The Chicago teachers strike in an era of accountability

The Chicago teachers strike isn't only about pay and work hours. The union also opposes merit pay and stricter evaluation of teachers. The strike's outcome will influence the future of a national movement for accountability of public school teachers.

AP Photo
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis informs reporters Sunday that the city's 25,000 public school teachers will walk the picket line Monday after talks with the Chicago Board of Education broke down.

When public school teachers go on strike, it’s usually over compensation or workplace rules. But the strike that began Monday in Chicago – involving 25,000 teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district – has an added twist that makes this work stoppage worth a national spotlight.

Among other things, the striking teachers oppose plans to hold them accountable for what their students learn in the classroom. Given that the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s education reform strategy is teacher evaluation, the strike marks a major pushback against a national movement.

Teachers are trained to be good judges of students but find it hard to be judged themselves. And indeed few schools have come up with effective ways to measure the quality of teaching and its effects on students. Much about learning – curiosity, imagination, teamwork, etc. – is too subjective to reduce to numbers. One big school reform, the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, faltered on this point.

Yet when a quarter of public school students still fail to graduate from high school – and those who do graduate have low skills in writing or math – parents, taxpayers, and employers insist on measurable standards for teachers. A few months ago, however, the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a district plan for merit pay. And in contract talks, it also opposes plans to beef up evaluations of teachers based in part on student test scores.

In many cities and states, teachers unions have squashed or watered down such evaluation proposals. Under President Obama, the federal Department of Education has dangled the carrot of money for school districts that adopt such plans. But it also requires unions to buy into them. Like Chicago, Milwaukee and New York recently ended an attempt to win federal grants to begin performance-based compensation plans after union opposition.

School reform has been difficult ever since it became a national priority with the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which highlighted low student achievement in the United States. Federal education officials claim more than 60 percent of schools have new accountability systems in place. Massachusetts became a leader in reform in the 1990s when businesses and government teamed up to institute standards in schools. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans found itself with a clean slate to rebuild its education system, mainly with charter schools.

Recent research adds a new insight on merit pay. Researchers conducted an experiment in Chicago Heights, Ill., a community 30 miles south of Chicago, in which teachers were given $4,000 upfront to produce rapid gains in student math scores. If they failed, the money would be taken away. The idea differs from using merit pay to reward success.

The result? Students had nearly a 10 percentile increase in scores. Teachers seemed to have had a big emotional stake in keeping the money rather than relying on an illusive promise of earning money from succeeding.

For every school, hiring and keeping good teachers remains critical, especially when almost half of public school teachers will be retiring in the coming decade. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan says, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attract and retain great talent in education.

This is why the Chicago strike matters. Like many cities that know they must compete in a global marketplace, Chicago wants to support good teachers and let bad teachers go. Doing so isn’t easy. Each school district must find its own approach. But even teachers must make the grade.

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