Teachers in Prospect Heights Dist. 23 on strike

All classes and extracurricular activities have been canceled for the second day, tomorrow, as negotiations broke off today, the first day of the first-ever teachers’ strike in Prospect Heights, Ill.-based School District 23, the Chicago Tribune reports.


Students in District 23 (school website)

According to a September 16 letter from Mari-Lynn Peters, president of the school board, the Prospect Heights Education Association and school district were a few percentage points apart on the amount of a salary increase teachers are seeking. The district says it has dipped into cash reserves to pay teacher salaries and must start “living within its means.”

Then, the letter says this:

PHEA has also demanded that the District return to a salary schedule, which the Board is opposed for two key reasons:

  • First, rather than linking compensation to learning outcomes, salary schedules guarantee annual raises through a step-and-lane system based only on years of service and educational degrees.
  • Second, salary schedules are inflexible to ebb and flows in the economy, locking the district into guaranteed raises even in the face of an uncertain financial climate.

That first bullet is going to be tough. “Linking” compensation to “learning outcomes” is problematic and does not lend itself to negotiation.

The American Statistical Association said last year that any measure of student learning necessarily relies on “complex statistical models” that require “high-level statistical expertise” and an acute awareness of “assumptions and possible limitations,” especially when any such measure is used for high-stakes purposes, like the determination of compensation.

Very few state departments of education, let alone local school districts, have the statistical expertise to use these models correctly.

Furthermore, the use of narrowly focused tests, which don’t take into account the breadth of the curriculum students should be experiencing in District 23, will impact some teachers more than others. No objective measures are available, for example, for music teachers, and evaluating music teachers in the district differently from math teachers is not right.

Also, the way students are taught today doesn’t lend itself to statistical measures like standardized tests. Students, even in first grade, don’t just have one teacher anymore; often they have a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and a few other aides and specialists. Looking simply at learning outcomes doesn’t address the diverse contributions to student learning provided by the many different teachers each student sees throughout a school year.

Opponents of the step grid, which bases teachers’ pay on the number of years they have been teaching and on the degrees they have earned, say the arrangement fails to reward good teachers.

“Unions are based on the idea that teachers are all the same: that they get paid the same, they should advance the same. The only contingency is how long you’ve been at it,” charter school advocate Campbell Brown told a group of business leaders gathered in New York earlier today, Politico reports. “Good teachers should make more money. Teachers who excel in poor neighborhoods should absolutely make more money. Salary increases should be a performance incentive, not a guarantee for hanging around.”

I agree that good teachers should make more money, but the huge gap in this argument is that we have no valid and reliable way of objectively determining that Teacher A is performing better than Teacher B or that Teacher C excels in a “poorer” neighborhood than Teacher D. Even if we did, evidence is mounting that providing a “performance incentive” based on salary, an idea Ms Brown seems to like, would do nothing to improve student learning in actual schools.

Use of a step grid, while not ideal, allows the same model for compensation to be applied to every teacher with equality. That’s why this system is in place in so many public schools: teachers, their unions, and school administrators have had this discussion, beginning decades ago, and the grid is what came out of many, many compromises, as districts and teachers realized it was the least of all possible evils.

Any system that relies on student achievement, in addition to being dependent on the validity and reliability of the assessment instrument used, will necessarily exclude the work of many great teachers and place too much importance on the work of others. That is patently unfair.

A proposed deal that could end a teachers’ strike in Seattle took the use of test scores out of the equation in determining teacher salaries, since student performance on standardized tests is neither a valid nor reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness, especially for low-income students.

According to the Illinois Report Card, District 23 has seen a sharp increase over the last five years in the percentage of low-income students attending the schools. In 2015, the district reported 25 percent low-income, which is still about half the state average, but District 23’s low-income proportion had increased from 10 percent five years earlier, more than doubling, compared to an increase from 45 to 52 percent over the same period across the state.

About 150 teachers and educational support staff are on strike in the district, which serves about 1,550 students from Prospect Heights, Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, and Wheeling at three elementary schools and one middle school.

Daycare options, especially for working parents, always cause concern during teachers’ strikes, and Prospect Heights is no exception to that rule. Several community organizations have had to chip in. The Prospect Heights Park District is one of three local park districts that can provide daycare options.

“Working parents were scrambling, so God bless the Park District for putting this together for the community on the fly,” the Tribune quoted one parent, who had dropped her kid off for a camp at the Gary Morava Recreation Center, as saying.

The elementary schools in the district are grade-level centers, meaning that as students get older, they change schools. Dwight D Eisenhower School is for kindergarten and first-grade students, Betsy Ross School for second- and third-grade students, and Sullivan School for fourth- and fifth-grade students. General Douglas MacArthur Middle School then serves all students in sixth through eighth grades.

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