Another bite at winners and losers in the Chicago teachers’ strike

I’ve just read another commentary on the Chicago teachers’ strike from AEI’s Rick Hess. I’ll post a link to the full article in the New York Daily News, but here are some highlights.

I’ve speculated the American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten may be secretly dismayed by a strike that she publicly supports. Here’s Hess’s (rather similar) take

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been careful to not embrace her Chicago chapter too closely, and to sound statesmanlike in public remarks. The difference couldn’t be starker from the incendiary language she used in attacking Gov. Scott Walker during the 2011 battle royale over collective bargaining legislation in Wisconsin.

“What’s different is that this is a bad fight for the teacher unions – most of the public, seeing the facts, will not be on their side – it comes at an awful time, and an ugly defeat could be a crushing blow.” What’s different is that this is a bad fight for the teacher unions – most of the public, seeing the facts, will not be on their side – it comes at an awful time, and an ugly defeat could be a crushing blow.

The bottom line:

The typical Chicago Public Schools teacher makes $76,000 a year for working less than 200 days. CPS teachers work the shortest school day of any city in country, in a district with a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio and per pupil spending of more than $13,000 a year. These arrangements have yielded a 60% graduation rate, in a district where more than 97% of teachers are rated effective.

The high stakes for President Obama:

Things get especially dicey for the president. Obama probably can’t afford to undercut a major public employees’ union less than two months before the election. He needs all those union households in Ohio and Wisconsin to be energized about casting their ballots and working the phones. But neither can the president let swing voters who like his reform bona fides see him walking away from his former chief-of-staff or his own reform agenda. That would allow Romney to argue that the president is all talk on school reform.

Lacking good choices, the president has thus far tried to stay out of it. The White House is leaning on its friends in Chicago to get a deal done, fast, before the president starts getting pressed to take a side.

Finally, Hess again acknowledges that the teachers unions are making some valid points . . . but following a strategy that probably undermines their position

Lost in the furor is that the union actually has some valid points to make, on school closures and teacher evaluation. For instance: There are reasonable concerns about simple-minded teacher evaluation that relies too heavily on students’ reading and math scores, or on a handful of cookie-cutter classroom observations. In choosing to strike rather than negotiate, however, the CTU has ensured that any legitimate concerns have been swept under by politics and the passion.


  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Thanks for sharing this Mary. The discussion that must happen, which this strike could drive, is what data points could (or should) validly be used to evaluate teacher performance.

    This is a very difficult question in many ways – do we know the answers needed to set up such a system? Do we know the questions? Do we know what we want to define as the critical areas of student progress that should be measured and used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness? Do we know what a year’s progress in a year’s time should be? Do we have any beginning-of-year benchmarks that are reliable enough to allow us to measure end-of-year performance and feel confident we have a good grasp on the progress that student made during the year? How would this look in 2nd grade (measuring may be easier in a predominantly skills-acquisition year in early elementary) as opposed to 11th grade?

    I believe that with computer models and the sophistication in tools that we enjoy in this time of incredibly powerful technology, we can certainly come up with accurate measuring instruments that will yield valid information. Unfortunately, we cannot get to the point where a consortium of capable individuals could develop such a model because we are still arguing about whether or not it is a worthy task – whether it is somehow unfair to teachers to measure their effectiveness based upon the outcomes of their work (student progress).

    I view this strike as a fight over that one principle – should teachers be measured based upon student performance? Can they be held accountable to progress of students when there are so many factors to consider? I believe the answer is that we must develop reliable ways to measure teacher effectiveness IF we are going to continue with a coercive education system.

    Under compulsory education and geographical boundary laws, parents are REQUIRED to send their children to a particular school. Lacking financial capability to choose a private school, parents are coerced into a relationship with a public school. This coercion places teachers in a no-win situation where they are the front lines of an impossible war – parents with no choice, who find themselves forced into a relationship, and who then quite naturally become demanding consumers of a product they didn’t choose.

    Minus this coercive relationship, this war would not exist. Parents who are able to choose the best school for their child would choose a school that offered the information about student progress and teacher quality that they valued. Minus that information, they would choose another school.

    I believe this strike is essentially about those questions that no one dares to ask. Clearly, it is not really about money, or hours (typical strike issues). It is hard for most people to understand what it IS about. This is a rebellion from teachers who have been placed in the impossible position of performing satisfactorily to a people held hostage. Parents are held hostage in our public education system, and they are not going to treat their captors nicely, even fairly. It flies against all history to expect otherwise. A captive people will rise up against their captors – and if unable to strike against the actual captor (the government) they will at least try to work against the captor’s representative with whom they have easy and daily contact – the teachers.

    Teachers are in a terrible position as the messengers of a corrupt and broken coercive system, and until their union helps them with a true “way out” through school choice, teachers will continue to be casualties of this war. They hold the power to become the change agents, but they historically choose the martyr’s role. They could make their primary strike demand that students sitting in front of them CHOOSE to be there. Were they to win that point, the entire public education world would change and teachers are the primary beneficiaries of such a free system. Or, they can continue as the martyrs. Unfortunately for them, the public is no longer sympathetic to their chosen martyrdom. With the solutions so clearly apparent in charter and private schools, where teachers enjoy great respect and position due to the one fact that all their “clients” chose them, we as public citizens simply don’t have any sympathy left.

    I agree their plight it terrible. They are in a no-win situation. And they have all the power to change it in one simple strategy – embrace full choice for every parent. Require parents to CHOOSE their schools. That would be something worth striking about.

    • Mary McConnell

      Thank you! Yes, teacher evaluations, and especially data-driven teacher evaluations, pose demanding design issues. But you’re right that we won’t even get to these issues if we’re fighting over whether teachers should be evaluated more rigorously, and over whether ANY kind of data should be included in these evaluations.

      I think collective bargaining – and even more a strike – is a lousy way to resolve these issues. There ARE school districts where teachers have worked with administrators and elected officials to design better evaluation systems. In the best of these, teachers are involved in the design and enforcement. But that’s only going to happen if we we stop fighting over whether and move on to how.

      Maybe the teacher’s strike will move this dialogue forward, if only by giving the issue more publicity. I worry, however, that it will simply produce further antagonism and recalcitrance . . . on both sides.

      Maybe the brightest news will turn out to be the inadvertent but very real boost this is likely to give educational choice.

  2. howard beale

    My long view is that in some sense in many issues, not all issues, the Chicago teachers are fighting for the right cause. Our class sizes should be smaller. Our students should go to school in comfortable environments where air conditioning and proper heat is available. Anyone serving the public and working with children do DESERVE a cost of living raise every single year. Perhaps other issues of teacher evaluations and the length of the school day have less merit, I might even concede that though I think there must be something about the instrument of teacher evaluations that is upsetting these particular groups. And using only or primarily test scores is a poor instrument. I enjoyed the pieces and thank Mary for sharing them, they have different points of view and provide a balanced view. I enjoyed the Ravitch’s piece best because she is an educator and realizes perhaps the longer and less politically expedient view of education and these issues. Education will never get much better unless some of these issues she wrote about our addressed. We can’t hammer teachers when they have class sizes of 40 plus students. This is not fair to them and certainly the students. We need to make sure our students have access to texts, technology and the best facilities possible instead of the run-down facilities that often harbor our students, especially in inner cities. So I guess I hope the Chicago teachers “win” their strike because ultimately it will help teachers turn the tide on some of these issues perhaps which will end improve education for our students. I know some of their desires seem outlandish to many with the economy being what it is, but to me these are things worth fighting for and things teachers should be receiving (cost of living raises, benefits, better working conditions, lower class sizes)…

  3. Steve Edwards


    Once again, the words “winners and losers” in your blog title. Until we all commit to letting go of the blame game and work together, it will only get worse. Our children deserve solution oriented discussions conducted in the spirit of collaboration.

    Carolyn, your comments are simply blaming and feeding a negative mindset. I will say it again, time for positive conversations acknowledging the strenghts of ALL ideas and respect for the teachers. I, for one, am tired of the droning on of blame and the discussion of “choice” as the “be all end all” solution. It isn’t.

    • Mary McConnell

      While I take your point – I, too, worry about the blame game – I think that by resorting to a strike the Chicago Teachers Union has made “winning” and “losing” inevitable. I am not at all persuaded that collective bargaining is the way to settle issues such as teacher evaluation. It’s an inherently adversarial approach. One compromise that some states have adopted is to allow collective bargaining for salary issues but not for educational policy issues. Again, please remember that I have repeatedly argued that teachers need to be involved in designing and administering evaluation regimes. I just don’t think that this issue is best handled through the labor-management model at work (or not at work) in Chicago.

      • Mary McConnell

        Just one quick comment. I found Diane Ravitch’s piece thoughtful as well, which is why I posted the link. But she is an educational historian and policy analyst, not a K-12 educator. I don’t think she’s ever taught in a classroom, though I may be wrong about that. Rick Hess did begin his career as a classroom teacher, which is one reason, I believe, that he responds cautiously both to would-be reformers AND their critics.

        This is not to disparage Diane Ravitch. I disagree with her more often than not these days, but I think she is truly committed to excellence in education.

        And yes, I, too, found myself sympathizing with a call for more air conditioning. Trying to keep students’ attention in a hot, stuffy classroom is close to impossible. But given Chicago’s rather desperate fiscal straits, it does rather beg the question of where limited resources should be directed. Chicago teachers already get more pay for fewer hours than most teachers around the country. If there was money to spare in hte kitty, should more have it gone to infrastructure improvements? Again, you know that I advocate higher salaries for teachers, especially in Utah. But I also advocate assessing options realistically in the face of resource limitations.

        Illinois, by the way, is a poster child for the limitations of continuous tax increases as a solution to fiscal dilemmas. Tax increases keep producing disappointingly small revenue gains, while Illinois jobs move to neighboring states with lower taxes.

      • Steve Edwards

        Have you thought about the possibility that the administration has made this about winning and losing. When you look at the states which do not have collective bargaining, their student achievement gains are below those which engage in bargaining. The issue is that administrators and policymakers are NOT engaging teachers in the conversations. There is not an inherent conflict of interest in bargaining teacher evaluations. In Utah, SB64 is an excellent example of the UEA, administrators, and policymakers collaborating to improve instruction and to make certain that every child has a quality teacher in their classroom!
        Your argument against designing such a model together is contradictory. That is what happens in a collectively bargained contract.
        The issue is not salary. These teachers are talking about a valid and reliable evaluation tool. I dare say that any employee in any industry would wish for the exact same thing. This is not about money! This is about learning conditions for students and fair evaluations. If all the Chicago teachers cared about was money, then they would have taken the deal of the 16% and just walked away.
        I hope you will look at the legislation in Utah and realize that the teacher’s association played a major role in its creation.

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