Opinion | Jim Nowlan: Most downstate schools below average, and it’s not because of spending
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Opinion | Jim Nowlan: Most downstate schools below average, and it’s not because of spending

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Different from Lake Wobegon, where all the youngsters are above average, most downstate Illinois schools perform below the statewide averages on achievement tests. I write not to criticize, but to evaluate, and to explore what might be done to boost achievement.

The Illinois School Report Card produced by the state’s board of education offers a trove of information about our schools and their students. You can slice and dice the data on its website. What you will find is depressingly predictable: School district performance strongly correlates with household income, and not with spending. Since downstate communities are overall less wealthy than those in metro Chicago, performance is also, generally, less robust.

The sample of school districts I looked at across Illinois was consistent: Both downstate rural and urban school districts generally performed below the statewide averages for 11th grade language and math tests. The downstate exceptions were suburban-type districts on the edge of cities, as outside Peoria and Champaign-Urbana, where, let’s be honest, many families locate to avoid the problems of city schools. Schools such as Dunlap (outside Peoria) and Mahomet (Champaign) spend less per pupil than their nearby city schools and perform much better.

The state Report Card includes fascinating scatterplots of all schools. You will see strong correlations between the percentage of low-income families in districts and performance; the fewer low income, the higher the test scores.

On the other hand, there is almost no correlation I can see in the scatterplot for spending and performance. The scatterplot resembles a goose egg, standing up.

That doesn’t mean spending is unimportant. I am confident the many suburban schools that pay an average of more than $100,000 per year for teachers are able to attract, overall, a greater percentage of teachers who earn master’s degrees in substantive areas such as science, math and English than in school districts near my town, where average salaries are under $50,000. The high-spending schools generally have larger enrollments as well, and thus offer more foreign languages, earlier, and a richer array of challenging coursework.

Yet I would guess that even if the suburban schools paid as little as my rural districts, their students would still perform much better than average — because the parents and peer pressure would demand it. Parents would create and fund foundations to provide what they think their children need to get into top colleges.

We in Illinois are at present embarked on a gradual increase in the state funding for low-wealth districts, which includes most rural districts, so long as state funding is available. I am all for this. Yet, if improved performance doesn’t follow, taxpayers might say: “Why are we doing this?”

I don’t fault my local school teachers for below average performance, but I do believe school superintendents and their boards must up their game. I fear the “supes” often caress their boards with cherry-picked information from the school district report cards, showing improvement here and there, yet ignoring that the schools are still performing below average. The school boards often think that if they are doing as well as the under-performing school district down the road, they are doing just fine. Not true.

Parents with ambitions for their young are not likely to locate in small towns where the schools are below average, and I can assure you such families check out the statewide school report cards.

Poor-performing schools bode ill for the future of rural America, and for all America.

The performance problems — I don’t know why school leaders don’t shout this to the high heaven, in their own frustration — lie primarily with the families and communities in which the schools are embedded. Low-income families often fail to create strong expectations for success among their children, nor do they provide the discipline and support at home necessary to achieve high aspirations.

So, what can be done? Schools in big city China require English from kindergarten through high school. If a rural district offered Mandarin from the earliest grades — and my Chinese friends believe such could be arranged — young parents would take notice, I can assure you. Yet I fear that most downstate school boards would consider that way too far outside the box, comfortable in their misguided belief that the U.S. is still the center of the world.

Schools are already providing breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks for the low-income. Should schools provide even more social services? I don’t think schools can become in loco parentis (in place of parents), at least not effectively.

Yet, somehow, schools and communities — churches, private charity, neighborhood groups — must engage and stimulate clueless families to do a better job of parenting for success.

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