Helping students struggling with the impact of the pandemic, shepherding a first budget through the state Legislature and dealing with the growing politicization of public education — these are among the challenges facing Tony Sanders, who took over as Illinois’ new state superintendent of education last month.
“There will be a generational impact from COVID on student learning, and we have a lot of work to do at the state and local levels to try to make up for that loss,” said Sanders, who was previously superintendent of U-46 in Elgin, the state’s second largest school district.
Sanders sat down with WBEZ education reporter Susie An to discuss these issues, as well as his priorities as he settles into his new statewide leadership role.
How to help students recover from the pandemic:
Tony Sanders: Before I got here, [the state board of education] was actually moving in the right direction. They created these regional hubs for social emotional learning to try to empower school districts, using our regional system, to really grow teacher knowledge around social emotional supports for students.
Recently, the governor announced this Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, where we’re all coming together to try to figure out ways to better serve the needs of students across the state, both socially and emotionally.
There will be a generational impact from COVID on student learning, and we have a lot of work to do at the state and local levels to try to make up for that loss.
The tutoring that the State Board of Education has offered across the state has been instrumental. It’s something I used as a local superintendent, and it’s something I think we need to continue to advance as a state.
We have to come back to the need of having a quality teacher in every classroom. If we have students in classrooms with long term subs, or teachers that are just filling short term needs of school districts, that’s not in the best interest of students. So until we address the pipeline issue, I think we’re going to continue to struggle with meeting the needs of kids.
Top accomplishment from his last job in District U-46:
I announced first and foremost that we would not expel students any longer. We always found alternative placements for students in lieu of expulsions. That happened within my first two weeks in the job.
We also announced that we would shift to full-day kindergarten within that first year. We [also] continue to expand the dual language program in U-46, so that it’s now kindergarten through 12th grade. [There are now] 12,000 of the 37,000 students in a dual language program in that district. That’s something I leave being very proud of.
On the politicization of public education:
I wish I had a solution for it. I just don’t know that there’s a short term solution. As you look across the research from Pew Research Center, you’ll see this ever-widening gap between the left and the right, in all areas of politics. I think public education is squarely in the middle of that fight. We shouldn’t be having the conflation of critical race theory and culturally responsive teachers, which are the two different CRTs that people confuse a lot. But we should all be caring about what’s in the best interest of all kids every single day.
What Sanders hopes will be different in education in Illinois four years from now:
One, at the state agency level [we want] to come up with a new system of support for school districts. Within our accountability system, we label schools as either commendable, exemplary, targeted or comprehensive. I don’t care what a school’s title is … at the end of the day, every school needs to have some sort of an improvement plan, no matter how good they are. There’s always room for every school to improve.
Meeting the social emotional needs of kids will [also] have to be a top priority for these next four years. And then finally, the teacher pipeline work has to be a priority as well.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.