Teacher Tom Walsh offers a compelling and well-researched explanation of the key points in the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.
Here’s a rundown of some of the major issues at hand from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike, from my perspective.
Frustration with the Chicago Board of Education has been steadily building for almost two decades within the ranks of Chicago’s teachers. Much of the tension can be traced back to 1995 when Illinois passed a law permitting Chicago’s mayor (then Richard M. Daley) to take control of the school system. Previously, the members of the Board of Education had been elected by the citizens of Chicago. Now, they are appointed by the mayor. Additionally, the head of the school system no longer needs to be a superintendent – someone with teaching experience and training in school leadership. Now, the head is called a CEO. Since 1995, a clear majority of the members of the Board of Education as well as those holding the CEO position (including Arne Duncan, current US Secretary of Education) have lacked teaching and/or education experience. Despite a lack of experience inside schools, the leadership of CPS has been embarking on a large-scale and disruptive program of “school reform” that, in the minds of many teachers, is doing more harm than good. This has included: completely closing down schools; dismissing all teachers and staff in a school; dismissing all teachers, staff, and administrators in a school; increasing the use of standardized testing; and cutting funding for “untested” subjects like art, music, gym, and world languages.
Contract Negotiations and the Strike
A few recent events have pushed teachers to feel their only option left is to strike. First, a new Illinois law gave the Board of Education (really, Mayor Rahm Emanuel) the authority to lengthen the school day. However, the only real detail about the proposed longer day plan was what time the school day would end. There was essentially no information about how the additional time would be spent or how to pay for it when the plan was announced. Indeed, teachers would be expected to put in about 20% more time without any additional compensation. The new law also changed the rules about when the CTU could strike. It required 75% of the membership - not voting members - to authorize a strike. This meant that anyone who did not vote was essentially casting a “No” vote. The teachers plowed through this supposedly “intentionally strike-preventing” new requirement: 90% of the membership voted “Yes” including 98% of those who voted. Illinois law has also set complex rules about the issues that the CTU can actually strike over. To simplify, the law basically says that the CTU can only strike over compensation issues (salary, benefits, etc.) and that it cannot strike over education issues (class size, curriculum, funding for a well-rounded curriculum, etc.). The practical effect of this is that the only way for the CTU to force CPS to discuss education issues is to (threaten to) strike over compensation issues.
Merit Pay and Using Testing to Evaluate Teachers
Since most merit pay systems use test scores to determine “merit” I’ll discuss these two together. Many people erroneously believe that teachers oppose these ideas because they don’t want to be held accountable. This is not true. First, these systems ignore the fact that much of what motivates a teacher cannot be quantified or measured. Professor Mark Naison writes.
“It is frightening that business leaders have taken charge of education in the United States, because the only things they take seriously as motivation are material rewards and fear of losing one’s job or business…Because they fail to understand how much of a teacher’s job satisfaction comes from relationship building and watching students develop over a lifetime, however, they create systems of evaluation which totally eliminate such experiences because they cannot be reliably measured.”
Teachers also have concerns that evaluations based on test scores only cover a small portion of what teachers do and will encourage an even narrower focus on only what is covered by standardized tests.
Second, teachers do not trust these systems to be fair. Standardized tests have not been designed to measure teacher effectiveness but student achievement. As a result, they are notoriously unreliable if they are not used as intended. The same teacher can be given very different ratings from one year to the next or even from class to class. A study of NYC’s plan to evaluate teachers found that it would take up to ten years of test scores to rate a teacher with 90% accuracy. Furthermore, many teachers teach subjects that are not tested (art, music, world language, for example). The typical “solution” is to have their school’s reading scores used in their evaluation which means they are being “held accountable” for something that is not their primary job responsibility. Another reason for not trusting these systems is that the formulas used are incredibly complex. An article examining Florida’s evaluation system reported:
“”StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald partnered up to deconstruct the equation and try to figure out what’s going on here. We asked statisticians and policymakers how the formula works. The answer we got: No lay person, teacher or reporter can understand it. So just trust us.”
Recently, eighty-eight education professors from 15 Chicagoland universities released a statement expressing their concerns about CPS proposals for a new evaluation system using test scores. Their full statement is here:
Here is an excerpt from their press conference
“[Second, T]en of the nation’s leading scholars on assessment wrote a joint letter cautioning against teacher-evaluation approaches that use value-added models, because such models can be unstable (they can vary from year to year or even from test to test for the same group). Furthermore, such models
were developed to assess student change, not teacher efficacy, so to use the models for a different purpose should first require more field-testing and development.
Third, impact. We have already seen the results of placing increased value on tests: a more narrow curriculum, less cooperation between teachers, less desire to work with students with special needs—that is, this overemphasis on test scores results not in increased success for our students, but the opposite.”
Teachers recognize that the school system and the city are experiencing financial difficulties. However, policy choices have played a significant role in this reality. One cannot just simply blame the state of economy. At the school system level, CPS spends millions of dollars on standardized testing and closing schools instead of supporting them. The Office of New Schools, for example, had a budget of over $300 million last year. At the city level, millions of property tax dollars that would otherwise go to schools every year have been redirected away from the school system thanks to the TIF program. Instead, a lot of this money goes to corporations like Willis Tower, United Airlines, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To make up for the budget shortfall, CPS must raise property taxes on those who do not live in a TIF. After about three decades of the TIF program, a total of at least $1 billion has probably been redirected away from the schools:
Much of the momentum behind recent trends in education is motivated by concerns about how the United States compares to other advanced, industrialized countries on international tests. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to how or why the United States scores below countries like South Korea, Finland, and Singapore. As a result, many of the policies intended to “catch up” the United States are flawed. First, none of the countries that are high performing on international tests use test scores to evaluate teachers:
Another key difference between the United States and countries that perform better than the United States is the rate of child poverty. In fact, American schools with low poverty performed higher than Japan, Finland, and other schools on a recent international test. American schools with up to 25% poverty score on par with the best countries for education. The problem is that we have so many more schools with extremely high poverty rates. Almost 90% of CPS students are low-income. As a nation, our child poverty rate is almost 25%, higher than any other advanced country. Finland’s is less than 5%.
Teacher Work Hours
Another issue that is repeatedly brought up is the amount of time teachers spend working. Many teachers will agree that the current school calendar is outdated. However, that does not mean teachers do not work the equivalent of a full-time, 12 month job. The average CPS teacher works 58 hours per week plus more than 3 hours on the weekend according to this recent research:
Sixty one hours per week multiplied by 38 weeks per year is 2318 hours per year. Someone who works 40 hours per week for 52 weeks works 2080 hours per year.
The potential strike has national implications because so many of the recent national “reforms” that have been backed by the “corporate-education complex” (to borrow an apt phrase from a former colleague) have been in Chicago for a longer time. In a 2010 interview about her book The Death of Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice and Undermining Education, NYU education professor Diane Ravitch commented: “If I had my book to do over, I think I would have done a chapter on Chicago because Chicago is really the starting point for so many of the things that have gone wrong.”
The CTU has released a comprehensive report about how to improve education for all of Chicago’s students – including how to pay for it. Some of the concerns addressed in the report include:
- Only 25% of CPS elementary schools have both a full-time art teacher and music teacher.
- CPS funds positions for nurses, counselors, social workers, and psychologists at numbers that are well below what the relevant professional organizations currently recommend.
- More than 20% of elementary and middle schools had no playground at all in 2011-12 and many more did not include equipment that is age-appropriate.
-CPS could decrease class sizes in kindergarten to third grade from 28 to 20 with half of the budget that is allocated to the Office of New Schools.
- CPS has 160 elementary schools (out of 472, or 33%) that do not have a library.
The full report is here:
Finally, if you want to read a nice commentary on where the potential CTU strike fits in to larger historical and national issues, check this out:
More on the strike:
The Chicago Teacher Strike is Also About The Future by Dr. Emery Petchauer
Photos courtesy of Mathias Johnson Photography