Children in Chicago may soon be back in school, if members of the 26,000-member Chicago Federation of Teachers vote to accept a new contract whose details at this writing are still being finalized. But are there any winners in this confrontation in the nation's third-largest school district with some 350,000 students?
It has been 25 years since Chicago teachers walked the picket line -- and their decision to do so this time runs counter to a nationwide trend toward fewer strikes by unionized teachers. The decision was all the more surprising given who sits on the other side of the bargaining table: former Obama White House Chief of Staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
For decades, teacher unions have been able to count on Democratic politicians to give them more or less what they want come bargaining time -- it was good politics. Unions deliver for Democratic politicians in their runs for office -- and when they're elected, the Dems return the favor by giving the unions sympathetic treatment at the bargaining table.
But the equation has changed since cities, big and small, have run into major deficits, with no way to close them. Chicago's schools faced a $300 million deficit when Emmanuel took office, and the education budget faces an expected $3 billion shortfall over the next three years. As a result, last year the mayor rescinded a 4 percent raise the CTU had previously negotiated and announced his intentions to extend the school day to give Chicago's poor-performing students more time to learn.
Word from inside the bargaining talks is that the city has agreed to a 16 percent increase in pay over the next four years -- with no clear plan how to fund it -- and is willing to compromise on the terms of an extended day. But the big stumbling blocks in the CTU strike have to do with teacher evaluations and the right of laid-off teachers to be the hired first when new positions open.
Most parents and taxpayers would consider the evaluation issue a no-brainer. Why shouldn't teachers be evaluated on what their students learn over the course of a year? But the sticking point has been what criteria the district uses to conduct the evaluations. Reform-minded districts have moved toward standardized tests, which compare student scores in a given school to scores across the nation. Chicago, like many other urban school districts, ranks abysmally low. Only 21 percent of Chicago eighth graders read at or above the proficient level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress results for 2012, which is lower than even big-city averages nationwide.
But CTU complains that their members shouldn't be judged on the basis of students' standardized test scores. Actually, they already are, but only 20 percent of teacher evaluations depend on student scores. The district's position has been that the weight ought to be doubled to 40 percent -- if the strike ends, there is likely to have been compromise on the issue.
The union's position isn't altogether unreasonable, however. Scores on standardized tests are an important and valid measure of what students know -- but they are also highly correlated to poverty and family structure. Chicago's students are disproportionately poor and come from fatherless homes. Overcoming these handicaps is a stiff challenge, even to the best teachers.
A better way to judge what goes on in the classroom might be to test students on the subject matter they must master at the beginning and end of the semester to see what they've actually learned in the classroom. And teachers ought to be tested periodically, too. If teachers haven't mastered the subject matter they are to teach, they're not going to be able to impart much to the students. But the unions resist efforts to re-test "credentialed" teachers -- even though the credentialing process accepts appallingly low performance by prospective teachers. In an era of widespread grade inflation, Illinois asks only that new teachers demonstrate a grade of 'C' in college education courses and content area and pass a multiple choice and essay test in basic and subject matter skills.
As for insisting that the school district rehires laid-off teachers first when jobs open up -- giving little or no discretion to the principals who must lead the schools -- it's no surprise. Unions are all about protecting seniority and their members' jobs. In essence, unions want decisions about whom to fire, lay off, or re-hire made on a seniority basis, not on merit.
And that is the biggest danger to students. Bad or mediocre teachers should be let go -- and the only way to do that is to ensure teachers know the subject matter they teach and students learn something while in their classrooms.
Good teachers -- of which there are many -- could win if these were the standards. And more importantly, so could students. But the outcome from the CTU strike is likely to produce few winners among either group.