Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Reflects on COVID
As the coronavirus pandemic has uprooted schools for millions of students across Illinois, the state board of education has been tasked with producing new guidelines for the state’s 852 school districts. The board was led by Darren Reisberg, who began working on the board in 2005 and was later appointed by Governor JB Pritzker in 2019 to serve as chairman.
Now Reisberg is leaving the state board and his position as executive vice president and chief strategy officer of the Joyce Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder) to become the 11th president of Hartwick College, a small university. of liberal arts in New York. Its last board meeting will take place on June 15.
“I’m incredibly excited about my upcoming trip,” Reisberg said. “Small liberal arts colleges need to find a way to differentiate themselves in order to attract students. I think Hartwick did a good job of figuring that out. I’m going to be there to try to take it to the next level, it’s a big challenge for me and I’m ready to do it.
Chalkbeat Chicago sat down with Reisberg to talk about presiding over the state council during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the state council’s efforts over the past two years, and what he hopes for. the future of the state.
This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What led you to a career in teaching?
Once I started in a law firm, it allowed me to be part of the Chicago civic community. I was able to connect with Chicago Public Schools as a volunteer. After about five years with the law firm, I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know what it would be like. Coincidentally, a position opened up with the Illinois State Board of Education as Assistant General Counsel. This is what led me to work at the school board in 2005. I ended up becoming general counsel, developed a strong relationship with the state superintendent, and became an assistant superintendent in addition to the general counsel and worked on education policy.
Pick a word to describe working on the state board during the coronavirus pandemic.
Exhausting. No matter how hard we have tried to focus on education policy over the past two years, the public health crisis and other issues have been consuming. We weren’t able to focus on our strategic plan as we wanted.
With everything the state was juggling at the time, what efforts were left out?
While not overlooked — this issue received a great deal of attention — improving our rating system was one such effort. State Superintendent Carmen Ayala has really spent time trying to develop potential options to see how we can improve. One of the efforts was to develop a year-round assessment to replace our current summative assessment system. This was largely because of concerns about the grading system in Illinois; that it does not provide usable results for instructional purposes, that it is too long, that it takes too many days without instruction, and that it takes too long to get the results. Dr. Ayala tried to address all of these issues, but due to the pandemic, it just took a long time to be able to really get stakeholder engagement. By the time we receive feedback, I think our four years of respective terms will be over. I think the question is, what’s next? I hope the next board will be able to take the lead and that we have set the stage for them to do it well.
Are there any efforts the ISBE was able to make during the pandemic that you were proud of?
Before the pandemic and during the pandemic, I am proud of our equity work. I was able to chair a working group with a high school student to create a resource guide for school districts to better understand the many issues faced by trans and non-binary students and has provided students and their families and advocacy groups with truly important information to help improve the lives of students in the state . This is real tangible action that I am very proud of on a personal level as a member of the LGBTQ community.
At a time when you see the critical race theory issues sweeping the country, the state board has been able to push for cutting-edge, culturally appropriate education and standards here in Illinois. This will guide how educator preparation programs prepare educators to enter classrooms. Even though we had a minority of stakeholders pushing against us, we did not back down.
What inspired you during this period?
What was inspiring was seeing 852 school districts with superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and students going through it. Our children – whether learning remotely or eventually returning to the classroom – have always had opportunities, despite all the headwinds that have made it very difficult. When I say it was exhausting for us on the council of state, I know it was even more exhausting for those in the field. It was extremely inspiring for all of us.
Are there any efforts the state should consider to continue to get schools back on track?
I hope some of the ways the State Council uses our funds set aside by the ESSER State are designed to do just that. Thinking about virtual induction and mentoring programs for educators across the state to ensure we see meaningful retention of our teachers. So that there is continuity within our schools and that we do not worsen the shortage. Thinking about how the rollout of high-impact tutoring happening across the state can unfold, so that we do what we can. For school districts that do not have the resources or expertise, use formative or interim assessments to be able to get a quicker idea of where students are and help guide the teaching for these students as the recovery continues. These are ways in which we try to use these resources and what I think is really essential is trying to understand where these investments are really making a difference.
Any advice for the next chairman of the board?
Spend time meeting with key stakeholders in the field to be able to learn what’s on everyone’s mind. The past two years have been so unique that you only need to really understand where everyone is coming from to craft a good policy. You have to wait a long time at the start to be sufficiently informed to make good decisions.
Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering state school districts, legislation, special education, and the state Board of Education. Contact Samantha at [email protected].