Young people in Illinois recognize that many aspects of the state's education system are broken, and they have some first steps for improving it.
“Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself’” — A Nation at Risk, 1983
In August of 1981, Secretary of Education Terrell Bell chartered the National Commission on Excellence to review and synthetize scholarly research on public schools nationwide, with a special focus on the educational experience of teenage youth. In their report, A Nation at Risk, they promised a comprehensive change to the students, their parents, and teachers. Years after National Commission on Excellence’s promise was made, The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and Young Invincibles have banded together under the NextGen Illinois project in order to bring a youth-led agenda to state government officials. It is time to assess what has been done and what needs to be improved to completely fulfill the dream of equal access to the quality education and equality of opportunity for young people in the state of Illinois.
To that end, the NextGen project is hosting a series of caucuses across the state that offer an opportunity for young people to brainstorm and create a youth-lead policy agenda for the state of Illinois on issues that matter most to them. They foster discussion about state level politics and some of the most significant problems that are facing Illinois today. Through their participation, young adults offer their own insight about potential solutions to those problems that can result in positive change in their communities.
The NextGen project held its second caucus at DePaul University on Tuesday, May 27, where students pointed out several problems with the current education system in Illinois, including inequality in the distribution of education funding and challenges created by a centralized curriculum. In this system both teachers and students feel pressures created by the demands of accountability and insufficient resources.
Youth from the DePaul caucus further explained that demand for academic achievement and penalties for low-test scores have put extraordinary emphasis on accountability with both students and teachers being measured on their efficiency. The idea of consequences vs. high achievement creates a problem in which teaching in public schools is mostly directed toward test preparation rather than challenging and interesting classes. The lowest scoring schools are struggling with fewer funds and risk being placed on probation or being closed.
The use of standardized tests in high stakes decisions about the individual student is also problematic, as not all students receive an equal opportunity to learn. As recently as 2010, Illinois received a grade of F in equitable distribution of funds per pupil and in relation to the students’ poverty. Education funding distribution in Illinois has been assessed as regressive and unfair. And to make matters worse, in 2009, Illinois law makers cut assistance for P-12 education from the General Fund by more than $861 million (12%). Without addressing these problems, current practices focused on test scores and accountability may only deepen inequality. The top-down accountability model is shifting responsibility for the failure of the educational system from the state to the individuals and hurts not only teachers and parents, but most of all, kids. NextGen youth believe that market-style competition is not working well for them and that it is time to change it.
What can we do to get education back on track? Young people who participated in the caucus at DePaul argue that Illinois has to reevaluate its budget and increase funding for education. Students believe that improved support from the state to schools, granted on a per student basis, will be more effective. They believe that each student should have the same access to quality education and resources so youth can obtain proper preparation for college and competition on the job market. NextGen participants also stress the importance of early career exploration courses and financial counseling, which will help students in their life after high school.
Students’ commitment to the issue of improving the Illinois public schools demonstrates the significance of the problem. They emphasize that improving educational outcomes of students in Illinois requires an effective educational reform that can only take place by including parents, teachers, and most of all- youth into the policy making process. High rate of participation in the NextGen caucuses by Illinois youth proves that if we try hard, we can make a difference!
Edyta Obrzut is the NextGen Illinois Research Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.