Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Chicago teachers are still on strike


It would be hard to wake up this morning without realizing, based on reports in every news outlet in the Western Hemisphere, that Chicago teachers are still on strike, having failed to convince delegates that a deal struck last night between the union and the district was right.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: the students. Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the walkout is illegal and plans to sue the teachers in court to end the walkout. If the strike is illegal, it is no more so this week than it was last week, begging the question why an injunction wasn’t sought last week. But let’s not second-guess our politicians. We can’t get the week back anyway.

So today, about 350,000 students are out of school and have been for a week, going on two. Their parents are struggling to find alternative childcare, and in addition to classes, kids are missing other valuable aspects of school, such as participating in sports and physical activity and eating healthy meals (more than 80 percent of students in Chicago qualify for free or reduced-price meals). While we’re all having academic debates about the use of value-added models in teacher evaluations, debates that owe their escalation to this strike, no fourth grader in Chicago is learning how to add fractions, no high school student is getting the help he needs to prep for college placement exams next month, and everybody’s just out on the streets, in the parks, at work, and any other place kids find to do something with themselves during the walkout.

The main sticking point, from what we can determine, is the district’s forcing of teachers to accept a new teacher evaluation system that uses value-added standardized test scores to determine whether a teacher is effective or should be fired. An Illinois law requires such a system to be phased in by the 2015-16 school year. This new teacher evaluation system is needed, the district says—along with most of America—because bad teachers were allowed to continue under the old system for too long, ruining too many lives in the process, especially at failing schools, where most of the teachers were undoubtedly ineffective.

The old system of evaluation relied heavily on principal observations in the classroom, but these observations were too unstructured, too infrequent, and too biased, the district says, to give any teacher, even chronically bad ones, any score but at least “competent.” The system resulted in teachers who had a chance to improve not getting the help they needed from mentor teachers or other school officials, and it resulted in fantastic teachers not being recognized for their work or being used as mentor teachers at the school. It resulted, basically, in all teachers having no incentive to improve and good teachers having no reason to stay in the Chicago Public Schools system.

Test scores, though statistically flawed and somewhat biased, are at least structured and objective to a degree. Any system that can add objectivity to the evaluation process is better than any system that is guaranteed to be biased, we believe. Test scores are a good start, but the system still has to be ironed out as to how they should be used.

This brings us to the current dilemma, which is, we’re sorry to say, a protracted debate involving lots of talking heads. It’s a debate worth having, and we should have the debate, but we can’t keep kids out of school while we debate the issue.

This is why we’re calling on teachers or the mayor to take steps to end the walkout. Teachers can agree to work without an agreement on certain points, which will not be enforced until the end of the school year anyway, and hammer out an agreement before then. The mayor can use community volunteers and subs to get at least half of the kids in school, as they’re doing in the Lake Forest strike. Something has to be done; somebody has to take the initiative. We can’t keep kids out of school while we discuss good research on both sides of this debate, but we do credit the strike with drawing attention to this important question.

Either of these actions would be unpopular in certain circles and depending on which side you’re on, and they both fly in the face of normal union labor laws and traditions. But the elephant in the room here is that 350,000 kids are out of school. We submit that it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of a system during a labor negotiation. This is something that takes research, study, and considerable thought. It’s not going to be resolved in Chicago. Therefore teachers should get back into the classroom and let the debate, to which they drew attention, go on.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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