humanly possible, in a way that creates confidence among everyone—the families, the public, the educators—that decisions are delivering good results for kids. And then the question becomes, How can we use that confidence to leverage more support and investment in education?

    Given your statewide view, do you see an agreed-upon set of priorities that can help all of the different types and sizes of districts?

    Common core state standards are one of the most important reforms that we’ve agreed to adopt as a state. Not only do they involve fewer and deeper standards but they also are more realistic. We can actually teach them all. The standards are much more about higher-order thinking, working in teams, problem-solving capabilities—skills that we don’t currently catch in our assessment system and that aren’t necessarily taught well in classes.

    The standards address a common challenge everyone faces: What curriculum am I going to need? What professional development are my current teachers going to need? What training and preparation are new teachers going to need? Do we have the right assessments in place to capture that rich information? And can we use those assessments to get information back into the hands of classroom teachers in a timely and intelligent way, as the year is unfolding—as opposed to three months after the school year has ended, when it’s of no use to them?

    To the extent that districts and schools really adopt these new standards, we’re talking about a very different type of teaching, and a very different sort of academic experience for students—one that is designed to far better prepare students for the demands of college and the workplace. Will we make the right investments to ensure that the transition goes well? This is either the single most important opportunity that we face, or it’s going to be the single biggest missed opportunity that we look back on with regret.

    What innovations make you optimistic that it’s the former?

    First, I am unbelievably excited about new innovations like Gooru Learning, a search engine for learning being beta-tested here in Illinois. It’s the brainchild of some former engineers and architects at Google. As a history teacher, I can go online, visit the site, and type in “Gettysburg Address” to find lesson plans and teaching materials from other teachers. I might find a video clip, original documents such as letters from soldiers, and a section of a book that I might want to use. There might be a sample set of essay questions and assessments to choose from—all locked away so students can’t get to them, of course. I can pick and choose to assemble a teaching unit and deliver it to my classroom or offer it online. And it’s all aligned with the common core standards.

    Good ideas bubble up from teachers everywhere, and access to high-quality materials expands exponentially. In a cash-strapped environment, Gooru and platforms like it provide a transformative level of access to phenomenal materials that schools otherwise couldn’t afford or access.

    In addition, Illinois also just took a huge step with teacher training. For the first time, every teacher who enters a teacher-training program must demonstrate that he or she is in the top half of the teaching class. Over time, that is going to be one of the most transformative things we’ve done as a state.

    But if we just say we’re taking the top half of students and we don’t make sure that we’re preparing people well and doing the work at the school level to create a more supportive and effective environment, we’re going to end up with huge shortages of teachers. It’s not enough to say you want to change; you’ve got to make the profession work for people who have real choices.

    With spending cuts facing many states and districts, how can we make sure that we are maximizing the investments being made?

    We have put quite a bit more money into education over the last 10 to 15 years, both nationally and here in Illinois. At the same time, our performance has been absolutely flat. When Advance Illinois was created, we decided that we couldn’t start the conversation by asking for more money until we could demonstrate that we’re going to make better use of what we have.

    All the reforms that we’ve talked about over the last four years have been, in the main, budget-neutral reforms: setting standards, assessing how we’re doing, identifying who is going to come into the profession, and then supporting them and preparing them along the way. Those all are changes you can do that cost nothing additional. For example, changing the entry requirements for teachers who come into training programs is an entirely budget-neutral solution, but it’s a transformative one.

    We started off trying to make changes that would build public confidence and credibility and would, in fact, justify allocating more dollars—or, at a minimum, not cutting any. When actual cuts happen, however, they force the next round of questions. One such question is, Are we spending money as effectively, efficiently, and intelligently as we can and should? When the economy is booming and you have a lot of money, you don’t have to be that efficient. You tend to throw money at problems.

    Now that times are tighter, everyone is being forced to take a much harder look: Where are we getting the money from? How are we getting it to schools? And when we have to make cuts, how do we make sure that the right things get cut and the most vulnerable kids don’t get shortchanged?

    What are the key elements of an effective system of human capital that ensures we’re recruiting and retaining the best teachers?

    For one thing, you have to have much higher expectations for entrants into the profession, and you have to have much higher expectations for the programs that are preparing teachers. The accreditation system does not differentiate between the programs that are outstanding and doing a really phenomenal job and the ones that may be weak and not turning out terribly strong teachers or principals. We turn out far more teachers and far more principals than we actually need in Illinois, so we can afford to do a better job at that level.

    One of the top two reasons teachers consistently give for leaving the profession is that they don’t feel they have a good principal watching out for them. We need to make sure that we have unbelievably strong leadership. The second reason teachers give for leaving is that they just don’t feel like they were ever in control of their own classroom. We need to make sure that teachers are getting the right resources and training at the school level.

    Once teachers are out in the schools, a whole lot of things matter enormously. Are you giving teachers sensible schedules? Are you giving them the right kind of support and mentoring as they’re coming into the profession? In no profession do you come out of a training program entirely ready to go. It’s not true in law, it’s not true in medicine, it’s not true in engineering. You need a period of time where you work with a master at the craft who can help you get better at what you do.

    In a way, teachers face a very flat career ladder: You’re either a teacher or an administrator, and there’s really not much in between. Most people don’t get to become a master teacher. They could be 17 times more effective than the teacher down the hall, and no one would know it—not by title, not by responsibilities, not by compensation, not by anything.

    You need an environment where talent and ability are rewarded in a variety of ways—ideally in a way that doesn’t undermine the collegiality that is so essential in a school. So by “rewarded,” I don’t necessarily mean you’re paid more. I mean you may get more responsibilities. You may become a mentor or coach to new teachers because you’re really good at what you do. You may get student teachers during the year, and because that’s more work and effort, you may need to be compensated for that.

    How can businesses be helpful?

    In small ways, businesses can make it easier for their employees to participate in parent-teacher conferences or to show up for assemblies. They can also provide volunteers for schools. The more at-risk the neighborhood, the fewer volunteers schools have to run things such as sports and tutoring programs, or even field trips.

    Giving kids hands-on experiences is another area. There’s a growing movement among high schools to create more real-world internships for students. A lot of students don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning, and this is particularly true of the kids who are most at risk of dropping out. To keep these kids in school, we need to show them how the things they’re learning on a day-to-day basis relate to the world outside. We need to give them a taste of the jobs that they might get or the life they might want to live.

    Lastly, the system works better when schools have lots of partners. With a great deal of success, we’ve partnered with businesses and business coalitions, such as the Illinois Business Roundtable and chambers of commerce from around the state. It has been enormously helpful to have businesses and their membership organizations pay attention to and get involved in broader policy discussions.

    For example, community coalitions of local school districts, chambers of commerce, universities, foundations, and community groups have come together around schools throughout Illinois. My two favorite in the state are in Decatur and Springfield. In Decatur, the coalition aimed to identify kids who are already at risk by the age of three or four, then it devised ways to intervene with those children. As a result of that work, the coalition has doubled the number of kids who are ready for kindergarten when they start.

    A different kind of example is State Farm’s work in Bloomington, where the company has a large presence. The company gets volunteers out into the schools. It makes it easier for employees to be involved and fosters engaged parents. And then it also gives money, both to schools and to districts. Bloomington is now one of the foremost districts in the state—and I would argue possibly the country—in terms of having a cloud-based system that gets real-time information into the hands of teachers throughout the school year. The district could never have done that without a partnership with State Farm for in-kind, intelligent IT support.

    Ultimately, what will schools look and feel like when we’re doing everything you’ve mentioned well?

    If they’re working well, you’ll have a thriving and dynamic school system that people want to be in, where people with lots of choices and lots of talent choose to be teachers and principals. It will be a place where kids look forward to coming to school, because the learning they’re getting in the classroom is dynamic, interesting, relevant, and engaging. And it will be a place where schools have lots of rich relationships with parents, businesses, and community organizations.

    We’ve got any number of schools with exactly those qualities right now, but they tend to be clustered in more affluent communities. We don’t see nearly enough of those qualities in the places that need it most. If things work the way they should, we should start to see these traits in every corner of our school system instead of just a few fortunate pockets.

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