Winners and Losers in Chicago’s Teacher Strike
The best way to approach the question is to look at the main points of contention, one by one.
-- Money. The agreement calls for raises totaling 7 percent over three years, with an option for another 3 percent in year four. This is vastly short of the 30 percent over four years the Chicago Teachers Union had initially asked for, and even less than the 16 percent over that period Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he had previous offered. While this may look like a victory for the city, Chicago teachers will still make more than most peers in other big cities, and the prospect of a potential $300 million in extra spending over four years during hard economic times isn't anything for Emanuel to celebrate. Plus, employees will continue to receive seniority-based bonuses (as opposed to merit pay) and to contribute only 2 percent of their pension costs. Winner: Tie.
-- Hours. Chicago teachers, used to the shortest school day and year of any major U.S. city, acceded to Emanuel's plan for longer hours: an increase to 7 hours a day from 5 hours and 45 minutes at elementary schools, and to 7 1/2 hours from 7 hours at most high schools. The academic year will grow by 10 days. However, the strike also earned the teachers concessions: High school students will spend the extra time in a study hall rather than being instructed, and future schedule changes will have to be approved in a vote by teachers. Winner: teachers union.
-- Teacher evaluations. On what was clearly the most contentious issue, a system in which standardized tests make up 30 percent of the criteria for teacher assessments will be phased in, replacing the proposed system where the tests counted for 40 percent. While unions object strongly to such evaluations, they are mandated by Illinois state law and provide objective metrics to assess performance. That said, student test scores are only part of the story: in class-observers, student feedback and alternative measures of student progress should all be in the mix. Perhaps Chicago can take the lead in a more comprehensive evaluation system. Winner: Everybody.
-- Layoffs. The deal creates a complex system in which teachers would be let go based on performance as well as seniority, a major improvement. However, once the poorest performing teachers were fired, tenured teachers would have more job security than newer teachers with superior performance ratings. Winner: Emanuel.
-- Rehires. In a break with precedent, teachers whose schools close would get priority for jobs at the schools where their students move. Schools will struggle so long as principals aren't free to hire the best applicants. Winner: teachers union.
-- Public Opinion. The teachers union has taken heart in polls showing Chicagoans backed them by 47 percent to 39 percent. But given that the city is overwhelmingly Democratic -- President Barack Obama got 76 percent of the Cook County vote in 2008 -- that really isn't such a vote of confidence. Nationally, unions are swimming against the current: large majorities of Americans are against teacher tenure and approve of merit pay based on state tests and allowing college graduates without formal credentials to teach.
I don't think the union leaders did much to counter these trends. Chicago Teachers Union head Karen Lewis, a woman whose idea of political discourse is to mock Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's lisp, has become the public face of teacher intransigence. Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said the issues in Chicago were "very localized." That's either ignorance or a smoke screen. She also said that the strike stemmed from a "fixation on accountability." Well, parents are right to fixate on the job being done by their children's teachers, and won't long support educators who feel they are above being judged on the merits. Loser: teachers unions across the U.S.
(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View on education and national security. Follow him on Twitter.)
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