Policy and Practice: Advance Illinois

On Friday, November 16th, several members of UChicago Careers in Education Professions (including me) had the opportunity to visit Advance Illinois, a policy-oriented institution in downtown Chicago.  Their work is research-based, and as such this organization depends on outcomes and data to give weight and support to the policies they advocate for. The conference room they had us sit in was quite impressive. Actually, the entire suite looked very cutting edge and well, professional. The restrooms even had passcode-protected doors. Whew…

Meeting us in the conference room was Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, and Ben Boer, the organization’s policy director. They each told us about their career trajectory and how they found themselves currently working in education. Cool stories. Mr. Boer had earned a degree in Computer Science and had actually developed educational software of his own, which was later sold to Pearson, one of the largest educational publishing companies in operation.

Ms. Steans actually had entered the educational field as a teacher, but left because of the way her school treated the profession. Her story is not an uncommon one, many once passionate teachers eventually leave the profession due to an unsupportive environment, in which school largely treats its role in educating children as a task, not a purpose.

Despite leaving teaching, she continued to stay in the education field, determined to work towards legitimizing the teaching profession through policy. Yet, both Ms. Steans and Mr. Boer stressed the importance of having teaching experience despite being in policy – and not just experience, but constant exposure to schools. In response to a student’s question regarding the perceived divide between policy and teaching, the divide between work inside and outside of the classroom, Ms. Steans noted: If I’m good at what I do, it’s because I spend so much time in schools. You need to spend time to see education in person. This is another tip that has constantly been appearing again and again to us.  As prospective school creators, or as future educational-policy advocates, it is so vital to have constant exposure to the schools themselves.

It makes sense. As a policy researcher, I don’t think it makes much sense to be removed from an environment that is constantly changing and developing to new needs and issues. Advance Illinois has an advisory group consisting of 25 award-winning teachers that help to bridge the gap between the policy paperwork and the actual teaching in the classroom. In addition, let’s say we create the greatest curriculum ever known by man (big ambitions, but it never hurts to dream, right?). Mosaic would still need to persuade teachers, parents, and students that such a curriculum worked, and it is difficult to do that without any credible experience under our belts.

Much of the remaining discussion revolved around the need to legitimize the teaching profession. I remember watching a TED talk where the presenter challenges the idea of looking at averages in data-driven policy. The underlying message: Why do we place so much emphasis on the average? Instead, we need to examine what the best in education are doing and use that knowledge to apply similar practices for the rest of the educational spectrum. Likewise, Mr. Boer expressed the need to understand best teaching practices, and described teachers as falling into one of three categories. The first are the teachers that may never improve, often consisting of teachers unsure why they are even teaching. The sad truth is that many of these teachers were once passionate individuals who became disillusioned due to a lack of support.  Other teachers actually enter the profession without really having any intrinsic desire to teach.  It is very difficult for policy to help this group of teachers improve. The second group includes the teachers that are in middle territory. These teachers are good, but can become more effective through further training, experience, and support. Then there are the irreplaceables – the ones that can’t be simply replaced.  These are the individuals impact students’ lives, the ones that college kids like me remember as world-view changing.  The teachers that push students to succeed past a letter grade or a report card; that push students to learn for learning’s sake. (For those of you who are interested, TNTP published a report on the importance of keeping irreplaceable teachers in urban schools earlier this year.) Advance Illinois has an interest in following the best teachers, and researching what they do in their classrooms to improve education through a “best practices” method.

Best practices. Researching and compiling what the most effective methods are, and implementing thorough data-driven solutions. This is something that definitely speaks to Mosaic’s goals. Since the start, researching best practices has been a main focus of mep. From the schools and organizations we visit to the professionals we talk with and learn from, this idea of learning what others have done before, and what works the best for students has always been a driving factor in how we want to approach education. Although we are still in our planning stages, adding that data-driven component may be something we want to consider, especially if we want to convince others to believe in our curriculum and school as well. Mr. Boer and Ms. Steans also addressed a concern of mine – this bridge between policy and practice – it is difficult to stay in the classroom all the time while working in policy, but this doesn’t mean that policymakers avoid interacting with students altogether. In fact, this interaction is vital to effective policy reform.


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