Illinois Chief Tony Smith Celebrating Teachers, Pushing Equity, Promoting Innovation

Things are getting interesting in Illinois education. I’m not talking about the latest scandal in Chicago or the new governor. It’s the new state superintendent Tony Smith that makes Illinois a state worth watching.

Dr. Smith, who was appointed by the State Board of Education effective May 1, 2015, made clear in his first media interview that he wanted to change the state’s horribly inequitable school funding system.
His plans also includes moving from seat time to demonstrated competency and freeing districts of regulatory burden to spur innovations in learning. He’d like to see districts and schools as centers of healthy communities.

I met Tony 15 years ago when he led a STEM initiative in Emeryville, a little town north of Oakland, California. Smith had just finished his PhD at Berkeley and had a powerful vision for community partnerships delivering whole child education.

About the former Bear lineman, the Cal alumni paper said, “Tony Smith sports the physique of Buzz Lightyear yet speaks the vernacular of a psychotherapist.”

Injuries cut short an NFL career so Smith went back to Berkeley to study education.

After leading the STEM initiative, Smith went on to serve as superintendent in Emery USD. He crossed the bay and served as deputy in San Francisco before returning to the east side as superintendent in Oakland USD. While there was nothing easy about his four years in the troubled east Bay district, he was widely acclaimed for his efforts to boost equity and excellence.

When his father in law required care, Smith moved his family to Chicago where he did a short stint as a foundation executive.

For summer reading, he asked the agency staff to read For Each And Every Child, the report of The Equity and Excellence Commission. He hopes it sparks a statewide conversation about what good education looks like.

As he begins to visit some of the 857 districts in Illinois, Smith will talk about better ways for kids to demonstrate mastery and expand access to college credit options.

On teacher preparation and development, Smith would like to see an end to checklist of courses and hours. He’d like to see more competency-based and practice-connected teacher prep and points to great local examples like Urban Teacher Residency.

Illinois educators and interested observers can get to know Dr. Smith in an August 5 webinar. Stay tuned, things are getting more interesting in Illinois.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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