ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Q&A with Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis
By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
Governor Bruce Rauner named Beth Purvis to his administration team on February 17, 2015. She had previously served on Rauner’s transition team. One of her first official duties as the governor’s education appointee was speaking at the Alliance Leadership Summit in Springfield. There, she introduced the transition team’s report on education to an audience of superintendents, school board members, school business officials, and building principals. Although her official title was not yet announced that date, she has since been designated Illinois Secretary of Education.
Purvis was previously executive director of the Chicago International Charter School, heading a network of 15 charter school campuses in Chicago and Rockford. She was also an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Purvis spoke with The Illinois School Board Journal on May 21.
What is the first thing you tell people about your new position?
I think getting out and helping people understand the governor’s agenda and my role in that are important.
Talk a little about your background. Have you always wanted to be in education?
I am sometimes called an ‘ed reformer’ and I laugh, because I have always wanted to be a teacher. … I grew up in Long Island, the youngest of five. I have four older brothers. I am the only one in education in my family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and a music teacher, and my dad worked for a utility in Brooklyn. I started working at a camp for kids with disabilities as a teenager. That’s how I knew that not only did I want to be a teacher, but I wanted to be a special ed teacher.
I attended Bucknell [University in Lewisburg, Pa.]. It’s beautiful. It is in the middle of nowhere. The one thing about Bucknell, as much as I loved it, is after you’re there for a while at some point you think ‘I need to go away for at least a semester.’ So I did my student teaching at an American Air Force base in Bedfordshire, England. Then I went straight from Bucknell to Columbia [University in New York], where I got a dual masters in early childhood special education and the education of the blind and visually impaired.
I started my career as an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired, then as an early childhood special education teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, and then I went to Peabody [Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development in Nashville, Tenn.] I was there for five years and that’s where I got my early intervention credential. I also worked with [Peabody professor] Ann Kaiser and developed my own line or research where I was looking at parent education and teacher education for parents of young children with concomitant language and behavior delays or problems.
After Peabody I joined the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was an assistant professor of special education at UIC for five years. That’s what brought me to Chicago.
What is your work as Secretary of Education?
My work now has three parts to it. In a typical week, I spend one or two days in Springfield. I spend the equivalent of a day getting a better understanding of the work of the 12 state agencies that have oversight over educational programs from cradle to career. I spend time meeting with groups, advocacy groups, and I also try to get out to schools, be they early childhood or not. Yesterday [May 20], I spent the day at an elementary school here in Springfield. The day before, I spent a few hours with the Bloomington-Normal ROE, and did a quick walkthrough at a state alternative school and spent three hours at ISU. I try to split my time into thirds: one third in agency work, a third understanding legislative and political activity related to education — the policy of education — and a third understanding programs and the needs of constituencies.
What can you tell us about the governor’s vision for education and ‘cradle to career?’
The governor created this position, which is a cabinet-level position, with the idea that I could help him create a cohesive and coherent educational trajectory for children, from cradle to career. This is in order to have and to help support the ultimate goal for children: Students coming out of the Illinois education system ready to be engaged citizens and have rewarding careers.
When we say rewarding, we mean both monetarily and emotionally. When you get up in the morning, nine out of 10 days you want to go to work.
And so, [Governor Rauner] really believes that to do that, we need to have a more cohesive and coherent system than we currently have. And that we need ― no matter where you live in the state, no matter what your socio-economic status, no matter what your programmatic interest ― to have high-quality options. Options in early childhood, in K-12, and post-secondary.
How does local control fit in with those beliefs?
Let’s start with this: One of the first things the governor did was put out an FY16 budget that increased funding for early childhood by $25 million; that increased funding to K-12 by $300 million and then held steady MAP funding, scholarship funding. If you look at the way he allocated the additional $300 million, part of that was taking almost $25, taking $50 million in line items, and moving that to the GSA. Knowing that really, it should be up to local school districts, superintendents, and principals ― the governor believes that they know best how to spend the money. So that, you know [with] the money that shifted, if you cared deeply about one of those line items, you were getting an increase in the proration — from 89 percent to 95 ― and you can pay for that yourself. But if it’s something that doesn’t help your district, that you don’t think is needed for your students, you’re not losing those funds from the GSA. So I think that speaks to his belief in local control.
And what direction is Illinois taking with charters, vouchers, and privatization?
On the other hand, he believes greatly that there need to be high-quality options. Charter schools are options. Charter schools are public school options that have proven to be very successful in certain parts of the state.
What about students who do not have options? Or schools who lose students and funding to charters?
We need to think about options in the broadest sense of options. The governor believes that charter schools should be part of the solution but not the only solution. For example, my understanding is that a majority of parents in Chicago exercise choice every day, be that sending their child to a selective enrollment school, to a magnet school, to a school within a school, or to a charter school. So if over 50 percent of parents are exercising choice, but only 14 percent of students are in charter schools, then in Chicago there’s a wide range of choices.
A great example of options is the STEM school in Aurora. I think the governor is open to supporting all unique options. A number of districts allowing kids from one district to take a high school course in another district if their district can’t offer that. That’s choice. The question is, “how do we increase more, high-quality options?”
When the governor is talking about any type of choice, he’s talking about the quality of those choices, and whether kids are leaving early childhood programs ready for kindergarten, our eighth graders are ready for a rigorous high school experience, and whether our kids are leaving high school ready for career or college or whatever is their choice. Graduating kids with the skills so they have options across the spectrum.
How does the administration plan to work with the issue of mandates?
The Lieutenant Governor [ Evelyn Sanguinetti] has a task force that has been looking at how do we, as part of the governor’s Turnaround Agenda, reduce bureaucracy and other issues. Part of it is, we want ideas from all groups about how do we decrease the mandates that are interfering with the ability of school districts to do their jobs. How do we decrease the compliance requirements that, first of all, eat up people’s time? As a system, how do we decrease compliance tasks, automate compliance tasks, and address everything … to just make government more efficient? Part of that at this stage is to hear from [IASB], and other organizations, to say ‘OK this is working; this isn’t; here are our ideas.’
I’ve had conversations with, literally at this point over a hundred different groups, asking, ‘What are your ideas to fix this?’ Then trying to incorporate these ideas. We share them with 12 government agencies that are handling this work. We work with legislators to say, ‘here’s how we can work together to decrease the compliance tasks, to simplify the school code and to ensure money gets where it’s intended.’
How do you address the issue of accountability?
That’s an easy question to address. I think we all need to have a nod to what NCLB did for education in America. It shifted us from talking about educational inputs to really measuring the effect of those inputs in increasing students’ skill, content knowledge, and their social/emotional skills and being. In some ways, and I think many of us would agree, it got a little out of control. We are now at a place in American education history in which we understand the value of assessment in informing instruction and in measuring student growth. Also in informing when we have limited funds, where are the most valuable places to put our money, where do we get the most educational return on investment.
To me, we need an assessment system that informs teacher practice, that allows administrators — principals, superintendents, school boards — to understand whether or not students are getting the skills and content knowledge they need, whether they leave each of those transition points prepared for a rigorous challenge at the next level.
We are at a really difficult time, because in 2010 we adopted new state standards and a new state assessment. In the interim, districts have had to, because our last assessment in the ISAT and PSAT didn’t do those other things, build their own battery of assessments. So right now we have a double whammy. We have a new assessment system and we have districts that had to answer those questions on their own. By federal statute, we have to have a statewide assessment.
So, I think we need to do a few things. One, to work with PARCC to fix what isn’t working with PARCC assessment. Two, that every district, after we work with PARCC and understand what it will and will not or can and cannot do, every district needs to have the right to sit down and determine how PARCC can be part of the battery of assessments, and understand what else they need. And that is a local control issue. Right now the only assessment that is required by the state is PARCC. Everything else is determined at the local level. If we don’t have PARCC, we lose federal funding. This is an issue of needing to ensure that PARCC delivers on its promises. We need to better understand when we will get the data, what the data will tell us, and how we can use the data. And then we need to let local districts determine what else they need, if anything.
The one caveat I will say is that the governor believes, as do I, that for the time being, the ACT should remain in place.
Do you have anything you’d like to say to our membership?
It sounds cliché, but I am honored and humbled by the opportunity that I am being given to learn about all the incredible things that are going on around our state. In my short time here — I’ve been here literally 90 days — what I’ve learned is that there is some incredible work going on around the state. And part of my job also is to identify that work and to celebrate it. I am excited to be able to do that. Over the next year to travel statewide, I would love to hear from superintendents and school leaders about where they think the most successful and innovative practices are occurring. So that I can learn more about those and, I hope, bring them statewide.
Beth Purvis’s address to the 2015 Alliance Leadership Summit can be viewed here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FR_D-Rg28U
As Purvis stated, her role as Secretary of Education includes working with 12 agencies. Those are the Illinois State Board of Education, Governor’s Office on Early Childhood Education, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois State Advisory Council, Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Corrections, Illinois Department of Employment Security, Department of Commerce and Economic Development, Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, and Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. In addition, she also works with the Illinois Education Research Council.
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