The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Teacher Salaries


Former CPS teacher Jamie Utt explains exactly why the Chicago Teachers Union strike is about so much more than money.

Originally appeared at Change From Within

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!

Research Says? Merit Pay Doesn’t Work!!

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

About Jamie Utt

Jamie Utt is a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog, Chloe. He blogs weekly at Change From Within. Learn more about his work at


  1. wellokaythen says:

    I’m a member of a teacher’s union (in a different state, at a different level). Sometimes that’s a source of pride for me, and sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by it. What most often embarrasses me is some of the overblown rhetoric that my union leaders engage in, like it’s _The Grapes of Wrath_ all over again.

    The pro-union side of me actually wonders what the big deal is about striking over bread-and-butter issues. Would it really be so bad if it WERE all about increasing salaries and/or benefits? I can tell you from the inside that for some of my fellow members (and not just me) a union action is usually not an idealistic crusade to improve the lives of our students. The party line is not always a sincere statement of motivation.

    I see nothing shameful about a union taking steps to insure that salaries keep up with the increase of the cost of living. It’s certainly romantic and inspiring to suggest that “it’s all about our children,” and many teachers really do strike because of that, but it’s not necessary, to my mind.

    For those who feel like it’s unfair that unionized workers get to strike for higher wages and you don’t: maybe you should think about unionizing….

  2. Well, if all they care about are making sure that the students get the best education they possibly can, then the Teacher’s Union must be in favor of pay-for-performance!

    Oh wait…they’re not?

    I guess it’s actually all about the kids until it’s your salary on the line, huh?

    • I think that if the research supported that pay for performance would actually lead to student gains, more teachers would support it, but the research isn’t there! It has worked in certain districts implemented in certain ways, but unfortunately most efforts to standardize things in education across the country fail miserably. Why? Because kids and environments aren’t the same all over the place. Different districts require different approaches, and there has yet to be an approach to pay for performance that actually leads to student gains in achievement.

      But you know . . . Go on ahead and bash teachers some more.

      • The entire heirarchy deserves bashing. The current approach certainly has failed miserably. You just stated that pay for performance works when implemented in ways that fit a particular district’s circumstances. Standardization is the problem, not pay for performance as a concept. Failing to consider the concept leads makes me skeptical as well.

        Very few attend Chicago schools unless forced to. People spend thousands of dollars through taxes every year to support an edifice that they won’t let their kids attend. Thats the sign of a failing institution.

    • The pay-for-performance routine is another attempt to cast education as a marketplace rather than a social responsibility. Education is too important to be left up to the free market.

      • That’s where the left loses the argument. Educating children IS a social responsibility. Employing teachers is NOT.

        • I just checked, and we don’t seem to have knowledge-transfer brain implants yet. If you know of a way to properly and effectively educate all the children in America without employing teachers, please share the secret.

          • Well, since we do NOT have a social responsibility to employ teachers, that means we can hire and fire them at will. Just like most private sector employees! Who’d a thunk it?!
            Obviously not Copyleft.

    • Pay for performance has not been proven to increase grades. And on top of that, there are SO many other factors that go into a students success. So you might want to get your facts straight before bashing teachers.

      • Emily,

        Believe me, I have my facts straight, and I have a post that’s been “in moderation” for over 12 hours now with relevant citations.

        The reality is that the other side can only win this argument through censorship, which they’re not hesitating to use.

  3. I’ve already seen a few Twitter posts trying to allude to the idea that the resistance to the strike is because most of the striking teachers are women and suppressing the strike is a matter of controlling women and keeping them down.

    I guess EVERYTHING is a front on the war on women.

  4. In a system with a <50% yield its pretty difficult to identify 1 group (striking teachers) as the heroes while the other group (administrators and local govt.) as the goats.

  5. Im sure the teachers want to provide a space where they can actually do their job. I don’t believe that the strike is motivated purely by those reasons. I hope the positive changes come about as a result of this strike.


  1. […] The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Teacher Salaries by Jamie Utt […]

  2. […] Also read Jamie Utt’s The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Teacher Salaries  […]

Speak Your Mind