When Illinoisans consider the performance of our public schools, we instinctively turn to test scores from the K-12 system. The news here is not good. In academic achievement, Illinois lags behind other states and has stagnated for years, with some of the worst achievement gaps in the country. Performance is also poor on wider measures of success. From school environments to students’ college readiness, Illinois has much work to do.

The Illinois K-12 system ranks in the bottom half of the nation on multiple measures. The good news is that state education leaders are tackling this challenge. The data in this section of the report underscores the urgency of this work. it also highlights three challenges that demand serious attention: the need to understand the learning environments in our schools, to measure the effectiveness of our educators, and to assess the growth of our students.

Learning Environment

If our students are to be successful, our schools must provide environments that support learning. With 20 years of surveys and research under its belt, the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) has identified five essential ‘supports’ that directly impact student outcomes:

1) Instruction
2) Instructional Leadership
3) Professional Support
4) Learning Environment
5) Family and Community Involvement

Information on these indicators helps us understand what things ‘good schools’ do well, providing an insight into the kinds of relationships and processes that make schools function effectively.

CCSR has discovered strong links between survey results in these five areas and successful student outcomes. This research shows, for example, that schools that are above average in three or more essential supports, are 10 times more likely to improve student test scores than those with strength in just one or two of the supports.4

Unfortunately, the CCSR survey does not cover the whole of Illinois, only Chicago. in this Report Card, we have therefore used questions from a similar survey of teachers and principals (not students) called Illinois Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (Illinois TeLL). While not administered statewide, Illinois TeLL mirrors surveys given in other states – permitting some national comparison, and giving us at least a glimpse into teaching and learning conditions in Illinois schools.

What seems clear is that a research-based statewide survey of teachers, principals, and students would provide enormous insight into key elements and patterns of school success. Done well, such survey data would provide administrators with rich information to help guide decision-making. Moreover, unlike test scores – which are widely understood to be lagging indicators of best practice – positive learning conditions are a leading indicator that a school is moving in the right direction, and help create a more complete picture of school health and progress.

Educator Effectiveness

Evidence shows that the most important school-based condition for learning is an effective teacher.5 In fact, while good teachers help all students, at-risk students stand to gain the most: Four consecutive years with an effective teacher can erase the racial black-white testing gap.6 Attracting, training, and retaining such teachers is therefore a key priority. Teachers, in turn, report that a supportive and effective principal is essential to their performance and job satisfaction.7 This helps explain why principals are second only to teachers in terms of their impact on student performance.8 Yet, despite these facts, Illinois has no agreed-upon way of measuring the effectiveness of either teachers or principals.

Currently, the state’s attempts to understand teacher performance rely on qualifications. One such indicator, the index of Teacher Academic Capital (iTAC), developed by the llinois Education Research Council (IERC), looks at “bundles” of individual teacher characteristics that correlate with student achievement.9 The results hint at a disturbing pattern: high-minority and high-poverty schools are dramatically more likely to have teachers with low ITAC scores.

For both principals and teachers, measures of qualification and background are not enough. We need to understand the direct impact that our teachers and principals are having on the children in their care. Without such a measure, we cannot know for sure whether we are attracting and retaining strong candidates, or if our most vulnerable students are receiving the same caliber of leadership and instruction as those in more affluent communities.

Student Growth

To ensure that students are on-track, it is important to measure their growth. Not all students start in the same place, so simply knowing whether a student has achieved a fixed benchmark, though critical, is not enough. Students who start ahead might stagnate, while students who start behind might leap forward. Today’s measures do not fully capture those changes. A true growth measure can also provide the foundation for other initiatives and will help the state better focus effort and resources where they are most needed.


4.    Sebring, P.B., et al.
The Essential Supports for School Improvement, Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2006.

       Fallon, D.
Case Study of a Paradigm Shift: The Value of Focusing on Instruction, Education Research Summit, 2003.

5.    Gordon, R., T. Kane, and D. Staiger
“Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job.” The Brookings Institution, 2006.

6.    Leithwood, K.S.
How leadership influences student learning. Minneapolis: Center for Applied Research, 2004.

7.    Schweinhart, L.J., et al.
Lifetime effects: The High Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, High/Scope Press, 2005.

8.    Presley, J., B. White, and Y. Gong
Examining the Distribution and Impact of Teacher Quality in Illinois, Illinois Education Research Council, 2005.

9.    Partnership for 21st Century Skills
21st Century States, 2009, http://www.p21.org/