Envisioning Change Task Force develops blueprint for closing the achievement gap in Illinois

For decades, educators and policymakers have recognized the achievement gap that exists between African American students and their white counterparts in the United States.

For Erikson, that was long enough. Last year, with funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Erikson launched Envisioning Change, a task force composed of some 40 key stakeholders charged with developing a statewide plan to reduce that gap and improve educational outcomes for African American children.

[img_caption src=”https://www.erikson.edu/wp-content/uploads/Envisioning-Change-boy-classroom-175×150.jpg” align=”right” alt=”Boy in classroom”]“There has never been a project like this in Illinois,” says Aisha Ray, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “We needed to begin a conversation that was long overdue, because we know early childhood education is a critical strategy to address equality and equity for African American children.”

That conversation will culminate in early 2015 in a blueprint for ensuring high-quality educational outcomes for all African American children in Illinois.

A pressing challenge

The Education Trust recently called the achievement gap the most pressing education-policy challenge that states currently face. As recently as 2011, African American third graders in Illinois scored 20 percentage points lower in math and 24 percentage points lower in reading than white students.

Disparities that begin in early grades continue and are evident even in high school graduation and college completion rates. Few states have developed effective strategies for addressing those disparities before children reach third grade, and Illinois is among the states that do not have a coherent plan that addresses the particular circumstances that face young African American learners.

On the positive side, research has shown that, over time, African American students have made strides in improving school performance, and that there are national and international examples of practices and policies that work to reduce and eliminate these disparities. One key aspect of the Envisioning Change task force’s work was to examine whether these successful practices and strategies were appropriate for Illinois.

Engaging leaders statewide

To begin, Ray, along with Jana Fleming of Erikson’s Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy, and project director Florence Kimondo, had individual conversations with key leaders in the state for advice on selecting members of the task force and topics to cover.

“We walked into it with a lot of ideas, and wanted to get buy-in from those who can make these changes happen,” Fleming says. “We wanted to get people’s best ideas, and that’s what informed our work.”

Task force members included representatives from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Department of Human Services; elected officials; district-level superintendents; business and community leaders; and leadership from organizations such as the Illinois Principals Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Business Roundtable, and the Chicago Urban League.

“What made this group unique,” Ray says, “is that there are experts on funding and experts on professional development, but people obviously can’t know about every issue. We wanted to bring them together so they could see how each component impacts the achievement gap.”

Candid discussions

The three task force meetings over the past two years helped illuminate key issues, provide research and information, and inform the group about strategies that have worked elsewhere. One meeting began with a candid discussion with state superintendent of education Christopher A. Koch about the challenges facing school districts and the state, particularly around school funding.

“Involvement by leaders like Dr. Koch in this project is invaluable,” says Ray. “His remarks increased the task force’s understanding of the challenges we must overcome at all levels and helped the group frame its recommendations.”

The group formed smaller subcommittees to examine five key areas:

  • High-quality early care and education
  • School policies and practices
  • Teacher preparation and professional development
  • Family and community support
  • School financing

According to Fleming, the subcommittees were tasked with “identifying a vision for each topic to prioritize our recommendations for the state.”

A path forward

The task force’s final report is expected to be completed by the end of the year,
addressing each of the key areas. Preliminary recommendations include:

  • Ensuring well-prepared and diverse teachers and administrators. Principals and teachers should be trained on the best practices, research, and knowledge regarding the development and education of African American children. African American teachers, teacher educators, and administrators should be systematically recruited and retained at all levels of Illinois’s birth to age 8 programs and services.
  • Addressing disparities in school funding. Illinois needs to effectively target dollars to the neediest children, and to fund effective services and programs known to reduce achievement gaps, from high-quality pre-kindergarten and early elementary programs to social-emotional health supports and services for children and families.
  • Engaging families and communities to improve children’s performance in school. Illinois schools must become centers of community life and offer the resources and services needed to both support African American children’s education and engage their families.

The report is aimed at a broad audience and is intended to be used by different organizations that might find the recommendations beneficial, Fleming says. “We can then work with them to continue these conversations, so they can use their particular expertise to advance these causes.”

Beyond creating specific policy recommendations to reduce the achievement gap, a final goal is to give people hope.

“We’ve known about these problems for years,” says Fleming, “and it can get to a point where people feel defeatist and think there are some kids we just can’t help. The fact that a child comes from a certain background is not destiny. We can change that if we have the will.”

To receive the final report when it is available, contact [email protected].