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How ‘Essential’ is it?

What do students, teachers and parents think about their school districts?

That’s the topic of a survey underway at schools throughout Illinois.

Beginning Feb. 1, students and teachers were given the first statewide opportunity to weigh in on learning conditions and school climate.

The Illinois State Board of Education joined UChicago Impact at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute to provide the online survey, called the Illinois 5Essentials Survey.

“As educators, we have long understood that test scores alone do not represent the full scope of school life and learning,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch. “The Illinois 5Essentials Survey will finally help us paint that fuller picture of learning conditions and guide local and state improvement initiatives, so that every student has access to a world-class education.”

The survey will be administered between Feb. 1 and the end of March to all certified kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and students in Grades 6-12 across the state.

Local schools are completing the surveys on different timetables, and superintendents have varying opinions on the survey’s value.

At Princeton Elementary, Superintendent Tim Smith said about half of the teachers had completed the survey with the rest scheduled to complete it by Friday.

Smith said the junior high students will complete the survey during ISATs, which are scheduled for March 4-15.

Smith said parents were informed about the survey through a letter that was sent home the first week of February. A reminder note will be sent during the first week of March. Smith said the survey is another example of the state thinking there is a “one size fits all formula.”

“This University of Chicago survey was initially created for Chicago Public Schools and is now being applied statewide,” he said. “Last I knew, CPS was hardly a model district.”

Smith said some of the questioning is not relevant to downstate schools.

Smith also had concerns about the cost.

“Our state funding has diminished greatly, yet they implement programs that continue to draw on money we do not have,” he said.

At Hall High School, Superintendent Mike Struna said more than 90 percent of staff has participated. He said students will be given time to go to the computer lab during homeroom to take the survey. 

“Our goal is at least 80 percent participation from students,” he said.

Struna said he will notify parents through his quarterly newsletter, which will be sent out March 1, and he hopes at least half of the parents will participate.

Struna said he believes the survey could be of value.

“Anytime we can get more data from parents, teachers and especially students, we can benefit,” he said. “The survey data will be one more piece in the puzzle that we can use to improve Hall High School.”

At Bureau Valley, Interim Superintendent Jim Whitmore said 54 percent of the district’s teachers had responded as of Feb. 15.

Whitmore said they notified parents about the survey through emails, letters and building newsletters, but he has his doubts about the value of the survey.

“It’s more data that won’t lead to any measurable improvement,” he said.

At Malden, all 26 students and 10 teachers who were required to take the survey have done so, said Superintendent Mike Patterson.

However, despite a letter sent home to parents, none had yet participated. Patterson said it’s hard to say what the value of the survey is until the process is complete, but he does have many concerns.

“The survey created by the University of Chicago has many questions that are irrelevant to small rural schools,” he said. “Students taking the survey often have only attended one school which means they have no point of comparison. I would contend that their responses will reflect what their general feelings of school are rather than their attitude of their particular school.”

Patterson said another problem is that there is not a filter for who takes the survey.

“It is possible for individuals to take the survey even if they do not attend the school,” he said.

In DePue, Superintendent Randy Otto said they haven’t done anything with the survey yet, and they don’t plan to promote it to parents.

“I am not sure what the value of this is going to be until we see the results and how it is used,” he said. “This also matches my concerns. The state is wonderful about saying one thing on how something is going to be used and then doing the opposite.”

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