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.

Teacher votes

Memphis teacher groups want annual pay raises and more say in how they teach their students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Keith Williams (left) and Tikeila Rucker lead the teacher associations representing licensed educators in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis teachers will soon have the opportunity to change compensation, work hours, health benefits, and how they teach if they vote to negotiate a new agreement with Shelby County Schools.

The district’s two organizations, which represent teachers and other licensed educators, say their priorities are restoring automatic pay increases and higher pay for educators with advanced degrees, and giving more flexibility to teachers in the classroom.

United Education Association and Memphis-Shelby County Education Association have been talking with district leaders about making these changes, but amending the employee agreement with the district — through a process known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee law — would ensure the changes will take place with a written agreement.

The United Education Association plans to hold a teacher rally to talk about the process from 4:30 to 6 Tuesday evening at the district’s central office. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is scheduled to be the guest speaker.

Collaborative conferencing replaced union bargaining rights in a 2011 law. The law tossed the requirement that districts and organizations representing employees have to reach an agreement. If there’s an impasse, the school board gets the final word.

The law also narrowed the topics that could be discussed between teacher organizations and the school district. Their agreements cannot address teacher evaluations, district decisions on bonuses and raises based on teacher performance, or requiring districts to base personnel decisions on tenure or seniority.

If educators vote to negotiate, it will be the first negotiation for the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year, the groups tried to get enough votes for talks, but fell short. (The current agreement is still in effect.)


Related: Why the Janus Supreme Court case won’t have much impact in Tennessee


Garnering enough support to start talks requires two steps.

First, 15 percent of employees are required by state law to sign a petition requesting a district-wide vote on whether teacher representatives should negotiate a new agreement, also known as a memorandum of understanding. The two teacher organizations, which collectively represent about 4,500 members, have gathered at least 2,600 signatures, well above the number needed.

Next, half of the district’s licensed educators must vote by email to start negotiations. Educators will also be asked in early November to choose which organization will represent them at the negotiating table. The organizations will have a percentage of seats on a committee based on which organization educators voted for.

The resulting agreement would not be sent back for a vote from teachers, but Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association, said her organization plans to conduct surveys throughout the process “that ensures us that we really have teacher input.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on in March.

Hopson has tried for several years to switch teacher pay to a merit system based on evaluation scores that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But Hopson did not want to base those decisions on a state test that has experienced a multitude of problems. So, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the district should combine merit pay and annual increases in base pay.

“I think we should do step and merit pay,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of issues to work out for teacher compensation, including advanced degree pay and people who are nationally board certified.”

Hopson also has brought back some pay for advanced degrees. But only teachers with high evaluation scores are eligible.


Related: The salary slide: as other professionals see growth, teachers’ pay stagnates, new report finds


Rucker said she also wants to push for more flexibility in how teachers use the district’s new curriculum, which more closely aligns with Tennessee’s new requirements for what students should learn.

“Teachers are mandated to teach based on district-selected curriculum and it’s kind of like a script,” Rucker said. “That takes away from a lot of the creativity for teachers to reach their students for academic success.”

Hopson did allow some flexibility based on feedback from Rucker’s organization, but said teachers had to earn that autonomy based on their evaluation scores.

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.