Former CPS teacher Jamie Utt explains exactly why the Chicago Teachers Union strike is about so much more than money.
If you’ve watched the news in the last few days, you would think all of the teachers of Chicago were greedy assholes who care nothing about the needs of their students or the parents of Chicago.
After all, they turned down a 16% raise, right? Wouldn’t most of us LOVE a 16% raise?
First, let’s be clear. This raise was meant to accomplish two things: compensate teachers for the proposed 90 minute increase in their work day (an 8% increase) and to increase teacher pay to keep up with the cost of living in Chicago (something the remaining 8% most certainly would not actually do). That doesn’t even keep up with the rate of inflation over the next four years.
But despite this fact and even though compensation and benefits are definitely important to Chicago teachers, the issues on which the negotiations between the city of Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union are stalled have little to do with teacher compensation.
This strike is about class size.
The teachers in Chicago Public Schools work incredibly hard to deliver quality instruction and outcomes to the 400,000 students in the city, but the deck is stacked against those students and teachers. I should know. I used to teach in CPS, and many of my good friends are dedicated CPS teachers.
No one disputes that students who live in poverty are much less likely to succeed in school for a myriad of reasons, and in Chicago, 87% of students who attend public schools live in poverty. Further, there is a research-proven causational relationship between class size and level of achievement in school. Plus, the gains made by students of Color when class size is reduced are even greater than for their White peers (a notable fact considering that in Chicago Public Schools,91.2% of enrolled students are students of Color).
Despite these facts, though, Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Education are demanding that teachers sign a contract that would allow classrooms with up to 50 students. When I taught, I had one class with 42 on the roster. When even 36 of those students would show up to my classroom with 34 desks, learning was INCREDIBLY difficult. The teachers of Chicago know that such high caps on class size will be wildly detrimental to their students’ learning.
This is a strike for a system that values holistic student learning.
Following the example of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Public Schools wants to tie teacher pay to their students performance on standardized tests. The idea of pay for performance is a complicated one. In some districts, it has brought about some pretty stark achievement gains, which is a good thing! However, those who oppose pay for performance (like the National Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union) say that it is problematic in two important ways.
First, it creates a laser-like focus on the tests that will measure performance, leading to rote learning, teaching to the test, and teaching tricks to beat the test. None of those actually mean that students are learning useful critical thinking skills, but they are learning how to perform on the specific tests that is put before them. Second, pay for performance measures teacher compensation based on a tiny sliver of what they do and what they should be doing. Under pay for performance, there’s no incentive for teachers to undergo professional development that makes them a more competent or well-rounded educator unless that professional development can show direct results in tests that measure very specific things in very specific ways. Oh, and forget about being eligible for the pay for performance raises if you teacher something like, say, Spanish that is not tested. You can keep your step and lane changes, but you can bet you’ll be paid less than the English and Math teachers who are teaching to the test.
The point is that testing is one tool in a system of evaluating student learning and teacher performance. Some of the best systems are ones that take into account teacher professional development, experience, and test scores to ensure that teachers and students are bought into the system!
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This is a strike about justice for the kids of Chicago.
The media can vilify the dedicated educators of Chicago Public Schools for “walking out on their students” all they want. But here’s the deal. In a system where the stakeholders are 87% low income and 91% students of Color and where less than 50% graduate andless than 50% meet standards in math and reading, the system is broken. And what the Chicago Board of Education wants to do to fix that system is institute “reforms” that are proven to hurt students further.
This is an issue of social justice. This is an issue of justice for students.
So the next time you call the teachers of Chicago Public Schools (who negotiated all summer with the Board of Education and the mayor to avoid a shut down) greedy or whiny or the next time you say that the teachers of Chicago Public Schools care more about their paycheck than the students they teach, consider that this strike is not about salaries.
This strike is about justice.
Lead photo by Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP