Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why the Chicago Teachers Strike Should Matter to You

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were pretty close to agreement on salaries. CPS backed down on forcing teachers to work an additional 90 minutes without pay, agreeing to rehire laid off teachers to cover the extra time in the school day. The remaining big negotiable issue is evaluations, with CPS demanding that student standardized test scores be a significant factor.

This is terrible for both teachers and students. Student test scores depend far more on students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and other factors outside of school than on teacher skill. Furthermore, even the small influence teachers have on student test data is difficult to measure accurately and requires three or more consecutive years of data to provide consistent results. And even then, the data is only reliable for teachers at the extremes (i.e., very poor and superb teachers). Results are unreliable for the vast majority, who fall somewhere in the middle. Thus, the use of such data will likely result in many good teachers getting bad reviews and being laid off, which is both unfair to them and their students. Many mediocre or incompetent teachers, likewise, could slip through the cracks, particularly if the data is used yearly, instead of every three years.

Many teachers unions have already caved in to similar demands to use student test data to evaluate teachers. Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT, has helped broker deals in which student test scores play a significant role in teachers’ evaluations. The CTA has embraced a deal in California that requires student performance data be used to evaluate teachers, in a sellout compromise they have called a victory because the locals get to collectively bargain how such data will be used (but not whether such data will be used). Therefore, it is inspiring that the CTU has taken on this fight, when its brethren across the nation have given in.

CTU is also asking for smaller class sizes, another battle that many unions have long since given up. In California, classes of 35 or more have become the norm. In Chicago, teachers have been demanding reductions down to 23. It is perplexing why anyone would think that a class of 35 is acceptable, safe or good for children, yet it has not only become the new normal, but some districts have tried to increase class sizes well above this (e.g. Detroit’s financial manager imposed a contract allowing class sizes of 61).

A loss for Chicago teachers will embolden districts and states throughout the U.S. to mandate that student test data be used to evaluate teachers. Indeed, it is already a part of Obama’s education plan and a carrot for those states hoping to win one of his Race to the Trough grants. Similarly, a loss in Chicago could harm teachers in other regions fighting for smaller class sizes.

The battle lines have been drawn and the teachers have some powerful enemies. The Obama administration not only has strong ties to the Chicago establishment, but also has large stake in tying student test data to teacher evaluations. Obama cannot afford to lose this fight, as it will make him look weak on education and labor. Furthermore, he has already taken the union vote for granted and the unions have, for the most part, embraced his candidacy, despite his numerous anti-labor policies. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who some see as a future presidential candidate, likewise has a lot riding on this struggle. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is already coming down hard on the CTU and attempting to connect Obama with the selfish, greedy teachers, essentially egging him on to intervene on behalf of Emanuel and the Chicago school board.

According to KPFA (Letters and Politics, 9/10/12), CPS has already enlisted scabs. In this case, members of religious organizations were volunteering to work at some of the 140 schools that remained open for low income students to take advantage of the free and reduced lunch program. While this could be seen as merciful to low income students it is also an indication of the readiness of some to sabotage the wellbeing of the majority of students (and teachers) for the illusion of helping the needy. Indeed, some teachers are calling these schools holding pens, which is essentially what they are since they do not have credentialed or trained teachers and the students are not getting any type of meaningful education. They are basically fed and corralled there for half a day to make the district look like it has things under control.

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