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New state education group zeros in on achievement gaps, school takeovers

State education officials plan to focus more on closing the achievement gap, turning around low performing schools and taking over troubled school districts.

The efforts will be channeled through a new agency--called the Center for School Improvement. The state board awarded the American Institutes for Research a $10 million, one-year contract (with an optional four-year extension) to run the new center.

State Assistant Superintendent for Innovation and Improvement Monique Chism said the agency would assist and help streamline regional support across the state and focus less on compliance.

The center’s work stems from some key commitments in Illinois’ application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools to have 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math by the year 2014. 

The Obama administration announced the waivers last year after Congress failed to make revisions to No Child Left Behind, which many policy makers and education experts say is a broken, unrealistic law. Illinois has not been granted a waiver, but state education officials said they still want to go on with the work their application laid out, including the Center for School Improvement.

The state has helped turn around low-performing schools for a few years now, but the focus on the achievement gap and taking over troubled school districts will be relatively new efforts at the state level.

Chism said the center will identify schools that have the largest achievement gaps, which are gaps between the test scores of white students and their minority counterparts. The 20 percent of districts with the largest gaps will get some level of intervention and extra support. Surprisingly, a number of high-performing school districts have some of the largest gaps.

The center is also working with a familiar Chicago face, Paul Vallas, to develop and outline plans for when the state can take over a school district. In the past year, for the first time, the state board took over two local school districts--East St. Louis and North Chicago-- by replacing the locally elected school boards and appointing a group of people to oversee finances.

State officials did not say whether the state plans to take over more school districts. In May, the Vallas Group was awarded a three-year, $1 million contract to assist with state intervention.

Chism said school districts won’t be impacted until spring at the earliest and most of the center’s work will begin next fall.

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