ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Technology, tragedy and testing transform educational landscape
By Heath Hendren
Heath Hendren is assistant director of communications for the Illinois Association of School Boards.
Part V — 1993-2013
This is the fifth and final part in a year-long series detailing the history of the Illinois Association of School Boards, from its inception in 1913 through its 100th anniversary, to be commemorated on December 13, 2013.
Where the “space race” of the 1950’s and 60’s spurred attention to the global importance of America’s educational success, the evolution of information access and communication methods in the 1990’s and the beginning of the 21st Century cemented technology permanently into everyday teaching techniques. In the same time frame, two other forces made a significant impact on public education: intensified assessments of student, teacher and school performance and a succession of historic violence and human tragedies in bigger, bolder and personal dimensions.
In an article titled “Changing School Boards in a Changing Society” in the 1993 July/August issue of The Illinois School Board Journal, the author asserted, “We may be just beginning to understand how technology will change us. Or perhaps we still don’t have a clue.” The profound nature of this statement accurately predicted the phenomenal impact that personal computers, laptops and tablets; the Internet, cable TV and social media; and mobile phones, messaging, and personal applications would have in households and classrooms. Education technology is evolving at warp speed, and all we know for sure is that it will accelerate even faster over the next 20 years.
IASB followed suit and officially went online in 1995 via “Access Illinois.” The following year the Association launched its first webpage on the “World Wide Web.” The IASB website grew substantially over the next 10 years – from several dozen pages to several hundred. By the time the content had grown to more than 1,500 live pages, a complete redesign of www.iasb.com was launched in 2007. This was soon followed by the introduction of a password-protected, members-only website. The new website gave members access to personal database information and supplemented other member services with new interactive tools and features, such as personal conference schedule planners and downloadable conference handouts. The importance of the Association’s web presence is reflected by the 1 million-plus page views it receives annually.
Although much of the online content is free, IASB also added a variety of fee-based services delivered electronically, including a bookstore, meeting and workshop registrations, policy information and updating services, publishing local school board policy manuals, and a paperless meeting and document service.
Economic conditions fluctuated greatly from 1993 to 2013, which, in turn, resulted in a wide swing in state funding levels for public schools. The two decades saw major economic recessions and a financial surge during the “dot.com” boom years. For example, while public school funding rose by a $400 million increase in 1997, more recent state budgets have been less kind to local school budgets, and have pro-rated payments below allocated amounts. The annual push-pull debate over who pays how much has escalated as the state’s financial condition has drastically eroded in recent years. Maintaining funding and minimizing mandates has been an ongoing mantra for the Association and other school management organizations.
In 1993, IASB joined forces with the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA), the Illinois Principals Association (IPA) and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (Illinois ASBO) to form the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance. The Alliance was formed to allow each organization the ability to better focus resources in a collaborative effort aimed at producing policies that improve Illinois’ educational climate.
The Alliance remains in near constant communication with state government agencies and offices, including the Illinois State Board of Education, Senate and House education committees and the governor’s office. In addition to providing accurate and timely information on legislative and regulatory activities and providing a cohesive school management voice in the Capitol, the Alliance has helped to forge additional opportunities for each organization to share services and extend benefits to local school districts. The partnership has grown as the demand for services expanded, and now includes dozens of sponsored programs and cooperative ventures.
Article 23 of the School Code states that IASB exists to enable: “The education of school board members as to their duties and responsibilities so as to improve the management of the public schools.” In the early 1990’s, the IASB Board of Directors adopted a policy governance model for its governance structure. In 1995, the board of directors adopted a formal mission statement to refine its purpose: “The mission of the Illinois Association of School Boards is excellence in local school governance and support of public education.” (The mission statement was revised once in 2012 to state: “The mission of the Illinois Association of School Boards is excellence in local school governance in support of quality public education.”) The following year, IASB reorganized its internal structure to better align with the mission statement. This included additional field support to member districts and creation of an advocacy department, uniting government relations functions with public relations duties. In addition, the Association combined field services, policy services and communications under the title of member services.
Amid the internal changes, the state decided to consolidate elections. In 1999, school board elections were moved from November to April of odd-numbered years, resulting in the elimination of the non-partisan election date. The date change created a lengthy conversion process that resulted in a seven-month gap from the election to seating of board members. In turn, this also meant a seven-month delay in which unseated members would remain on the board. The change affected the next two elections, so that the first “normal” election and seating of board members did not occur until 2003.
The disruptions of school board elections would pale in comparison to the number of violent attacks and human tragedies that occurred in the last two decades.
In 1995, the federal building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb placed by a domestic terrorist. The bombing claimed the lives of 168 people, including many young children. The rapid dissemination of images and information made it nearly impossible to shield children from exposure to such material. This prompted a discussion of how schools should inform and address students when such devastating, and obviously emotional, events take place during the school day. Nothing, however, could prepare schools, teachers, students, or parents for the emotional impact that engulfed the nation on September 11, 2001. The international terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania devastated the country in a way not seen since the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor.
But the attacks on September 11th also served to bring Americans together over a common bond. The partisan issues that routinely divided us were put to the side. In its place emerged a new spirit and bond that would show a perseverance that had not been seen for several generations. Schools played an extremely important role in bringing normalcy back to communities, and ensuring children and other residents had a familiar, comfortable place where they felt safe. In “The Front Page” section of the 2001 November/December issue of The Journal, the editor wrote about schools being the front line of emotional support for children who watched the tragic events of that day unfold. Many teachers also used 9/11 as a learning experience, not only in a historical context, but as an avenue to spur discussion on intolerance and hate.
School boards looked further at security measures and the development of new emergency procedures and policies. Many schools looked toward security assessments and routine inspections of school grounds to identify potential risks. Others focused on new security methods, such as video monitors and motion sensors, and updated their emergency procedures to ensure they conformed with modern day threats.
As secure as schools are made to be, they remain vulnerable to those who insist on invasion and destruction. The two most notable school violence events occurred 13 years apart. The first tragedy came April 21, 1999, when two students entered a Littleton, Colorado, high school and executed 14 children and one teacher, leaving another 28 wounded. The Columbine tragedy was examined exhaustively and resulted in a heightened awareness of and training in anti-bullying and tolerance policies. The Journal published an article in the 1999 May/June issue titled, “Violence in Colorado – Could it Happen Here?” that looked at ways to improve school safety. The finding suggested that one of the most effective defenses against internal school violence is to pay attention to students and heed early warning signs of emotional distress.
More recently, the country was stunned with another mass school shooting. On December 14, 2012, an adult gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 kindergarten and first grade students and six faculty members. Both tragedies moved the national debate on gun use and ownership, and the balance of public safety and personal rights.
Balance is also the watchword of the third and final trend of the past 20 years.
The most significant change in classrooms, teaching and learning has been the ever- increasing demand for accountability, in order to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps. State and federal agencies, responding to a measured and loud call from political and private special interests, began to impose new demands on performance, testing and standards. The additional pressure put districts large and small into a defensive mode that continues to threaten public support for public schools.
The Illinois State Board of Education in 1997 adopted comprehensive learning standards for what Illinois students must learn in English, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, physical development and health, and the fine arts. In 1999, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) was first administered statewide in order to gauge student learning in relation to the newly adopted learning standards. And in 2001, all eleventh grade students in Illinois were required to take the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE). A 1999 feature story in the March/April issue of The Journal titled, “21st Century Schools,” spoke to the importance of performance-based learning assessments, noting that there are no upper limits on learning achievement and emphasized the significance of what students are actually absorbing versus simply the amount of time a student spends at a classroom desk.
At the same time, the federal government was increasing its demand on not only what schools tested, but ultimately what and how they taught. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 was enacted by Congress to support standards-based education reform, and significantly expanded the federal role in public education through annual testing, annual academic progress, report cards, teacher qualifications, and funding changes. Many states, including Illinois, saw an increasing number of school districts “fail” the federal testing standards and ultimately appealed to seek waivers from the mandates. The struggle for many schools and districts to meet “Annual Yearly Progress” benchmarks became the basis for the public to grade and compare its schools, in order to create an opportunity to promote non-public alternatives, such as vouchers and charter schools.
In 2010, the Illinois State Board of Education adopted the new, more rigorous and internationally-benchmarked “Common Core Standards” in English, language arts and math. Common Core Standards are benchmarks developed by a national consortium with the aim to bring more consistency and uniformity to what students learn at each grade level from one state to another. This led to even greater demands for accountability and classroom intervention, most recently in Illinois, with the enactment of SB 7 education reform act in 2011. This law for the first time mandated school board training and allowed school districts to evaluate teachers on student performance.
IASB responded quickly, offering new training options at regional workshops, its annual conference and with online courses. Although it remains unclear how effective mandated training will be, it is apparent that most school board members were ready to comply with the new mandates, as new board member training numbers in 2013 reached new levels of participation and attendance.
Responding to and anticipating member needs has been a hallmark of the Association throughout its 100 years. One of the most ambitious initiatives was launched in the mid-1990’s, in response to the IASB Board of Directors’ policy governance work and the association’s new mission statement. The IASB staff engaged in a comprehensive study of policy governance and other governance models and ultimately developed the IASB “Foundational Principles of Effective Governance.” These principles established a philosophy that has informed and aligned all Association products and services since that time. The document represents the cornerstone of IASB’s beliefs about the role and responsibilities of the school board. The six principles – clarify the district purpose, connect with the community, employ a superintendent, delegate authority, monitor performance, and take responsibility for itself – were designed to clearly and coherently articulate the role of school board members as trustees for their communities and serve as an overarching guide to effective school board governance. The principles are used throughout all IASB board training.
As IASB services and staff continued to expand from one decade to the next, it was apparent that the Association would need more office and storage space. In 2003, IASB moved its headquarters to a new building on the south side of Springfield. Built entirely with budget reserves, the new facility was expanded again two years later to accommodate new services and staffing. In fact, over the 20-year span between 1993 and 2013, IASB initiated a wide variety of new services and products. Some of the more notable start-ups include PRESS (1993), school design data file and EEE (1996), Targeting Student Learning (1998), Illinois Energy Consortium (1999), Board Governance Review (2002), School Board LeaderShop (2002), The Essentials of Illinois School Finance (2002), School Board Policies Online (2002), PRESS Plus (2003), BoardBook (2004), Targeting Achievement Through Governance or TAG (2004), “Weighing Healthier Options” report (2004), and the Online Learning Center (2009).
Over the course of the past 20 years, the Association has been regularly surveying its membership. In addition to answering questions about how much time they spend on board work and the number of years they have served, board members participating in the survey were asked questions about their demographics, their district, their reasons for running for the board, their views of education and a myriad of questions designed to elicit preferences for receiving information and professional development from IASB. Administered originally in 1993, the surveys have been conducted every five years, with the latest occurring in early 2013. Results of both the board member and superintendent surveys have been posted on the IASB website for all to share. (An analysis of the 2013 survey results and previous surveys will be reported in the November-December issue of The Illinois School Board Journal.)
Another measure of IASB’s success has been attendance at and participation in the Joint Annual Conference. Initiated in 1915, the annual conference has seen attendance top 12,000 participants in recent years. In 2011, 85 percent of IASB member districts were represented at the three-day event. Membership in the Association is another measure of IASB’s value to local school districts. As of this report, 852 of the state’s 859 public school districts are dues-paying members of the Association.
From 1993 to 2013, IASB has been served by three executive directors. Each brought a unique style that has allowed IASB to progress and grow to better serve the needs of members. The late Wayne Sampson served from 1989 to 2000, followed by Michael D. Johnson from 2000 to 2012, and Roger Eddy, who was named the CEO on July 1, 2012 and continues to serve as executive director today. The 100 years of success at IASB can be attributed to a number of factors, but a passage from the 2012 Annual Report may sum it up best.
“Continuity and excellence of service is what drives this Association. IASB is poised to meet the challenges of the future. But one thing won’t change. ‘Excellence in local school governance in support of quality public education.’ That’s our mission today; that will be our mission for years to come.”
This concludes the five-part series reviewing the 100-year history of the Illinois Association of School Boards. A commemorative book will be published in early 2014 containing this series, additional interviews, recognition of significant events and people, a chronology of U.S. and Illinois education issues, and various lists, photos and artifacts relevant to the centennial.
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