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State survey aims to offer detailed look at schools

Published: Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 9:43 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Calling it an "X-ray" of public schools, Illinois is launching an unprecedented attempt to gather candid information on how teachers are teaching, students are learning and principals are leading.

Guaranteed to make for some potent reading — and already causing trepidation among educators — the data will be pulled from a statewide survey that could include more than 1 million students and 100,000 teachers beginning Feb. 1.

Believed to be one of the largest, if not the largest, state surveys of its kind in the nation, the effort is meant to provide crucial information to improve schools while giving parents a peek into thousands of classrooms, officials say.

Students will be asked questions aimed at revealing whether classes are challenging, such as:

•Does the teacher ask difficult questions on tests?

•How often do you debate the meaning of a reading?

•How often do you write a few sentences to explain how you solved a math problem?

Teachers will be asked, essentially, to rate their principal, responding to this statement among others:

"The principal at this school is an effective manager who makes the school run smoothly."

The survey has caused consternation in part because respondents will be anonymous. Cloaked in anonymity, "you might go a little further than otherwise if you knew your comments were attached to you,'' said Jason Leahy, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association.

Educators say the stakes are potentially highest for principals, who may be evaluated, at least in part, on responses from teachers and students.

And if similar surveys that have been conducted previously in Chicago Public Schools are an indication, the results won't always be pretty.

Last year, for example, teachers at some Chicago schools admitted they wouldn't recommend their own school to a parent looking to enroll a child, records show. And that's just one of the provocative questions that can reveal the strengths and shortcomings of principals, teachers, students and schools overall.

Teachers not named

Barbara Peterson, principal of Park View Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, is looking forward to seeing what the data will show.

"You don't want the complaining to go on in the parking lot," she said. "You want the feedback so you know what the issues are. It's necessary for us to ensure we're doing the best we can for our students."

Peterson said the district sends out its own surveys, which are even more comprehensive than the new statewide questions. From that data, she said, the school learned that parents want better communication, which prompted the district to start sending out weekly emails.

At Young School in Homer Glen, Principal Michael Szopinski said he is aware that the survey could have an impact on his evaluations, but he has no reservations about the school's participation.

"We see it as a transparent act," he said. "Whenever a principal can be provided with more information or feedback on what he or she can do to improve the school, I think that's great."

To be clear: This won't be like the well-known website "Rate My Professors," where individual teachers are identified and students can praise or trash them.

The state survey won't identify teachers or principals by name.

But parents will be able to get a good idea of the quality of instruction in subjects such as math, English and science; the safety of schools; and how teachers treat students. One survey question asks students to respond to this sentence: "My teachers treat me with respect."

Teachers will be asked to what extent certain problems exist at their schools, including thefts, fights, gang activity, disrespect and threats of violence against them.

That will shed light on the atmosphere of safety — or fear — that parents and the public may not know about because schools don't always report or communicate information about those incidents.

This statewide survey is required by Illinois law, at least every two years if state money is available, for sixth- through 12th-graders and all K-12 certified teachers in some 4,000 schools. The online surveys will take 15 to 20 minutes, on average, and can be taken Feb. 1 through March 31.

School districts must participate, though students and teachers can opt out if they don't want to fill out a survey. Results will not be provided if too few participate at a school. There's a survey parents can fill out, too, though it's not required this year.

Parent and student surveys will be available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Polish and Russian.

The cost this year is pegged at $550,000 taken from federal funds, according to the state.

So why is this important?

Educators agree that even vigilant parents with children in school don't always have access to or knowledge of what's happening after students enter the schoolhouse door.

'Really big deal'

The survey results will be sent to school administrators in June and be made available to the public through a website in the fall, with some survey results included in new school report cards released in October.

"For us, this is a really, really big deal," said Peter Godard, chief performance officer at the Illinois State Board of Education. "Other states have had statewide surveys, but this is the first time we've had a statewide survey in Illinois."

How many teachers, students and parents will fill out the surveys is the big question.

Patrick Donohue, director of research and development for Glenbard Township High School District 87, said getting heavy participation will be key.

"When you get strong numbers, people at the edges tend to wash out, and we'll get a good reflection of what's going on," he said. "I think it'll be a good tool."

The Illinois effort, called the "5Essentials Survey," grew from decades of research at the University of Chicago about what makes a school successful.

The five components of success relate to effective principals; teachers who collaborate and commit to a school; strong relationships with families and communities; a safe and orderly atmosphere; and demanding and engaging instruction.

The survey questions revolve around those components, and the answers are used to compile scores that measure how well schools are doing in each area, so educators can see whether their schools are succeeding or falling short.

Surveys very similar to the new statewide instrument have been given for about 20 years in Chicago Public Schools, said Nicholas Montgomery, chief executive officer of UChicago Impact, a University of Chicago nonprofit organization administering the survey for the state.

For many years, the CPS surveys were provided only to school principals who had discretion to share — or not share — the data, Montgomery said. In 2011, the survey results became public and are now posted online.

A Tribune analysis of the CPS survey results for more than 600 schools in 2012 showed that about 24 percent got the highest ratings possible for showing strong performance in most areas that make a school successful. An additional 23 percent got the second-highest rating.

At the same time, almost 25 percent of schools showed generally weak performance and an additional 13 percent ranked in the very worst category, based on survey responses.

CPS parent Cynthia Flowers, who has been active in the statewide Illinois PTA, said she doesn't recall ever seeing results of the surveys from her daughter's grade school or high school. She said she hopes the statewide surveys are more transparent and useful.

"What will be the impact and how will administrators utilize this information? That is the big question," Flowers said.

At Talman Elementary School, a predominantly Latino neighborhood school in southwest Chicago, Principal Jacqueline Medina said she has used the survey results to consult with teachers and make improvements. Talman is one of only about 50 CPS schools that had good or excellent results in all five categories that make for a successful school.

The school thrives because of intense parent involvement, a culture of collaboration and high expectations for children, she said.

"The students and our staff take (the surveys) seriously," Medina said, "and they usually identify the areas we need to work on."

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