What’s at stake in the Chicago teacher strike?

In my last post I talked about the dog that didn’t bark in California: the legislature’s decision to back away from a bill, supported by the teachers’ unions, that would have subjected  teacher evaluations to collective bargaining. Los Angeles is now moving forward with plans to include test scores as one element of teacher evaluations . . . as California law requires, and has required for many years.

This event, or non-event, didn’t grab a lot of headlines outside California. Chicago’s teacher strike is big news. Lots of issues divide Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the teachers’ unions, including an inevitable pay dispute arising from the city’s effort to lengthen some of the nation’s shortest class days at a time when the city is very, very short of money.

But according to the mayor, at least, teacher evaluations are the biggest sticking point.

As Yahoo News reports,

On Monday morning, 350,000 kids in Chicago found themselves without a classroom to bustle about as the city’s teachers went on their first strike in 25 years. The sticking point? A new teacher evaluation system.

While Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the local teachers’ union disagree on a long list of issues, including planned pay raises and sick day accrual, Emanuel said in a press conference Monday afternoon that the evaluation is the main obstacle to agreement. The new system would eventually use students’ standardized test scores as 40 percent of a teacher’s yearly evaluation. Teachers who don’t improve their students’ test scores would be fired.

Many Democrats, including Emanuel’s former boss President Barack Obama, embrace this test-based way of judging educators. The president’s “Race to the Top” federal program awarded money to states that agreed to rate teachers this way and institute other reforms, like encouraging the creation of more independent charter schools. As of last October, teachers can be dismissed in 14 states based on their students’ test scores.


It’s no secret to blog readers that I believe schools need stronger teacher evaluation systems, and that value-added test scores should often be included as one measure of performance. I’ve also contended that teachers need both to embrace more robust evaluations AND to help develop and administer evaluation regimes. It’s hard to believe that the Chicago teacher’s strike will move the second part of this agenda forward, or improve the public’s deteriorating trust in teachers.

What do you think?




  1. Howard Beale

    Having spent the night doing research into the issues of this strike for my natural curiosity, I think several issues are at hand. Sure teachers would want more money. Sure they want to maintain benefits. Sure, they want fair evaluative systems. But one theme was also evident, it was respect (or the teachers feeling they don’t get any).

    Now Mary will hit the evaluation issue most certainly. However, it doesn’t seem all that important even to the parents. In the end most of them only see teachers as glorified babysitters/daycare providers. Most are whining, not about their students missing their education (except for a rare few) but are more concerned about “what are they going to do with their kids and how their working life is inconvenienced.” Now I’m hoping most people want to put their children into schools because they want their children to have education, not because they will be babysat for a few hours a day. But that is the reality.

    The teachers could ultimately win because of this babysitter/daycare service they seem to provide and seems to be essential. Then again they could be just replaced by anybody so that might not work out for them. I’m not sure where that would leave Mary and her well-reasoned but somewhat still misguided dreams of better teacher evaluation because like I said before on this blog, and other similar blogs, unless people want to start ponying up for teacher salaries, the best and brightest aren’t going to be attracted to the profession generally, and the ones that have the gift to teach won’t last long in the profession. Then we can recycle teachers, repeat process over and over and see where that it takes us.

    What’s at stake Mary to me is that teachers need to be paid. The Chicago teachers have even put a liberal Democrat into a pickle but the bigger end game is we can’t keep demanding better teaching without better pay and better teaching conditions. Expecting all teachers to be Jaime Escalante isn’t real life. I would suspect that most of the teachers in Chicago want to do well by their students and profession. However, they teach in mostly very rough environments where education isn’t valued by the parents and the community generally. Poverty is rampant as well as existing dearth of positive male models in many inner city communities across America. Again I ask Mary, after we fire all the teachers that don’t measure up, where are all the quality replacements coming from? And if they even existed in mass, where is the money to retain them?

    • Mary McConnell

      Teachers DO want to get paid, but the striking union turned down a 16% raise over four years. That strikes me as a pretty generous offer in this economy, from a city that faces a big budget deficit.

      I, too, have been intrigued by all the comments about “respect.” Clearly teachers feel that they’re under attack, but is going to the mat over including test scores in teacher evaluations a good strategy for gaining more respect?

      I’d love to know what Randi Weingarten and other national teacher union leaders REALLY think about this strike. Here’s a quote from an article in today’s New York Times:

      “Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the striking teachers, acknowledged that her union was on the defensive. But she said it had gotten the message that it needed to do more to embrace changes to improve the nation’s schools. She has repeatedly boasted of innovative contracts like the one in New Haven, which softens tenure protections and calls for steps to improve underperforming teachers, and Cincinnati, where the union is working closely with the school board to train teachers for new, tougher core standards.”


      I’ve blogged about the Cincinnati example, which I think is a potentially model reform. But that’s not the road that teachers’ unions are taking in Chicago, or Los Angeles. To my mind, it’s a better road to respect.

      As for your last question – in this economy, with the dim prospects for even bright college grads, I think we can recruit new teachers and afford to fire the lowest performers. I favor raising the standards for teacher education programs, and admitting more new teachers who pursue alternative routes such as the highly regarded urban teaching fellows approaches that several cities have adopted. I’ve acknowledged my own biases here: I entered teaching by an alternative route, and I can’t imagine giving up the interesting and demanding classes I took in college for the kind of classes that ed schools offer (some of which I took as I pursued alternative certification.)

      Finally, and I KNOW you’re going to disagree with this comment, I think it’s very unlikely that cash-strapped cities and states are going to hire a lot more teachers. Actually, that’s one of the rejected concessions: the city offered to hire 400+ new teachers to compensate for an increase in one of the country’s shortest school days. The union is holding out for more teachers AND more pay. They may have to choose.

    • Mary McConnell

      One more comment. I think you’re unduly harsh toward parents. Sure, they’re worried about who’s going to watch their kids . . . especially when the union declared a strike after 10 p.m. the day before teachers walked out. But I simply don’t believe that “Most are whining, not about their students missing their education (except for a rare few) but are more concerned about “what are they going to do with their kids and how their working life is inconvenienced.””

      Parents want respect, too.

  2. Jeffery Hosten

    I believe teachers should be paid more, but striking doesn’t hurt management, it hurts kids. This is bad for the union, for the kids, and for the teachers. The really interesting thing is that this is a fight between unions on the left, and Rahm Emmanuel on the left. In the same place politically, but fighting tooth and nail. I wonder what the fight would look like if it were a Republican mayor.

  3. howard beale

    I stand by my parents comment. Perhaps some parents in middle class and affluent neighborhoods might have concerns about their students missing school because of education concerns. But look at this way Mary, right now in Utah hundreds of secondary teachers have teaching loads of more than 40 students in their classes and hundreds of elementary teachers have more than 30 students in their classrooms. Where is the outrage? If my child faced these conditions, I would voice my concerns. Many parents don’t even know these conditions exist in our state, and many that do know, say nothing and accept that this is the best that we can do. When I actually see more outrage over this, then I might give parents more benefit of the doubt that most (not all) are only concerned that their children are housed somewhere while they are at work. Yes Mary, some parents are outraged or whatever, but I suppose if more were outraged by with the conditions our public schools and teachers face, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

    Now, I do see the irony that Chicago teachers, who have it better than about any teachers in America in regards to salary and benefits, heck any teacher in Utah would love a 4% raise over four years let alone a 4% raise per year, but I think their walkout is also about the frustrations many teachers feel across the country. They probably feel somewhat assured they aren’t exactly replaceable, in large numbers, to do this, maybe teachers elsewhere don’t feel as comfortable so they will take it and take it.

    Finally, I realize that you are not too high on these college pedagogical classes. But I have seen studies citing that training in teaching does matter. Do you have research stating otherwise? Perhaps you do and I would love to see what these studies are. I am not against alternative routes per se, but I think some training in teaching would be valuable. Just because somebody is an Einstein in math doesn’t mean they will relate with children, be able to communicate what they know so others understand it, or are able to manage say 35 or more students (which is common in Utah). But the rate of teacher turnover is still way high. I heard a statistic that 35% of all teachers in the Provo District are probationary teachers (less than 3 years experience). Perhaps we could agree that is not a good thing…

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree that training helps teachers. I benefited enormously from some training – for example, the University of Utah’s AP Institutes. I just found ed school courses unhelpful.
      You asked for a study. Here’s a New York Times article about one study. The opening paragraphs:

      American colleges and universities do such a poor job of training the nation’s future teachers and school administrators that 9 of every 10 principals consider the graduates unprepared for what awaits them in the classroom, a new survey has found.

      Nearly half the elementary- and secondary-school principals surveyed said the curriculums at schools of education, whether graduate or undergraduate, lacked academic rigor and were outdated, at times using materials decades older than the children whom teachers are now instructing. Beyond that, more than 80 percent of principals said the education schools were too detached from what went on at local elementary and high schools, a factor that made for a rift between educational theory and practice.


      And here’s an excerpt from a speech by President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan:

      My goal—our shared goal—is that every teacher should receive the high-quality preparation and support they need, so that every student can have the effective teachers they deserve. But unfortunately, we all know that the quality of teacher preparation programs is very uneven in the U.S.

      In fact, a staggering 62 percent of all new teachers—almost two-thirds—report they felt unprepared for the realities of their classroom. Imagine what our country would do if 62 percent of our doctors felt unprepared to practice medicine—you would have a revolution in our medical schools.

      Only half of current teacher candidates receive supervised clinical training. Less than 15 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools come from the top third of college graduates. And districts regularly report teaching shortages in high-need subjects like science, engineering, math, and special education.

      The current system that prepares our nation’s teachers offers no guarantees of quality for anyone—from the college students themselves who borrow thousands of dollars to attend teacher preparation programs, to the districts, schools, parents, and, mostly importantly, the children that depend on good teachers to provide a world-class education.


      On the subject of parents, I know that your concerns are sincere, and that you echo many teachers’ frustrations. I still think you underestimate parents, and especially parents who are empowered with more information about their kids’ schools, and more choice about which schools those kids will attend.

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