First I want to thank the parents of Chicago Public School students for the overwhelming support they have shown the Chicago Teachers Union. This is a hard time for all of us, but your support makes our effort possible. Unfortunately, I have been very disappointed in the analysis our strike has received in the media. This issue is complex. Shallow or distorted news coverage only adds to the confusion. And because the details of the CTU’s contract negotiations with the CPS are not public, it makes understanding what’s going on very difficult. I must admit that even I don’t understand all the details, but I can offer my take on what’s going on.
Before I get to the real issues, I want to make it very clear that this strike is not about salaries. Despite Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale’s “3+2+2+2=16” statement at last night’s press conference, Union President Lewis and Mayor Emanuel agree on one thing: the remaining issues of the contract are not financial. So, if there is enough money to go around, then the sticking point must be on where the money is going. When I realized this last night, I knew we were going to strike for three reasons. Two reasons are recognized by the Board, and may be temporarily resolved by the end of the contract negotiations. The third reason is the big one, and I’m afraid we will have a long way to go before much progress is made, but I’ll get to that one later.
Mayor Emanuel said two issues were unresolved and they are as good a place to start as any. To paraphrase the mayor, these two issues are 1) giving principals the authority to get the results the mayor wants, and 2) putting in place a system for constant teacher improvement. Taken at face value these sound like two good ideas, and when it’s all said and done, maybe they are. If we look a little deeper, however, we see that these two issues get to the center of two great debates in American education. I wish the media was spending more time analyzing these important debates and less time looking for the quick summary.
The first debate is what to do with schools with poor test records? Since Arne Duncan was the CEO of the CPS, one model has been to shut these schools down and fire all the teachers. These schools are often converted into non-union charter schools. If these charter schools went on to bring dramatic change to the neighborhoods they serve, it would be a happy ending and we’d have the answer to all our problems. The truth is a lot of these schools end up either not serving the neighborhoods they are located in and/or having the same struggles as the public schools they replaced. So, it begs the question of whether or not all the disruption to students’, parents’, and teachers’ lives is really worth it, especially when the privatization of public education has inherent moral questions.
The teachers “displaced” from the shut down schools are left to find new positions. As it should be, this is the union’s concern. It’s easy to assume that the better teachers find positions, but that is not always the case. Veteran teachers cost more and often have a hard time finding principals that are willing to sign up for the bill. President Lewis’s solution has been to create a pool of displaced teachers that would be hired before new hires. Remember Mayor Emanuel saying he wants to give principals the authority to get the results the mayor wants? What I think he’s really saying is that he doesn’t want principals to have to hire from a pool of displaced teachers. Like I said before, I might actually agree with the Mayor on this point, but I can’t know for sure, because I haven’t seen the Board’s “reasonable” offer on this issue. I can say, though, that if this issue is left unresolved, the rumor that 100 schools will potentially be shut down in the next few years makes me uneasy about spending my career in the CPS.
The second debate is how to evaluate and improve teachers? In addition to the longer school day (which teachers on track E like me have been working in good faith without a contract for 5 weeks), the Board has instituted a new evaluation system called REACH Students (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students). This is the system for teacher improvement that Mayor Emanuel was referencing. It’s pretty complicated and I don’t understand it fully yet. My principal admitted to spending over 40 hours of online training this summer learning about the system. From what I do understand the teacher’s evaluations will increasingly come from student test scores. I’m not sure about this, but I think the teachers might have a hand in developing the assessments used in their own evaluation. If this is true then I think REACH may have great potential.
The Board says that the system was created in collaboration with teachers. Maybe it’s really good? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that the selection of teachers for the project was very quiet. I know that none of my colleagues who applied for the project were accepted. I know that our students already spend nearly four weeks of school time taking tests. I know that the testing schedule of many suburban districts is a third of what the CPS requires. I know that each of these testing systems costs money and someone gets paid for them. I know that although I’ve only been teaching since 2006 I’ve seen so many programs like REACH come and go that it’s hard for me to take them seriously.
This one I might have no choice but to take seriously, though. It seems as if merit pay has been taken off the table for this contract, but what about the next contract? Right now CPS teachers are paid for their experience and for teaching extra programs or taking on extra responsibilities. Our evaluations are based mostly on a process of principal observations. Contrary to popular belief, good evaluations are required for a teacher to maintain a position. Teachers with poor evaluations can lose their positions. This system incentivizes me to work well with my principal towards common goals and to teach the extracurricular classes that enrich my students’ educations.
If this changes and my pay is tied to my evaluation, and my evaluation is tied to my students’ tests, then those tests are going to get a lot more of my attention. That’s what worries a lot of teachers. There is already so much pressure on teachers to teach to the test that merit pay and an evaluation system like this one might be the final blow to weaken our resolve to teach anything else. This could also influence the positions we pursue. Would schools with better test scores pay more? Again, putting profit into the education system raises moral questions.
I’m serious when I say I don’t know whether or not REACH is a good idea. If it is a process that makes me a better, more reflective, and more collaborative teacher, then I’m all for it. If it has me chasing test scores for dollars than I want nothing to do with it. If the Board is confident in the REACH process I suggest they allow us to use the system without factoring the test scores into our formal evaluation. They could even give us two evaluations, one with the test scores and one without. After four years of this trial and if the Board is still pushing REACH we could redress the issue in the next contract negotiation.
As important as the issues of school closings and teacher evaluations are, I think that teachers are mainly striking for a third reason: our students’ learning environments. We’ve all heard the stories. There are buildings in the CPS that have leaky roofs and no air conditioning. Text books arrive late in the first quarter or not at all. Some students attend classes with forty or more classmates. Conditions are rough, right? The truth is they’re a lot rougher in some places than others. Other schools in the district have beautiful new buildings. Textbooks and supplies are readily available. Class sizes remain small enough for individualized instruction. I ask myself why this is so on a regular basis and I can never come up with an answer. In the same district, how can there be so much inequality?
Each teacher that held a picket sign today has seen something that made that teacher ask the same question. We don’t have the answers, but we are doing what we can to call attention to the problems. Personally, I am not convinced that the Board’s reforms will benefit our students, but I could be. I need more information. Until I have it, I have no other choice but to trust in our union management. Karen Lewis has years of teaching experience and has taken the unprecedented step of bringing active teachers into the contract negotiations. I hope she will continue to faithfully represent the students and teachers of our district in the final stages of this process.
That’s all I know today. If you are unsatisfied with the information you are getting, demand more from the media. Headlines and soundbites won’t do for this issue and we need some help digging up the facts. Find out what’s really going on and voice your opinion. This is an issue that affects all of us.
featured image via http://www.chicagomag.com