Debate On What Makes Teachers Good Drives Chicago Strike

Debate on What Makes Teachers Good Drives Chicago School Walkout
Teacher Jillian Connolly helps her daughter Mary study math problems while picketing outside of the William H. Wells Community High School in Chicago. The Chicago Teachers Union, with 30,000 members, says the district’s proposed evaluation procedure puts too much emphasis on student test scores. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The first Chicago teacher strike in 25 years has both sides saying the fight is about assuring that classrooms are led by good educators. They just disagree over how that should be done.

Teacher evaluations, based partly on student test scores, have emerged as a major obstacle to reopening schools for more than 350,000 students in the third-largest U.S. city. The leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, told reporters last night that “we are still miles apart” on the question of measuring teacher performance.

How that hurdle is cleared may determine the direction of public-school restructuring efforts across the country.

“This may be the last stop, the last gas station on the highway,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Once we get past this, this may be the model of school reform for the next generation.”

Union members have good reason not to focus on pay. They’re sensitive to public sentiment at a time when unemployment has remained above 8 percent nationwide since February 2009, the longest stretch in monthly records going back to 1948. Chicago’s schools also face a budget deficit that may reach $1 billion next year.

“It’s not about the money, we understand the budget crisis,” said Susan Hickey, a school social worker and member of the teacher’s union bargaining team. “The evaluation system they are setting up right now means 6,000 teachers will be fired in the near future.”

Student Performance

As union and school district negotiators returned to talks today, the Boston Teachers Union and that city’s School Department reached a tentative agreement after 27 months of negotiations, according to the Boston Globe. Part of the accord allows the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores.

The Chicago Teachers Union, with 30,000 members, says its district’s proposed evaluation procedure puts too much emphasis on test scores. At least 25 percent of a teacher’s rating during the contract’s first two years would be based on pupils’ academic performance and would rise to 30 percent in the third.

Unlike previous teacher strikes that were tied primarily to salary issues, the walkout that began Sept. 10 is viewed by the union as a pivotal point in the two-decade national effort to weed out ineffective teachers by weakening job rules.

Soul Struggle

“This is far more than a labor struggle,” a fist-waving Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the union president, said yesterday at a news conference in front of the Chicago Board of Education building. “This is a struggle for the heart and the soul of public education for the kids of Chicago.”

The strike also is an extension of battles in other big cities where mayors control the schools, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of politics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.

In Washington, Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor who fired more than 200 teachers over performance, resigned in 2010 after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost a re-election bid in which Rhee’s policies became a central issue.

In New York City, the teachers union went to court to stop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration from releasing earlier this year the names of educators and their performance ratings. (The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)

‘Outright War’

At the same time, Chicago teachers watched the recent battle in Wisconsin that curbed public employees’ bargaining rights and concluded that it was time to risk a strike, even if it undermined their support among families of school-age children, Henig said.

“There are folks that feel they are being driven to the brink -- that they are in an outright war for survival,” he said. “It’s a desperate move. If they win, then we might see this repeating.”

Paul Vallas, the former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools who went on to lead districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and, currently, Bridgeport, Connecticut, said the strike reflects education debates that have become “increasingly polarized.”

“In some ways it’s turned into kind of a street fight,” Vallas said. “And, quite frankly, teachers feel like they are being demagogued and in some cases victimized or scapegoated.”

‘Raising Standards’

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls the school system, rejected charges that evaluating teachers is designed to eliminate their jobs. He repeated yesterday that the walkout is a strike “of choice.”

“It’s not about getting rid of people, it’s about raising standards, raising the quality in the schools,” Emanuel said at a news conference at Marquette School on the city’s south side.

Unions are publicly stressing their opposition to evaluation policies to obtain their true goal -- bigger raises and job protection -- said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education policy group that advocates freeing schools “held hostage by adult interest groups.”

“The unions see the bad PR they’re getting about looking greedy,” Petrilli said. “Let’s be honest. It’s still about the money.”

Personality clashes between unions and strong-willed leaders -- such as Emanuel in Chicago and Rhee in Washington -- further aggravate the negotiations, Petrilli said.

Rare Strikes

In the 1960s and early 1970s, teacher strikes were more commonplace as unions sought to establish workplace protections and bargaining rights. In 1968, a strike over due process in the firing of teachers in New York City shut down the system for about two months.

Since then, strikes have become rare, and the public less sympathetic to their often disruptive effects, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

“People don’t see unions the same way they did back then, as the little guy, as Don Quixote tilting at windmills,” Ferguson said. “Now, unions are so big they are often viewed as part of the problem.”

Popular movies, including the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” have portrayed organized labor as a barrier to improving education. That narrative will get fresh attention beginning Sept. 28 with the premiere of a new feature film, “Won’t Back Down,” in which Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a mother fighting against intransigent unions to help her daughter.

Shuttering Schools

The confrontation between Chicago is the third-largest by public-sector workers since 1993, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping records. About 47,000 employees of Los Angeles County went on strike in 2000, while 35,000 New York transit workers walked out in 2005, department data show.

Emanuel is considering closing 80 to 120 underperforming schools, according to a report today in the Chicago Tribune. Sarah Hamilton, spokeswoman for the mayor, told the newspaper the report is “completely untrue.”

Vallas, who was the Chicago schools CEO from 1995 to 2001, said school closures will be unavoidable regardless of how the strike is settled. Neither the school system nor the teachers will be able to afford the terms, he said.

“This is a district that has exhausted its reserves,” he said. “The settlement itself is going to create pressure to cut even more, ultimately impacting more teachers, impacting more schools. It’s inevitable. It’s like a death spiral.”

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