July/August 2015

Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Tony Smith, the new superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), brings a five-point vision to the state’s public education system. While acknowledging that solving the education-funding puzzle is the first priority, another challenge is integral to Smith’s plan: to determine and define “what good looks like” in Illinois schools.

“There’s huge opportunity right now around funding and finance reform,” Smith says, “and also in the ability to create more fair funding structure, with a system that takes into account local assets and local need. The current structure has been revealed over the last few years to be inadequate. It is so clearly on everybody’s mind, and it’s very important to me, to create equity and adequacy in the funding structure. Certainly that’s the top of the list.”

After starting with the establishment of an “adequate and equitable education finance system,” Smith’s second point is creating a common definition of, and fair access to, quality education for all. The third point is to maximize district autonomy to provide quality education to all families. Smith ties those two ideas together.

“We have the ability to really talk about what quality is and what ‘good’ looks like, from district to district and place to place,” Smith says. “Rural, suburban, urban, every landscape is a little different. And even within those differences, there is no single experience. In each of those places, we need to be able to say what good looks like. From that, we can get clear about what a common definition of quality education is. Connected to that is the ability to maximize local autonomy. We want to be able to take the idea of subsidiarity, from a central notion of good; those closest to the ground are in the best position to make that decision.”

Smith acknowledges that school board members are “as close to the ground” as can be, and adapts the concept of subsidiarity to the public school system. Subsidiarity is founded on decentralization, in which matters ought to be settled by the most local entity capable of reaching a solution.

“We would maximize that local economy in the context of that local definition of good,” Smith says, which carries him to the next point of his vision, encouraging competency-based learning.

“Because things are so different across districts, but also because what our kids are able to do now is so extraordinary, we’ve kind of got them trapped with seat time,” Smith says. “So we could move them to competency. We could talk more deeply about keeping track of what kids know and are able to do, and giving them credit for it in the multiple ways they earn it. Wherever they are, they are doing real work and that should count for something. Getting clear about a competency-based approach to our future in education is really important to me.”

Smith mentions continuing credit and dual-enrollments as well as converting work experience into academic progress. He also refers to opportunities such as Diploma Plus (, a privately-funded non-profit program that offers alternatives for youth who have been failed by the traditional system.

Smith’s fifth and final key point — envisioning districts and schools as centers of healthy communities — not only ties the other points together, it sparks enthusiasm in his comments.

“So I think those are the five parts of how I see my work in strengthening this organization to be in service to that.”

ISBE announced Smith as its new superintendent in April, and he began his work at ISBE on May 1. His most recent employment was as executive director of the Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation in Chicago, which awards childhood education and development grants. Before that, he had leadership roles in education in his home state of California, in the San Francisco Unified School District; the Unified School District; the Math, Science and Technology Initiative at the Emeryville Citywide Initiative; and the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, now known as the National Equity Project. Before coming to Illinois and the Stone Foundation, Smith served four years as superintendent of the Oakland School District in California.

Smith came to ISBE with, according to the media reports, a reputation as “urban school reform leader.” Governor Bruce Rauner recommended him to the Illinois State Board of Education. The governor’s statement described Smith as “a transformational leader and has a proven track record of increasing student achievement while successfully addressing fiscal and structural issues at the local district level.”

Smith’s experience in California’s education system will reflect in his work in Illinois, especially with school boards.

“I’ve worked with school boards very directly as a superintendent,” Smith said. “I worked for three boards — no actually in three school districts, but many more boards. That’s because boards change — with any new person it becomes a new board with new dynamics.”

While in Oakland, Smith worked with Core Districts, a collaboration of 10 California school systems serving a million students. Core Districts developed a No Child Left Behind waiver plan, called the School Quality Improvement System, which propelled schools to work towards a collective effort to prepare all students for college and career, with a strong accountability component, “to eliminate disparity and disproportionality in all subjects and across the academic, social/emotional, and culture/climate domains.”

He says his experience with Core Districts emphasized the role of the school board. “We were part of the Core Districts in California, districts working together, so wherever we could be helpful to each other in the work we were doing, we would do that. Working in other districts in support of other superintendents, I sat in on other board meetings. I understand the unique and concentrated democracy that a school board is, and it is very important.”

Smith says he is prepared to work with school boards and their members to address issues of local concern in Illinois. He says there is “no blanket answer” to school district reorganization questions.

“I work from what’s in the best interests of the students,” he says. “There are probably places where it makes absolutely zero sense to start that conversation. There are places where it’s exactly the right thing to do. These are careful considerations and assessments. If, at the end of assessments, the number of school districts would be the same, I would be surprised.”

Smith is willing to consider the issue of mandates, provided students are getting what they need. He notes that mandates start from good intentions. Objections to school mandates collectively conflict with the purpose of each mandate individually.

“We need to talk about the common definition of ‘what good looks like,’” Smith says. “And believe and trust in local folks to realize not just what’s working or not, but to look around and see what’s working for others. To be able to say, ‘you know what, these four mandates make it very hard for us, in our context, to meet the needs of our children,’ that is a pretty powerful case.

“And then you organize. This is advocacy for the well-being of kids, not just an effort to stop a mandate. When that happens, the response should be, ‘In that context it makes sense, and you’ve given us a plan in a way that has a rationale, to do something better.’ We meet the needs, even if it looks different. That’s what will get us the farthest.”

Smith says he supports such local work. He adds that it is ISBE’s responsibility to bring scrutiny to determine what are the “very few” core federal mandates that must be carried out, and to be as disciplined as possible to not push through anything else. It is the perpetual work of a state educational agency.

“Schools sit in public contexts where there are choices and decisions that are being made, federally, at the state level, and locally,” Smith says. “Those policies create situations where people are not necessarily connected and are stripped of opportunity. So schools have an opportunity infrastructure in a way that very few organizations do. When they understand themselves that way, and anticipate, things can change, and schools are places of great change.”

Smith arrived in Illinois after the initial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) firestorm erupted. In late winter, as PARCC implementation in Illinois approached, school districts expressed concern about the viability of the test, the opt-out movement made headlines, and the threat of losing federal dollars made PARCC a hot topic. Adaptations to PARCC are underway, including shortening the testing time. But any changes raise concerns about how adequate and useful the data will be, both annually and comparatively.

“PARCC, in my experience, is the best opportunity to assess what kids know,” Smith says. “It also has use value in the way that the test environment is getting closer to what the real world is. There are supposed to be some things, like adaptability, if a kid is doing really well the test is supposed to challenge them a little more, take them to the edge of what they know. That’s not fully implemented and developed yet.

“The promise of it is great. Like anything at the start, it’s clunky. There are things I definitely don’t like: the time, the administration issues, some of the questions are convoluted. But it’s a new test set. They are testing the test questions as well.”

Smith predicts the long-term outcomes for standardized assessments will be favorable for public education, both as a predictor and a diagnostic.

“The possibility, particularly with the college and career readiness dimension, is moving in the right way. When done well, it will help us in the higher ed space — here’s what it looks like to be ready,” Smith says. “But also it’s a diagnostic that offers reflection into our systems. We say our kids are doing well, but when they test across a comparison of the same material in different places in the country — are our grades in this school really attached to a quality standard? If they are, then great. If not, what do we do about it?”

Smith has two children of test-taking age. He calls PARCC testing “dinner-table conversation” at his house and notes that his daughters had some strong words about PARCC.

“I think I may be one of the very few state chiefs who has kids in the testing window,” Smith relates. “So when I was telling some of my kid stories to the PARCC board, they were listening. That was a great opportunity.”

Testing is also one facet of schools’ accountability to the communities that public schools serve.

“We have to have more than what we are relying on now,” Smith says. “As citizens, as taxpayers, as participants in community and democracy, we’ve chosen to have public schools that are paid for with public dollars. That social compact, to me, is that we are paying for this: creating the highest quality and best opportunity for our kids, and we expect a year’s growth in a year’s time. That’s the minimum agreement. And we have a rough structure: grades, readiness for the next step.”

Against those standards, which Smith adds should be opened up to include credit for competencies earned both inside and outside the classroom, measures must exist to assess progress.

“There’s a relationship there, the relationship of a community and its young people, that says if you’re not doing well enough, what do you need, as educators or kids or families? If you’re doing great, what’s next? What other things can we help you do? With clear assessment, there is opportunity to have a different conversation. Without it, there’s a lot of guesswork. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s part of the conversation.”

Like Bruce Rauner, the governor who recommended him, Smith believes charter schools have a place in the public school conversation.

“It has to start with, and be grounded in, quality,” Smith says. “The ability for us to increase the amount of quality options for our children is incumbent upon every adult in every community. We have to guarantee the highest-quality options for our kids. And in places where those options aren’t there or we haven’t created them yet, we should be advocates for opportunity and advocates for quality. The public system has the primary responsibility for that, and charters are another opportunity. They are legislated and there is a structure for them. So that said, if it’s a good, high-quality charter, yes, we should have it. If it’s not doing well, if it’s not connected to or serving community, we shouldn’t have that.”

Smith expresses appreciation for school board members for their willingness to serve and being the “closest to the ground” in public school matters.

“To have locally-elected school boards is the manifestation of local care and concern in the community,” Smith says. “It’s a challenge to build perspective that the individual is now an elected official with a broader responsibility. When they do, they really understand how unique and important their role is. It’s a big responsibility.”

Smith also credits the role IASB plays. “There’s an additional responsibility for organizations to create the standard for what a good board member does, and how they engage and govern, and what the standards are for that.”

Smith’s work in his first four weeks included working within ISBE, working with the board, and getting to know his staff. He also met with education organizations throughout the state and spent time in Springfield for the legislative session. Viewing the state of education in the state of Illinois, and applying his five key points to what he observes, he’s seen both what’s working — community schools, and what’s not — funding them.

“There are incredible stories of what is good, what is working,” Smith says. “In the next year I’d like to have a list of 100 different districts where there is accomplishment and success. More than high and equitable student achievement, we want to see places where there is a connection to the community. Places that have integrated social and community service. Places where people who are otherwise not included in the mainstream — homeless, or facing other challenges — are included meaningfully. Our schools are where we have the opportunity to create places of care and concern and inclusion. These stories come from schools that are finding ways to take leadership and going out and doing amazing things, in their communities, around the state, and even on the national and international scale.”

And yet, Smith says:

“There has to be an increased investment. There have to be ways that we figure out how to create enough resources for all of our kids. I believe strongly that we’re linked, we’re connected, and we’re in this together. So, it is in our best interest to address finance reform. Not just the adequacy, but also the equity.

“Because when more of our kids have more opportunity, we will be better off. The performance gap is an opportunity gap. However we structurally address it, we’re going to see a yield in terms of activity. People will be able to work and able to be professionally and civically engaged in better ways. With the funding piece, there is a responsibility of the public-private and philanthropic — that triangle — to try to figure out how to take more shared responsibility. When private is engaged and thoughtful in anticipating public and philanthropy, we can find pathways for all the kids in Illinois.”

Tony Smith’s five points:

  1. Establish adequate and equitable education finance system
  2. Common definition of, and fair access to, quality education
  3. Maximize district autonomy to provide quality education to all families
  4. Encourage competency-based learning
  5. Districts and schools as centers of healthy communities