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Parting Thoughts
 
December 23, 2015
As you may know, December 31st will be my last official day with Advance Illinois.  I say last “official” day because I am certain I will find ways to stay involved in this work and with many of you even as my role as Executive Director comes to an end.

The past seven and a half years have been extraordinary on many levels.  First, and most importantly, it has been wonderful to see Advance Illinois establish itself as a serious, objective, and influential presence in statewide policy discussions.  Eight years ago, Advance Illinois was little more than a possibility and an idea built around the notion that Illinois would benefit by having an organization that had no membership or issue to serve, and could therefore take a broad view of what changes might be needed to meaningfully improve educational opportunities and outcomes for students.  It has been a rare privilege to serve at an organization that is truly in a position to follow research and best practice and take positions only if they are supported by evidence and voices from the field and have the potential to make a real difference.

It has also been gratifying to have worked with so many dedicated partners.  I knew coming in that Illinois was a diverse state, but having crisscrossed it many times over now, I have a better understanding of that!  Along the way, I have enjoyed getting to know so many talented and committed parents, superintendents, teachers, principals, business leaders, and community activists, and to have worked with so many outstanding professional colleagues. Thank you for your willingness to partner!

It’s largely due to these partnerships, shared thinking, and substantial effort that Illinois has put in motion some badly-needed and overdue change.  While it is tempting to believe that “magic bullets” exist to improve student outcomes, the reality is that deep and worthwhile growth involves systemic change.  So I am proud that Illinois has taken a number of important steps across a wide range of key issues to drive broader, systemic change. 

The state has embraced more rigorous and real-world standards that better call for and support the kind of inquiry-based and rich instruction children need to develop real-world skills.  Successfully implementing those standards will require giving teachers the time they need to plan and adapt curriculum and instructional strategies.  Importantly, the state has also put in motion evaluations to provide teachers and principals with the more substantive and focused feedback they need to continuously improve – something valuable in any workplace, but especially here as schools undertake this complex new work.

While it is critical to support ongoing conversation at the school level about classroom practice, it is equally important to give aspiring teachers and principals the preparation they need to succeed from day one.  Illinois has taken steps to encourage programs to use information to continuously improve the way they prepare candidates, to better understand whether teachers have the hands-on classroom skills they need, and to create a principal preparation process that is more field-based and reflective of the work they will encounter on the job.  This work has drawn national attention, won awards, and spurred replication in other states.

My hope is that by this time next year, Illinois will also be earning plaudits for having put in place a fair and equitable school funding formula – one that directs state dollars to the high-need children and districts state funding is supposed to support.  It has been nearly 20 years since Illinois reworked its funding formula, and we now have the distinction of being the most inequitable in the country.  If we do not find the will to both increase overall investment in our schools and ensure public dollars reach the students who need them most, then we adults and decision-makers will have failed.  I am proud of the pivotal role Advance Illinois has played in pushing this issue to the fore and in crafting sound and comprehensive solutions.  I am thankful for the extensive and diverse coalition of almost 200 district leaders, business leaders, and community organizations we helped assemble to ensure the state takes action. 

It is heartening, too, that Illinois is the final stages of building out a data system that will follow students over time and generate more and better information that is relevant to teachers, administrators, and parents.  And how wonderful that the state’s nationally-recognized new school and district report card not only makes powerful information available to parents, but does so in a newly user-friendly way!

At the end of the day, change doesn’t happen on paper.  Legislation and regulatory action matter, of course, but real change happens at the school- and community- level.  Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of my work at Advance Illinois has been learning from educators in the field and working with community leaders interested in collaborating at the local level to most effectively support their children and their schools.  I have valued the advice and counsel of our Educator Advisory Council and the energy and dedication of the myriad local collaboratives and collective impact organizations that come together to ensure we hit the state’s goal of “60 by 25” – having at least 60% of Illinois adults earn a high quality postsecondary degree by 2025.  Change only happens if many people work together to bring it about and then bring it to life, and I have enjoyed the many partners we’ve had the privilege to work with.

Perhaps first among those partners has been the Advance Illinois board and the Advance Illinois team.  I have worked in the non-profit sector for many years, so I know that at Advance Illinois I have had the honor of working with and for veritable dream teams.  I’m not sure a more dedicated, passionate, motivated, thoughtful, and talented set of leaders has ever been assembled in the field, and I (and this work) am the better for having had the benefit of their combined energy and insight. 

With political gridlock and a budget impasse that is devastating programs and families across the state, it is easy to be cynical right now.  Despite having spent much time in the middle of the fray, I remain fundamentally hopeful about the future.  We have a great deal of hard work still to do as a state, and a great deal rides on our ability to face up to it thoughtfully and seriously.  But I know there are leaders in key positions and activists across the state who are motivated (as we are at Advance Illinois) not by ideology, but by an interest in what students and schools need to succeed.  We have been able to get hard things done by working together, addressing diverse views, and keeping our eye always on the merits.  While there will be new leadership at the helm (and we are so very fortunate to have Ginger Ostro coming on board), our remarkably talented and dedicated team will continue to demonstrate their commitment to a data-driven, community-informed, collaborative (sometimes pushy!) approach to this work.  I can’t wait to see where it takes us next!

I don’t intend to disappear and can always be reached at rsteans@fic-sff.com.  In the meantime, many and warm thanks for being such wonderful partners (which means supportive, helpful, AND challenging!). 

Onward, Robin

Robin Steans
Executive Director
Advance Illinois
  www.advanceillinois.org
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