Asked and answered

Longtime advocate (and current First Lady) Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early education in Illinois

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ounce of Prevention

Fluent in the languages of developmental psychology (her Ph.D., from the University of Chicago) and finance (her MBA, from Stanford University), Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner is equipped more than most to navigate the maze that is early childhood education in America. As anyone who has tried to find, or build, a quality program for a child under 5 knows, there are plenty of hurdles to securing good options: availability and affordability; too few full-day seats for families that require them; and low pay and turnover among providers, just to name a few.

In her 11 years in leadership of the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, Rauner has used her platform to push for higher quality programs for the youngest children in Illinois and nationwide. As the wife of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (who is up for election this fall against another early childhood education advocate, businessman J.B. Pritzker, who has funded some of Ounce of Prevention’s work), she’s as fluent in political speak as she is everything else: “Early childhood is not a partisan issue,” she says.

She spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke amidst big developments for early childhood advocates: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting the rollout of an ambitious universal pre-K program in Chicago, and the state is set to release a trove of data on kindergarten readiness later this month. She was joined in parts of the conversation by Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy for Ounce of Prevention.

The interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Why is the issue of early childhood education so important to you?

DIANA RAUNER: This is the most important human capital and social justice issue for our nation. We are increasingly a society that requires everyone to have both social-emotional self-regulation skills and the flexibility to continue to learn throughout your life. We know that, as Warren Buffett says, all men are created equal and that lasts for the first 15 seconds. Something we know now that we didn’t know a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, is the importance of the prenatal period to long-term health and health outcomes. And so, actually it’s not even true that all people are born equal.

We really have to ensure that we’re giving all families the kinds of supports they need in order to help their children develop to their highest potential. It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic and civic issue as well.

Many people understand the value of early childhood programs, but we are also seeing the percentages of students enrolled in public pre-K in Illinois and Chicago dropping. What is your assessment of why this is happening?

RAUNER: The Early Childhood Block Grant (which is the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education program) was cut several years in a row starting in 2010. We lost $80 million over a number of years. The block grant didn’t begin to grow again until 2016, so because of that, enrollment did drop during that time. It has rebounded. We are not sure that the numbers are not back up and over, but the (latest publicly available counts) aren’t current. We just aren’t sure.

IRETA GASNER: The other thing impacting that is that Illinois for decades had one of the nation’s shortest pre-K days: We were serving kids in 2½ -hour programs. Knowing what we’ve learned about at-risk kids, (we need to) serve up a longer day. But there’s some tension there: We can give a lot of kids a little dosage or we can grow the programs back up a little more slowly and give kids who need it the right dosage. So there’s some nuance around the number of kids served now compared to where we were 10 years ago or so.

Funding for early childhood comes from a lot of places; it’s complicated. Some providers lost a state grant recently and complained the application process rewarded good grant writing, not quality programming. How do we build a pipeline of providers and sustain it?

RAUNER: Those are huge questions. Clearly, we know that the Early Childhood Block Grant, while we’ve seen increases, is still not sufficient to serve all the kids who need it. There is a big gap between how we’re funding now and where we need to be to reach all the kids who need it. The recompetition (to reapply for the Preschool for All grants that fund programs throughout the state) that was done this year wasn’t a perfect process. You combine the fact that the process wasn’t perfect with the fact that there’s not enough money to go around, and you end up with an outcome that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

You talked about what it takes to do quality. As a state, for a very long time, we’ve had probably one of the strongest early childhood systems — birth to 5 — of any state. It’s truly a birth to 5 system, it has a birth to 3 set-aside, and it has real attention to birth to 3 funding. It’s also a mixed-delivery system, which means both community-based settings and school settings. It’s meant to meet families where they are and meet families’ different needs. And it sets aside investments for quality infrastructure: that means professional development, data collection, research, innovative programming. That’s been a hallmark of the way that we in the state, and in the city, have prioritized our early childhood system.

Researchers also stress that only quality programs really move the needle with kids from low-income backgrounds. How do we ensure quality?

RAUNER: For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, and that an average teacher is average, and that bad teachers are bad. At Ounce, what we’ve focused a lot on this: Teachers, like other adults, work in organizations. They work in organizations that either support and enhance and develop their performance, or they work in organizations that don’t. Rather than focusing everything on the individual teacher and how good or bad the individual teacher is, we need to look at the organizational supports that help that teacher do great work in the classroom. We focus on leadership in instructional support and instructional excellence, and all of the essential elements of organizational support for great teaching — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

What’s an example of a program that you’ve visited recently that you’d like to see scaled?

RAUNER:  Our work with universal newborn support. The Illinois Family Connects program is a model that comes out of Durham, North Carolina. It is a nurse home visiting program that serves as a coordinated intake to a web of community supports for new parents and their children. It is a validated and well-trained individual assessment of a new parent and new family and a system of referrals that support families in all kinds of things they need. It’s a universal system, and it’s one that right now we are piloting in two Illinois counties, Peoria and Stephenson. We are hoping to expand in the city of Chicago and other counties across the state.

A year in, what have you learned from the newborn visitation program?

RAUNER: First of all, we’ve learned it’s very, very welcome by families. The uptake rates are high: More than 80 percent of families say, yes, I’d love to have a nurse visit me at home. We’ve also learned that 97 percent of the families that have visits have some kind of need. Many of those needs, more than half, can be addressed right in that visit. Over a third, though, are getting referrals to some kinds of support, including mental health programs, intensive home visiting programs, other kinds of family support programs. A very small percentage, maybe around 1 percent, are getting referred for really urgent issues: medical issues, mental health issues, safety issues in their home. That’s amazingly important and critical to getting addressed quickly.

Do you think Illinois has the ability to scale a program like that? Is there the will on the public side and on the political side?

RAUNER: I think the most important thing we can do is demonstrate both the important outcomes we are seeing, and also, over time, population-level changes that save the state money. In Durham, this program has shown substantial decreases in emergency room visits and child welfare referrals. Those are extremely expensive. And so, if you can really do this kind of program at scale and prevent those kinds of expenditures, you can actually save money and put that money toward prevention and toward serving more families.

"For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, an average teacher is average, and bad teachers are bad. "Diana Rauner

What else can Chicago learn from other states and cities that are doing early childhood well?

RAUNER: We’ve worked really hard to bring things back here. We brought a program that was developed in Florida called Baby Court to Illinois, which is intensive supports for families with very young children in the child welfare system.We’re always thinking about opportunities to bring innovations here and try new things, and we’re also trying to share some of our innovations with other states.

Pay is really low throughout the early childhood education system. Do you see a realistic path to changing that?

RAUNER: There’s no silver bullet unless we have $100 billion drop from the sky. But there are a lot of things we’ve been doing in Illinois: alternative certification programs, pathway programs, better connections between our high schools and community colleges. There are a lot of things we want to try, but it will take ongoing attention. It’s a little bit like — oh, I shouldn’t make a sports analogy — but you gain a yard at a time. You just keep pushing. It’s not like something is going to transform overnight.

As Chicago has more CPS-backed pre-K seats come online and pays teachers on the CPS scale, community programs are going to have to compete with their wages. Isn’t that going to become an issue here as universal pre-K rolls out?

RAUNER: It is an issue, and part of that is ensuring that the universal pre-K program is still a mixed-delivery system (a mixed-delivery system includes community providers who receive public funding as well as school district-funded programs). We want to make sure the community providers are still part of the preschool system. Clearly pay parity is really important in the long run, and we’re certainly still some way away from that across the board, but it is a really high priority.

It’s important to recognize that a birth-to-3 program is more expensive than a preschool, so that’s one of the reasons why, as universal preschool rolls out, we’ll be focused on it continuing to become a community-based program.

Why is a mixed-delivery system something you advocate?

RAUNER: Very often, community-based programs are actually more reflective and responsive to the communities they serve. Another reality: Many community-based programs blend and braid funding streams, so they can provide full-day coverage for children whose parents are working. The trouble is that programs that operate 6 hours a day cannot serve families who need 10 hours of coverage.

Will the universal pre-K program being rolled out in Chicago have a watershed effect on other places in the state?

RAUNER: I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We have many districts in the state, so they all have very different priorities.

Later this month, the state will release its first kindergarten readiness reports. What can we expect?

RAUNER: It’s a milestone. It’s a tool that serves many different purposes. One is a professional development tool for kindergarten teachers, it helps them see and observe their students and understand (what it takes) to move them along on their developmental path. It’s helpful for parents to understand the range of developmental expectations for kindergarten. And it’s helpful for policy makers to understand how we’re doing relative to our expectations and goals.

I do think that we have to be prepared for some instability in the data in the very beginning — that’s pretty typical. But obviously, well — sometimes the truth is a difficult thing. Here we have always focused on third-grade test scores as evidence of the achievement gap, but we all know the achievement gap opens up much, much earlier. Being able to articulate that and identify that and document it — we hope it will change the conversation so we can talk about it at a much earlier level.

"Sometimes the truth is a difficult thing."Diana Rauner

I imagine that wasn’t an easy sell. How did you convince people?

RAUNER: We had many conversations. We did this as an early childhood and K-12 partnership, we brought together teachers, and school administrators, and early childhood advocates, and researchers. We wanted to make sure this tool was developmentally appropriate, that it was valid and reliable, and that it really served the purpose of professional development as well as accountability. Not accountability for individual students — we wanted to be really sure it wasn’t used in any inappropropriate ways to penalize individual students — but rather, as a way to hold us adults accountable to our very youngest learners.

We’re in the middle of a heated governor’s race, as you know. How does this affect the work you do?

RAUNER: We know from our work in Illinois and at the federal level that early childhood is not a partisan issue. The majority of every partisan persuasion are strongly in favor of investment in early childhood. That makes our work easy. It means we are able to articulate a vision for early childhood education and to promote the best practices to all candidates and all legislators. We have seen strong bipartisan support here in Illinois on the issue for decades.

outside the box

How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Test scores were rising at Fuller Elementary School when Marilyn McCottrell took over in 2016. Yet troubling trends loomed behind the numbers.

“A lot of growth has been made,” said McCottrell, Fuller’s third principal in six years. “But that growth is not equal among students.”

She’s talking about black boys.

Black girls had driven most of Fuller’s academic improvement since the 2012-13 school year, when Chicago Public Schools handed management of the Bronzeville school over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which replaced the staff and principal in a turnaround effort. Black boys had improved much slower. They got most of the school’s Ds and Fs, and were much less likely than girls to meet or approach expectations for college readiness on state tests.

PARCC Scores

Last school year, McCottrell and her staff crunched the data and made changes at Fuller to shorten the gaps between boys and girls. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. As adults, they are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, or chronically unemployed. McCottrell believes what Fuller did, starting with painstakingly crunching data at the school, classroom and individual levels, could help other schools do better for black boys.

But she wants to be clear about something: Black boys don’t need to be “saved.”

“They need to be respected and appreciated for the differences and the unique gifts that they bring to the educational experience,” she said.

Black boys
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Fuller Elementary School students (from left)Tyrese Robinson-Guy, Terrell Johnson, and Jasean Waters at a community garden in Bronzeville.

 

Fuller, a Level 1 school in good standing, occupies the corner of St. Lawrence Avenue and 42nd Street in Bronzeville. Nearly all of its 370 students are black and come from economically disadvantaged households. When CPS turned over management of Fuller, it was seeking to lift up a school that had been on academic probation five consecutive years. Fuller still has far to go. In 2017, only 10 percent of Fuller students were ready for the next level compared to 26 percent across the school district and 34 percent across the state. Growth has been above average, but, as McCottrell said, that growth hasn’t been equal.

PARCC Scores

Last August, McCottrell arrived at Fuller for a training session for teachers bearing handouts packed with data on black boys’ grades and test scores. Middle school reading teacher Arlicia McClain was shocked to see the stark disparities.

“It made me buck up and say I need to talk to these students,” she said. “I need to know what is going on that is preventing them from improving. Is it me? Is it something going on with them individually? Is it something they are missing?”

Girls’ math scores had increased by 193 percent compared with 90 percent for boys since the turnaround effort began in the 2012-13 school year. The gender performance gap was even more striking in reading, where black girls’ scores jumped 140 percent compared with 31 percent for boys. 

As McClain and other teachers reflected on the numbers, they recounted their  own experiences in the classroom. For example, they could all name which students were removed from class the most for disciplinary reasons, and nearly all were black boys.

Arlicia McClain
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arlicia McClain
Fuller Elementary School teacher Arlicia McClain.

McClain realized she tended to call on black girls more in class.

McClain, African-American herself, wondered if she was favoring girls or failing to challenge boys enough, and how that could affect their learning. She resolved to push black boys more during her second year at Fuller.

She also left the session with another big take-away: A lot of boys who wouldn’t participate in classroom-wide sessions engaged more in small groups. Wedding the data to her realizations has helped the young teacher come up with tailored approaches for struggling students.

“Look at them as individuals who want to learn, but who sometimes need the individualized attention to do that,” McClain said. “If you really are about the progression of black youth, you’re going to need to be individual-focused, and you’re going to need the data to do it.”

In the 2016-17 school year, for the subjects of English language arts and math, about 70 percent of all Ds and Fs at Fuller went to black boys.

In the first quarter of last school year, McCottrell and her staff revised Fuller’s grading policies in hopes of addressing the disparity.

They switched to what McCottrell called “a more equitable grading scale,” where the lowest a student could score is a 50, adopted a “no-opt out policy” for homework, so children who failed to turn in their homework by deadline wouldn’t automatically get a zero and had to make up assignments, and allowed students to redo certain parts of failed tests and quizzes after reteaching.

By the end of the first quarter, the numbers of Ds and Fs had decreased by nearly half.

But black boys were still getting about the same percent of them as before.

So McCottrell decided to go in for a closer look.

“The numbers only tell part of the story,” she said.

McCottrell ate with boys in the lunchroom. She played flag football with them at recess. She sat with them in class, assisted their teachers, and taught her own lessons across grades and subjects.

She talked to the boys — and listened.

Jasean Waters, a black boy

Jasean Waters, 13, said he found it hard to focus on his school work.

Some distractions come from inside the classroom, like the bullies Jasean’s run into. Other distractions live in the world outside Fuller, like the gun violence whose victims are overwhelmingly black males.

“It’s a big struggle for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dying around here, so we gotta watch our backs, and when we’re walking home we feel like we’re unsafe, so we just focus on us being safe. It’s hard to focus on school.”

Boredom is another issue. Jasean said that he does well in math, but struggles sometimes with reading, and that his interest wanes with the lack of characters and authors he can relate to in school texts. That sounded familiar to McCottrell.  When she spoke with boys, she heard that school amounted to a seven-hour suppression of their personalities, interests, and voices — especially in reading and English classes, where black voices and black writers were missing.

“When kids have to pick a book for independent reading, they don’t relate to the characters in those classroom libraries,” she said. “It’s really hard coming to a class everyday when nothing relates to you.”

Parcc Scores

McCottrell decided to teach an optional African-American literature class every Friday during a weekly “intervention time” for students needing help in reading and math  About 17 boys showed up on the first day and read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose protagonist proclaims, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

McCottrell said many of the boys could expertly analyze the Harlem Renaissance classic, because they related to the idea of not being heard, seen, or understood for who they really are. The students offered examples like the portrayal of black men in the media.

“Many of them were saying things like, ‘I’m not a gangbanger, but this is what people think I am, because I’m dark or because I’m tall,’” she said. “They talked about it in the context of their teachers not knowing who they are.”

The class soon doubled as word of mouth drew others in. Jasean, a C student at the start of the class, joined them. He said he learned things he hadn’t been introduced to before. He read about segregation, speeches by Martin Luther King, and books like “Bud, Not Buddy,” about a 10-year-old black orphan during the Great Depression.

He said he rededicated himself to doing 100 minutes of reading a night and by the end of last school year earned an A in reading. He said he raises his hand to ask and answer questions in class more.

“It feels good,” he said.

Jasean’s grandmother, local school council member Regina Waters, praised McCottrell’s hands-on approach with students and her efforts to build one-on-one relationships with the boys.

“She’s upfront with the kids, and she knows all the kids by name which is unusual in the short time she’s been there,” Waters said.

McCottrell
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Marilyn McCottrell

Fuller’s boys closed the gap with girls in several ways over last school year.

They went from getting 70 percent of the Ds and Fs in English and math to 60 percent. In 2016-17, 46 percent of boys compared with 55 percent of girls were on track, meaning they earned a C or higher in reading and math and had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. In 2017-18, the percentage of boys on track increased by 23 percentage points compared to 19 points for girls. But sitting in her office at Fuller one day earlier this summer, McCottrell admitted something about her efforts for black boys.

“Nothing is solved,” she said.

Despite some progress last school year, when the 2018-19 school year stars, black boys at Fuller will still lag behind black girls. Forces outside of education like poverty, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination will continue to disadvantage black youth in ways that manifest in classrooms, where they land heaviest on black boys.

The odds aren’t yet even for black boys at McCottrell’s school, or at most schools across America. However, Mccottrell believes that educators learned a lot that they can build on down the line.

Next year, McCottrell said she’s urging teachers to incorporate more of the black experience and black voices into lesson plans and to increase small-group instruction.

Teachers are having more data conferences with McCottrell and with each other to guide instruction and target specific students’ needs. McCottrell is also promoting more social-emotional learning techniques and restorative practices rather than punitive approaches to discipline.

Marlene Aponte, AUSL’s director of coaching,  said that in some ways Fuller’s story resembles other schools’ in the years after turnarounds. After focusing on rigorous instruction and ambitious growth targets,“we’re starting to really hone in on some of the pieces that we may have overlooked, such as gender bias, gender equity, access in equity,” she said.

McCottrell wants her boys to have the tools to succeed. She knows there are some issues that her school won’t be able to solve.

But it’s a start.

New Leadership

Coaching will be key as Griffin adds two from Memphis iZone to state district team

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin greets Alethea Henry (right) at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

After more than 20 years in traditional Memphis schools, Alethea Henry is making the leap to the state’s controversial turnaround district and will bring with her lessons learned from Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone.

But Henry is clear that her switch in allegiance is mostly to follow the iZone’s former leader and new Achievement School District chief – Sharon Griffin. Shelby County Schools iZone is a group of 24 low-performing schools within Memphis’ traditional district that won praise for improving student test scores under Griffin.

“I decided to join the ASD…primarily because of the opportunity to serve under the awesome leadership and tutelage of Dr. Sharon Griffin,” said Henry, who is now in charge of support teams for the state district. “My tenure in the iZone afforded me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Fortunately, I have been able to apply those lessons learned in my new role with ASD.”

ASD leadership team and salaries

  • Sharon Griffin, ASD chief, $180,000
  • Tonye Smith McBride, chief of school improvement/accountability, $125,004
  • Lisa Settle, chief of operations and culture/climate, $114,996
  • Robert White, chief of communications/external affairs, $114,996
  • Alethea Henry, lead instructional support director, $105,000

Tonye Smith McBride is also joining the state district’s leadership team after decades in Memphis’ traditional district. McBride and Henry coached iZone principals and educators alongside Griffin. Appointing two people with experience coaching administrators offers a clue to Griffin’s strategy of working with teachers and principals to improve student performance.

Schools in the iZone have outpaced progress of those run by the state, which have struggled to show academic improvement. The Achievement School District – now comprising 30 schools, most of them in Memphis – was launched in 2012 to transform the state’s worst performing schools by converting them to charter schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Griffin have said that the state district needs more consistency from school to school, and McBride will lead the charge to share best practices across charter operators.

“As part of the iZone, I served as a principal, instructional leadership director and eventually director of school improvement and accountability for the entirety of SCS,” McBride said. “When you combine all of these together, the work is very much the same…just lots more of it.”

McBride said her new role will focus on ensuring charter operators are following federal and state laws. Similar to her previous roles in Shelby County, McBride will oversee the district’s Special Education team, support career and technical education, and create system-wide “practices to meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

McBride coached dozens of iZone principals – including the principal of Trezevant High School, a school within the iZone where reports of improper grade changing launched an ongoing investigation within Shelby County high schools. McBride was not implicated in grade changing and a team of outside investigators found no evidence that she was involved in any other wrongdoing.

Griffin told Chalkbeat she’s confident McBride is up for the steep challenge of improving state-run schools. Recent test scores remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school.

“When she was a principal, Chief McBride knew how to take a school from a low-performing school to the next phase,” Griffin said.

For Henry, some of her lessons learned include establishing deep support for teachers, something Griffin said educators within the state district have told her was lacking. Henry will focus on improving teacher training and is in charge of creating a strategic plan for “addressing instructional needs across the entire ASD portfolio,” she said.

“Just like every child is different, so are teachers and schools,” Henry said. “Support must be intentional and meet the unique needs of the people being supported. It is no one’s job to ‘fix’ teachers.”

The remaining team members, Robert White and Lisa Settle, have been in state-run leadership for years, and Griffin said she was excited for the context and experience they will bring.

White will continue to work on bettering the district’s historically stormy relationship with its communities – and will focus on telling the district’s story of a new era under Griffin’s leadership.

Settle has been with the turnaround district since the beginning. She moved from the position of chief performance officer, where she made sure charter operators followed federal and state rules, to the chief of operations and culture/climate. Griffin said Settle will now oversee the district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools and focus on building maintenance. Many of the achievement district’s school buildings are leased from Shelby County Schools and need repair.

“I’m still with the district because we aren’t finished – there’s work still to do,” Settle said. “One thing that is changing now is the way we view support needed. We were an authorizer of charter schools, and we still are, but there are traditional district functions we need to provide like a focus on academics, and support around building maintenance.”

Still missing from Griffin’s team is a second in command. When Griffin was hired in April, the state Department of Education announced that it would also “soon add a leader to oversee the development and support of high-quality public charter schools, and this role will work closely with Dr. Griffin to support the portfolio of charter operators serving schools in the Achievement School District.”

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the department, said the right person hasn’t been found for the role yet, and they are still actively seeking candidates.

Griffin acknowledged that the current team will have to do more with less. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed to cut costs, and a new leadership team was brought in under then-superintendent Malika Anderson. Griffin’s team of four is significantly smaller than that of Anderson.

“I believe we have the right people in place and skill set to impact student achievement,” Griffin said. “But there is added responsibility for us because our team is smaller.”

Verna Ruffin, the turnaround district’s chief academic officer, was recently hired as superintendent of a school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, White said. Six former members of central office staff took positions with charter operators within the turnaround district or pursued other opportunities after the restructure last year.

Griffin said now that the new team is in place, they can get to work.

“I have to make some changes while hitting the ground,” Griffin said. “I needed people who understood the context and could get things done.”