Illinois Loop
Your guide to education in Illinois
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The Suburbs

    "You can get away with more experimenting when your students aren't at risk and their parents are picking up the slack with tutoring programs at home and in the community. In the district where I worked, we actually had to teach to get results."
    -- Elaine K. McEwan, author of "Angry Parents, Failing Schools"

    "Good schools? Move to the suburbs."

    It's not that easy!

    The higher funding and shiny buildings in the 'burbs does not necessarily translate into superior instructional methods or a wider parent choice of approaches.

    In fact, when it comes to choice, parents in the city of Chicago have far more choices available than do parents in the suburbs of Chicago! Chicago parents have options that include excellent classical schools, Core Knowledge schools, or a variety of themed magnet schools, all within the public system. Add to that a variety of private schools with different methods and choices.

    The number of such options in the suburbs can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare. If you've read about Core Knowledge, or about classical education, and think these sounds great, there's only one way in the suburbs to get either for your kids: move to Chicago! Those aren't quite what you're looking for? Well, in Chicago there are 47 charter schools and 39 magnet schools offering a wide variety of approaches -- something for everyone! But in the Chicago suburbs there are just two charter schools (and both of them are of the progressivist/constructivist variety).

    Classical Schools
    in Chicago in the Suburbs
    Decatur Classical
    McDade Classical
    Poe Classical
    Skinner Classical

    Core Knowledge Schools
    in Chicago in the Suburbs
    CICS-West Belden
    CICS-Avalon/South Shore
    CICS-Washington Park

    Charter and Magnet Schools
    in Chicago in the Suburbs
    86 2

    The availability of more money is a double-edged sword. The big bucks are great when used to attract better teachers and provide additional valuable services. But sometimes it takes money to really screw things up. Cash can be applied to small classes with lots of time-wasting activities, pointless "enrichment" presentations, psychobabble teacher in-service programs, and extra layers of bureaucratic staffing.


The Suburban School Challenge

    Here are just a few links regarding the challenge of finding "good" schools in the suburbs:

  • A Coming Crisis in Suburban Schooling? by Lewis Andrews, American Enterprise, July/August 2006. "Overly cozy relations between teacher unions, administrators, and school board members with their own kids' interests in mind have led to runaway expenditures in some districts. A backlash may be gathering."

  • "very little of the higher funding available to schools was funneled into improved academic performance"
    Crisis in Suburban Schooling by Wendy Cook, December 13, 2006. Excerpts: "The cost of suburban schools has risen far beyond the rate of inflation because of an opportunistic relationship between parents and the public educators they are supposed to be regulating. ... 'It's not an exaggeration to say that public schooling in the suburbs is a form of upper-middle-class-racketeering,' Lewis Andrews of the Yankee Institute writes. Parents and educators collaborate under the banner of 'advancing education' to serve their own narrow interests at the expense of the broader taxpaying community.
         "Parents want to send their kids to the school where they will gain a quality education ... and rightfully so. But 'quality' has become a deceptive code word for the services, hobbies and recreational activities meant for the narrow benefit of school children and their families, and has almost nothing to do with academic rigor, writes University of Missouri professor J. Martin Rochester. Expensive sports programs, holiday socials, pottery and ballet lessons, media centers with state of the art video equipment and rooms overflowing with computer work stations are all part of these perks.
         "So, the question many people are asking is, 'Is it paying off?' A 2005 study by Dowd Muska of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, using per-pupil cost and student scores on standardized tests found that very little of the higher funding available to schools was funneled into improved academic performance."

  • Perceptions and Reality in the Suburbs by Margaret J. McIntyre. McIntyre was on the board of education in Wilmette for four years, so she was an insider into learning about how districts encourage positive public impressions, sometimes in contrast to actual performance or evidence of extensive outside tutoring to fill in gaps left by schools. She writes,
    "Maintaining this image -- that a lot of tax money buys superior education -- is the number one preoccupation of the administrations ... Even when perception is not reality -- it doesn't matter. As long as the home shoppers believe the perception, pay the high prices for the house and justify (in their minds) high taxes to preserve the 'superiority' of the schools -- perception will suffice."
  • Denial and the Suburban Mind by Bruno Behrend. Excerpt:
    "One large social group that is living in a state of denial right now is that of suburban parents. Most of them simply will not permit themselves to believe that the quality of education in their suburb is lower than it should be.
  • The Other Crisis in American Education by Daniel J. Singal, Atlantic Monthly, November 1991. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Excerpts: "Two crises are stalking American education. Each poses a major threat to the nation's future ... yet to date, almost without exception, those concerned with restoring excellence to our schools have lumped them together.
         "The first crisis ... centers on disadvantaged minority children attending inner-city schools ... The key issues are more social than educational. These children clearly need dedicated teachers and a sound curriculum, the two staples of a quality school, but the fact remains that most of them will not make significant progress until they also have decent housing, a better diet, and a safer environment in which to live.
    "the overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools"
         "The second crisis, in contrast, is far more academic than social and to a surprising extent invisible. It involves approximately half the country's student population--the group that educators refer to as 'college-bound.' Although the overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools, a fair number can be found in big-city or consolidated rural districts, or in independent or parochial schools. Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often to the point of functional disability. ...
         "Our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the past two decades ...
         "'Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing attitudes toward things rather than analyzing,' [one professor] says. 'They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions.' ...
    "... the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic abound ..."
    "No account of the present condition of college students would be complete without mention of the extraordinary dearth of factual knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic abound--and they are probably all true. ... Indeed, one can't assume that college students know anything anymore. ... a professor ... at Berkeley remains astonished that sophomores and juniors in her upper-level course on American social history are often unable to differentiate between the American Revolution and the Civil War, but rather see them as two big events that happened way back in the past. ... A veteran member of the Harvard English department encounters the same mushy grasp of historical knowledge and blames it on the 'trendy social-studies curriculum' now taught in most high schools which covers broad thematic topics rather than history. 'They are aware that someone oppressed someone else,' he says with only slight exaggeration, 'but they aren't sure exactly what took place and they have no idea of the order in which it happened.' ...
         "Students headed for college used to get a solid grasp of both American and European history at the high school level. Now, as most people are aware, they pass through an array of social-studies courses designed to impress upon them the central values of the sixties, including concern for the natural environment, respect for people of different racial and ethnic groups, and women's rights. These values are important and should certainly be included in the curriculum. But teaching them in such a superficial manner, devoid of any historical context, simply doesn't work. ...
         "Observing the performance of students who have been arriving at college campuses over the past decade, one can only conclude that the present generation of American parents has been failing in its obligation to provide its offspring with a high-quality education."

  • "The notion that suburban schools are bastions of intellectual power has been proven wrong time and again"
    Of Minivans and Charter Schools by Martin A. Davis, Jr., Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, September 22, 2005. "[Some] parents want charters that offer a back-to-basics curriculum, which frequently isn't found in their children's local schools. National Heritage Academies, for example, has some 50 schools in five states -- many in the suburbs -- catering to parents and students who appreciate the back-to-basics philosophy. One of these schools, Canton Academy in Canton, Michigan, has a student population of around 600, and a waiting list nearly as long. And its students are, for the most part, far from poor. Less than 6 percent of that city's population lives below the poverty line. ... This interest in charters by suburban parents should surprise no one. The notion that suburban schools are bastions of intellectual power has been proven wrong time and again ... some suburban parents have long known this."

  • Worse Than You Think, Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2007. "Conventional wisdom holds that upscale communities tend to have 'good' schools, and parents often buy homes in expensive neighborhoods so their kids have a shot at a decent public education. But the PRI study, which focused on California, found that in nearly 300 schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods, 'less than half of the students in at least one grade level performed at proficiency in state math and English tests.' Many of these schools were located in the Golden State's toniest zip codes, places like Orange County, Silicon Valley and the beach communities of Los Angeles. In areas such as Newport Beach, Capistrano and Huntington Beach, where million-dollar houses are commonplace, researchers found more than a dozen schools where 50% to 80% of students weren't proficient in math at their grade level. In one Silicon Valley community where the median home goes for $1.6 million, less than half of 10th and 11th graders scored at or above proficiency on the state English exam. ... At Dos Pueblos High School in ritzy Santa Barbara, only 28% of high school juniors tested college-ready for English in 2006, slightly better than the 23% of students who did so at San Marin High School in Marin County, where the median home price recently hit $1 million."

  • Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids by John Stossel, ABC News, January 13, 2006. "If you're like most American parents, you might think 'These things don't happen at my kid's school.' A Gallup Poll survey showed 76 percent of Americans were completely or somewhat satisfied with their kids' public school. Education reformers like Kevin Chavous have a message for these parents: If you only knew. Even though people in the suburbs might think their schools are great, Chavous says, 'They're not. That's the thing and the test scores show that.' Chavous and many other education professionals say Americans don't know that their public schools, on the whole, just aren't that good. Because without competition, parents don't know what their kids might have had."

  • "mediocrity ... afflicts the nation's high-status suburban schools, too"
    There is quite a bit of interest in a new book, "Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence" by J. Martin Rochester. The author is "The Curators' Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science" at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and winner of their "Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching at UM-St. Louis." But he is also a Dad. And in that dual role, he is well-suited to describe the abandonment of rigor and excellence in well-appointed suburban schools. Here's a quote about this book from Chester Finn, former assistant secretary, U.S. DOE:
    "Anyone under the illusion that America's suburban public schools are doing fine and that our education crisis is confined to inner city classrooms must read this book. Martin Rochester expertly reveals the mediocrity that afflicts the nation's high-status suburban schools, too."
  • Suburban Schools Offer No Sanctuary from Dumbing-Down Regime ` This is another review of Martin Rochester's Class Warfare, written by Kevin Killion in School Reform News, February 2003

  • Chester E. Finn, president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, interviewed on PBS Frontline:
    PBS: Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in crisis?

    "a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland"
    Finn: ... When you look at the international comparative data, and things like math and science, you discover that our best students are lagging way behind most other countries' average students in things like math and physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools of America are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the people attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner cities, people know they have a problem and are actively discontented. But I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in a kind of fantasyland.

    PBS: If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are fine.

    Finn: I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because you don't particular want to tell people that they're wrong, and that something they think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear yourself to them by telling them that. But if we were being brutally honest, we would be saying to suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either. While the country is doing fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I think the country is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of mechanisms for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working very well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained on the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third, fourth time. We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause, we never say it's hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational supplements. You're given a thousand chances, and that's the nice thing about America, but it also means that we don't actually ever sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up or ship out."

  • Vouchers Hit the Burbs by Marie Gryphon, Cato Institute, August 31, 2005. Excerpts: "For decades the minivan set heard sky-is-falling predictions that choice would destroy public schools and undermine social stability. Suburban schools may not be perfect, commuters grumbled, but they aren't bad enough to risk change. ... Families within shouting distance of growing crops or big box retail may be late adopters, but school choice is no longer nouveaux. Urban programs have shown that choice increases parent satisfaction even as it improves the quality of public schools exposed to competition. As existing programs mature, families are increasingly comfortable with the idea of choice. ... School choice has upside potential because different children learn differently. Students who are learning adequately in one school may find that elsewhere they can become outstanding. An Indiana University evaluation of the Cleveland program found that 'no particular school or school type is likely to meet the expectations or needs of all families.' ... That a child's individual needs, rather than geography, should determine the school that she attends was a novel idea in the wake of decades of public school assignment, and it has taken hold slowly. But as urban voucher programs diversify educational options while revitalizing public schools, parents elsewhere are rethinking the opportunity to choose."

  • In an article from the New Oxford Review (December 2001) author Jack Taylor crisply states the problem with improving suburban schools:
    "One reason why they can sustain this level of denial is that the schools look normal. A new school was recently built in our neighborhood. Its architecture is not my cup of tea, but its reflective windows and clean, low rectangular shapes appeal to the modern sensibilities of my neighbors. Inside, shiny linoleum floors and computer stations radiate an atmosphere of high tech academics. As a species, we believe that anything that looks good is good. We buy cars this way, we buy houses this way, some of us pick spouses this way, and we enroll our kids in schools this way."
  • On the issue of the "look" of a school, also be sure to read the section of this website on "Curb Appeal" and Schools.

  • In Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, a group of parents have engaged in a protracted legal battle with their school district over the district's implementation of a trendy and fuzzy math program. In this article from School Reform News (October 2001) about that battle, George Clowes identifies a problem endemic to all such efforts to improve suburban schools:
    "The major roadblock to the advance of school choice in the suburbs is not how to pursue a solution, but for families first to recognize there is a problem, and they have little choice or control over what their children are taught in public schools."

  • In his fascinating book, Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Civil Liberty, Clint Bolick mentions the role of suburban parents in education reform (page 143):
    While government schools are spending resources doing things they shouldn't be doing, their track record is far worse when it comes to fulfilling their essential goal of providing the educational basics. Many parents in the suburbs are vaguely aware of the problem, particularly when standardized tests reveal vast numbers of failing students (which is usually followed by demands not to fix the problem but to get rid of the tests).
  • Soccer Moms vs. Standardized Tests by Charles J. Sykes, December 6, 1999. "After decades of endless gold stars, happy faces and inflated grades, American parents apparently were not ready for a reality check about how much our schools are really teaching our children. ... It is not surprising that more rigorous state standards have come under fire from the usual opposition coalition of civil rights groups, progressive educators and teacher unions. What is striking though, is the opposition from soccer moms. In Wisconsin ... most of the opposition to [a proposed exam] came not from troubled urban schools, but from affluent suburbs. ... For much of this century, the educational establishment has behaved as if it were addicted to bad ideas, indulging its own wishful and romantic thinking even in the face of mounting evidence of failure. ... The schools had been allowed to obscure the fact that many children were not mastering basic subjects. The constant positive reinforcement of unrealistic grading and easy tests was meant not only for the children, whose self-esteem remained strong in the face of shaky math and reading abilities, but for their parents, as well. For many of these parents, the new tests were a very rude shock. Accustomed to thinking of educational difficulties as somebody else's problem, they and their school districts suddenly faced the possibility of failure.

  • A powerful speech from a parent in an upscale suburb:
    Elizabeth Gnall's statement to the National Math Advisory Panel, September 6, 2007.
    "I live in [an] affluent public school district ... but my district has a dirty little secret."
    "I live in the affluent public school district of Ridgewood, New Jersey. But my district has a dirty little secret. Ridgewood Public School district is segregated -- on one side of town, elementary school-aged children are taught math following a logical sequencing of topics, honoring the scholarly body of mathematics.
        "In another part of town the math is not taught but instead it is left for the children to discover and to construct. The math where for grades beyond Kindergarten the use of scissors, glue, paperclips, and any other object now defined as a manipulative, are deemed acceptable and encouraged. Sadly, this is the side of town where my children attend school. ...
        "Across this nation, parents just like me, will ultimately triumph in the math wars because it is OUR children, not the children of the state. ... Give us a choice in math education and we would choose a math education that is rigorous, focuses on content, is not driven by constructivist pedagogy, emphasizes the learning of mathematical facts, principles, and algorithms, uses the proper language and symbolic notation of math, and defines mathematical reasoning as the interconnections within mathematics. It is the kind of math that is being taught in other parts of this nation, the world, and in other parts of my town of Ridgewood, New Jersey. It is the math I believe that will provide a solid foundation for my children so if they desire, if they dream, to become a scientist, an architect, or like their dad, a Wall Street finance executive, or like their mom, an engineer, they can."

  • Suburban Kids' Behavior Mirrors Urban Students': High-schoolers as likely to have sex, drink, steal regardless of address by Pamela Brogan, Gannett News Service, as printed in Detroit News, January 28, 2004. "Public high school students in suburbia are just as likely as students in urban schools to engage in sex, get pregnant, obtain an abortion, drink, use illegal drugs, steal and fight, according to a report released today..."

  • ED-RED calls itself the "voice of suburban schools" and has a membership consisting of the superintendents of most of the Chicago suburban school districts. Not too surprisingly, they are in favor of loosening achievement goals, giving more money to school districts, weakening tax caps, and keeping as much authority in the hands of district administrators as possible. Nonetheless, they do have some goals that are consistent with those of education reformers: For example, they oppose handing over control of certification to a board dominated by education unions. The ED-RED website is an excellent source of information about current legislation in Springfield, and about our state legislators and the school districts they cover and the committees they are on.

  • Another good source of information about pending legislation in Springfield is this Digest of New School Laws, 2004 provided by the Illinois Association of School Boards. Of course, most of these boards and the IASB itself are highly oriented towards preserving the status quo, so don't expect unbiased coverage. However, this does provide a heads-up.

  • Constructivism and fuzzy math in an upscale suburb: Math Education: Bellevue, WA:

Suburbs and Charter Schools

        Illinois Loop: Charter Schools

    In other states, yes, charters are very popular in the suburbs. But here in Illinois, local districts are given almost all power of life and death over charters, and the suburban districts have no interest at all in giving up their monopolies. Here's the Chicago Tribune (May 19, 2005): "Suburban [school board] officials have rejected all but one of 19 proposals. Only south suburban Crete-Monee School District agreed to grant a license. That charter, given to Governors State University, was later pulled."

    The result is a wild imbalance: In Illinois, charter schools are pretty much confined to the largest city, unlike in other states:

    Charters - main city versus remainder of state

    Here are some links that provide more insight.

  • Where are the charters in Chicago's suburbs?
    Why is Illinois so far behind other states in enabling educational options for its citizens?
    A report from the Fordham Foundation explains it all: "The Approval Barrier to Suburban Charter Schools" (PDF doc) uses Illinois as its example of a state that has deliberately blocked expansion of charter schools. The report contrasts the growth and success of suburban charters in Colorado, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the stagnation in Illinois. The conclusion: if a state sets up a system for authorizing charter schools where the authorizing body doesn't want charter schools, there won't be many charter schools! The report is also available as an MS-Word document.

  • The Dark Side of Suburban School Achievement by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, January 2000. Excerpt: "In early November, parents in many New York communities were shocked to discover that buying an expensive home in an exclusive suburb hadn't guaranteed a good education for their children in the local public schools."

  • Charter Schools Pledge Success, USA Today, November 14, 2001: "Seven years ago, parents in the Cherry Creek [Colorado] district sought to create a charter when many of their children weren't learning to read. Already, there was heated debate over whether reading should be taught using the whole language or phonics approach. Parents wanted a curriculum that focused on the basics. Their dissatisfaction with the suburban schools challenged the schools' generally accepted reputation for excellence."

  • Newark Charter School, Newark, Delaware: Read about this Core Knowledge school in the sprawling suburbs near Wilmington, Delaware. Excerpt: "The school was founded in 2001 by a group of local parents frustrated by a perceived lack of rigor and challenging content in Newark [Delaware]-area middle schools. ... Newark's staff members have learned a powerful lesson: If you teach it, students will learn it. ... Of course, having a logically sequenced and very specific curriculum has given Newark's extended family another benefit -- clarity. 'Teachers know what it is they are supposed to teach, administrators know what they are supposed to see teachers teaching, the teachers talk to each other about what's being taught, the parents easily see what's being taught and where it's going next year.'"

  • Why Charter Schools? The Princeton Story (PDF), Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Dave Ziffer, one of the founders of the Illinois Loop, writes, "This document is [written by] Dr. Chiara R. Nappi, a physicist, incidentally) who was one of a group of parents who wanted a more structured, systematic curriculum in the K-8 schools of Princeton, New Jersey. The story is absolutely gripping ... It blows away the myth that America's suburban schools are doing just fine, as indicated by their relatively high scores on achievement tests. Nappi exposes the reality -- that the children who were doing well in the highly affluent and educated suburban town of Princeton were those whose parents could afford to tutor and otherwise educate them outside of the schools. ... The article details the attempts of Nappi and other parents to 'work within the system,' and being defeated at every turn by an opposing majority of board members who used every imaginable device to discredit anyone who wanted to implement higher standards and accountability in their district." Ultimately, the parents successfully created a charter school to address their needs. Highly recommended!

  • Parents Hungry for ABC's Find Schools Don't Add Up by Kate Zernike, New York Times, April 28, 2001, Page A1 (Cover page).
         "Signs of quiet revolt are everywhere: children tracing neat cursive letters in penmanship class, memorizing multiplication tables, taking spelling quizzes and learning the value of a strong topic sentence.
         "Today's model classroom tends to avoid these things, deeming them uninspired and uninspiring, dismissing them as 'chalk and talk,' 'drill and kill.' Here, the new Princeton Charter School is embracing them unabashedly. Call us traditional, the parents who started this school say. They prefer to think of this as 'drill and skill,' the foundation of a good education. ...
         "These parents say, most schools have moved so far away from the fundamentals that their children come home knowing about the Holocaust but not World War II, Babylonian math but not fractions. Children cannot think critically, they retort, if they do not have the basic content to think about. ...
         "Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington [says,] 'I don't think most parents start out wanting to start a new school; they just want the school to do what they thought the school was going to do.' ...
         "'Five or ten years ago, most parents fell into the category of believing my school knows what is right and best for my child,' said Mychele Brickner, a member of the Fairfax School Board. ... 'That trust level has eroded.' ...
         "'We're not saying it's boring,' said Ms. Byers, [a] teacher in Princeton. 'There's plenty of room to be creative in deciding how you teach these skills. What we are saying is that you need to be able to read to do anything else, you need the logic, the order, of math to survive in the world.'"

  • Mission Statement of the Princeton Charter School:
    Suburban Chicago parents, read this and eat your heart out!

  • "Suburban parents ... are driving much of the new demand for charters"
    Charter Demand Rising In Suburbs: Spurred by choices in the Twin Cities, parents seek options for their children by Megan Boldt, St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 31, 2004. Excerpts:
    "[Parent Melissa] Martyr-Wagner said. 'I knew what I wanted for my child, and the district couldn't offer it. And when someone's convinced at what they want for their child, they'll work pretty hard to get it.' Suburban parents like Martyr-Wagner are driving much of the new demand for charters and other public school choices in Minnesota. A record 20 charters will open this fall, including seven in the Twin Cities suburbs, also a record. They range from Spanish immersion to a Stillwater school focused on the classics. 'Suburban parents see [city schools in] St. Paul and Minneapolis offering more choices to their residents, and they want different opportunities for their children,' said Steve Dess, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools."

  • Suburbs Face Tests as Charter Schools Continue to Spread by Kate Zernike, New York Times, December 18, 2000. Excerpt: "In the middle-class community of Glen Cove on the North Shore of Long Island, [a proposal for a charter school] touched off a bitter dispute: were the local schools as fine as they were said to be, or were they merely coasting on reputation? ... Charter schools began ... mostly as a possible solution to bad city schools. ... But they are starting to spread into suburbs, in part because some suburban parents say they, too, deserve a choice of public schools."

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