As a mentor and education advocate, I can say that a year ago, much of the content that’s in Stand’s “Stop Illinois Brain Drain” report was over my head. I didn’t really understand much of it, but I was interested in learning more and finding ways to fix the educational problems in our state.
The 2017-2018 Policy Fellowship helped me do just that. For the better part of a year, parents, educators, and community leaders like me – from all across the state – joined calls to discuss the issues impacting high school success in our state. We learned the issues. We talked to the experts. We picked their brains and asked them the tough questions. We discussed amongst ourselves recommendations to help put a plug in Illinois’ brain drain.
One issue that piqued my interest was individualized coursework. It might not sound like much, but we learned that courses tailored to students’ individual needs and career pathways are one of the best ways to bring Illinois high school education into the twenty-first century.
Next, competency-based learning allows students to advance towards graduation by demonstrating they have mastered the knowledge or skills to meet benchmarks instead of following the traditional approach of passing specific classes. Dual credit and Advanced Placement share a common goal of giving students a jumpstart on their post-high school education by earning college credits while still in high school. Dual credit courses establish partnerships between a school and an individual college or university. Although courses and costs vary, they allow students to earn credit in a particular career pathway. AP courses are more difficult than regular high school classes, and students become eligible for college credit by taking a standardized exam at the end of the school year.
In order to improve high school education for all Illinois students in this area of individualized coursework, Stand fellows suggested in the Stop Illinois Brain Drain report to:
- Build more cross-community partnerships and expand course access. Districts and community colleges should pool their resources and offer more specialized courses to students. Partnerships don’t have to be 1:1; they can join forces with neighboring districts and community colleges. Check out the report for numerous examples of successful partnerships already in existence throughout Illinois. Good models exist – we just need more of them.
- Utilize the Illinois Virtual School to increase access to dual credit, AP, and other advanced courses. IVS was established to supplement – not replace – the education provided by schools. Each IVS course is taught by a licensed teacher, aligns with statewide standards, and offers credit to students. IVS offers 12 AP courses and several advanced courses. However, for rural schools that don’t offer one AP course, IVS could open the door to AP classes for their students. To clear that path, a few hurdles need to be addressed:
- Policymakers need to address the inequity of IVS enrollment by requiring IVS tuition to follow a sliding pay scale based on a district’s funding adequacy levels.
- Increase access to broadband internet for every school.
- Offer more dual credit courses through IVS.
- Increase the number of teachers for dual credit courses. Districts and community colleges should take two important steps to accomplish this: maximize their professional development plan agreements to provide a pathway for teachers to become qualified to teach dual credit; and develop a model partnership agreement between high schools and community colleges for dual credit programs.
- Encourage innovation. Our state policymakers can incentivize districts to test competency-based learning approaches by funding small grants for participating districts. After that, districts should explore alternatives for students who aren’t suited for the traditional approach. Learning – and earning high school credits – shouldn’t be bound by four walls and the school calendar.
There is a lot more to these issues, so I encourage you to read the full Stop Illinois Brain Drain report. Be on the lookout for more summaries like this one from other Stand Policy Fellows, to help break down the recommendations of the report.