Chicago Strike Shows Rifts Over Move To Grading Teachers

The end of the Chicago teachers’ strike adds to a groundswell favoring a new way to judge classroom instructors -- grade them based on students’ standardized test scores.

The district and union agreed to a contract that, for the first time, ties teacher evaluation to student performance. The Chicago Teachers Union, with 30,000 members, walked off the job Sept. 10 partly because of concern that longtime employees would be treated unfairly under such reviews.

The provision marks a win for Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has billed himself as a champion for “education reform” and a loss for tenured teachers who will see erosion in their job security. The drama in Chicago -- the third-largest U.S. school district, with 400,000 students -- follows debate across the country about the validity of test-based evaluations.

“As more and more schools move in this direction, it’s likely to move into the realm of the expected, rather than the exceptional,” said Nancy Waymack, managing director of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and policy group.

Thirty-one states require that teacher evaluations include objective measures of student achievement, up from 15 in 2009, according to the council. As a result, 29 of the 50 largest districts have revamped their reviews, with most using test scores for part of the assessment.

‘Gaining Momentum’

The inclusion of contentious teacher evaluation provisions promotes the movement toward using the approach for overhauling schools, said Michelle Rhee, the former Washington schools chief who clashed with unions over such issues.

It also creates a group of potential losers: Teachers with seniority who once had near-unassailable job security and who now risk losing their jobs over poor evaluations.

“It is commendable and telling that a Democratic mayor was willing to take on special interests in his own party to fight for the civil rights of children,” Rhee, who heads StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based education advocacy group, said in a statement. “The fact that critical issues, such as improving teacher quality and reforming tenure, were at the center of the strike shows the reform movement is gaining momentum.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, lamented what she called a “growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need.”

“Teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Economic Benefits

If the change improves education, the results could be significant. Boosting teacher quality yields long-term economic benefits for students, according to a 2011 study by Harvard University and Columbia University researchers of 2.5 million children. Students with better teachers are more likely to go to college, get higher-paying jobs and save more for retirement, the study found. They are also less likely to become teenage parents.

Replacing a teacher in the bottom 5 percent -- based on improvement of students’ test scores -- with one of only average quality increases the present value of children’s lifetime earnings by $250,000, the study found.

Contract Details

Spelling out its version of an evaluation program tied to student achievement, Chicago Public Schools issued details of the contract last weekend. The district said that “student growth” -- or the improvement of children’s test scores -- will account for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the first two years of the pact, and 30 percent in the third. A new state law requires the 30 percent benchmark.

A “student survey will be piloted” in the contract’s second year and would contribute to 10 percent of the teacher evaluation, according to the district.

Teachers are leery of the new method, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. In particular, instructors who work in low-income neighborhoods worry that the measures don’t account for the difficulty of their classrooms.

“This is a change that shouldn’t be crammed down their throats,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview. “Teachers need to be at the table.”

Achievement Tests

Education researchers have found that the tests often aren’t up to the task, said J.R. Lockwood, a senior statistician at Rand Corp., a researcher based in Santa Monica, California.

State achievement tests are often designed to measure how many students are proficient in a subject, rather than how much a teacher has improved an individual student’s performance, Lockwood said. Multiple teachers can contribute to students’ results, making it difficult to pinpoint who should be rewarded, and exams don’t adjust enough for the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students in the classroom, he said.

“The research community has fairly consistently been trying to put a brake on it,” said Lockwood, who has studied such systems across the country for more than a decade. “They’re not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s just that there are too many uncertainties. We’re still trying to figure this out.”

In New York City, the teachers union, citing flaws in the district’s evaluation system, unsuccessfully went to court to stop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration from releasing the names of educators and their ratings. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Teachers have long been rewarded primarily on their years of experience and whether they’ve secured an advanced degree.

Obama’s Grants

Such provisions can be costly to cash-strapped districts. In November 2010, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates urged top U.S. public-school officials to overhaul teacher pay, saying taxpayers are spending $59 billion a year on compensation plans based on seniority and degrees that don’t improve student achievement.

Tying teacher evaluation to student performance was a requirement for winning grants in Barack Obama administration’s $5 billion Race to the Top program, which led states to pass laws requiring such systems.

Public opinion polls support holding teachers accountable for student achievement, said Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy and research group.

Currently, most systems don’t make distinctions among teachers, so any change will be an improvement, Whitehurst said in a telephone interview.

“To not use the information is to throw away the best data that we have, imperfect though it is,” Whitehurst said.

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