Chicago School Teachers Give Us All a Lesson
Two-thirds of parents supported the Chicago school teachers' protest in spite of the inconvenience caused by the strike.
by Dean Baker
al Jazeera September 17, 2012
We don't know the final terms of the settlement yet,
but it appears that the Chicago public school teachers
managed to score a major victory over Rahm Emanuel,
Chicago's business- oriented mayor. Testing will not
comprise as large a share in teachers' evaluations as
Emanuel had wanted; there will be a serious appeals
process for teachers whom the school district wants to
fire, and laid off teachers will have priority in
applying for new positions.
If these seem like narrow self-interested gains for the
teachers and their union, think again. Teaching in
inner city schools is a difficult and demanding job.
Most of the children in Chicago's public schools are
poor. Their families are struggling with all the issues
presented by poverty. Many of the schools are in high
crime areas and serious crimes often take place on
school premises. It can be a lot harder job than
working for a hedge fund.
It will not be possible to get committed and competent
people to teach in the public school system if they
cannot be guaranteed at least a limited amount of job
security and respect. The $70,000 annual pay that was
ridiculed as excessive by so many pundits would not
even be a week's salary for many of the Wall Street
types who do nothing more productive than shuffle
The widely held view in the media, that the school
teachers and their union are an anachronism, turns
reality on its head. The so-called "school reform"
movement is by now old news. These people have been
more or less calling the shots in public education for
the last two decades. Their policies have been tried
The reformers have made great promises about the
potential of charter schools that would be free of the
encumbrances of teacher unions and government
bureaucracies. It turns out that charter schools are
more likely to under perform public schools than to
out-perform the public schools they replace.
Chicago mayor threatens legal action over teachers'
The story on high stakes testing for keeping and
promoting teachers is mixed at best. High stakes
testing encourages teachers to teach to the test. It
also can and does encourage cheating. When scores have
risen because teachers have taught to the test, it
doesn't mean the same thing as when scores rise because
students are actually getting a better education.
Furthermore, we know that there is enormous variation
in scores for the same teacher either year by year or
across classes in the same year. The former can be
explained by the fact that teachers can improve or burn
out. The latter can be explained by random classroom
dynamics. A class that has more than the normal share
of troublemakers among the students may not go well
regardless of who is the teacher.
Firings that are based narrowly on test scores may
cause many dedicated and competent teachers to lose
their jobs, only to be replaced by inexperienced and
less committed teachers. Last winter, the Washington
Post reported on Sarah Wysocki, who by the accounts of
peer evaluators and parents was an outstanding young
However, Wysocki was fired from the District of
Columbia's schools because she scored badly on its
value added measure. Students in her classes saw their
scores decline from the prior year.
The most plausible explanation for this outcome is that
Wysocki had many students in her classes whose scores
had been inflated the prior year in a cheating scandal.
This means that at the start of the school year the
students she was teaching were not actually reading or
doing math at the level credited to them.
Losing an outstanding teacher like Sarah Wysocki is a
loss to the DC school system and its students. Being
fired from the job she loved was also undoubtedly a
traumatic event for Wysocki personally, but such events
don't seem to trouble school reformers like Michelle
Rhee, who was the chancellor of the DC system at the
time of the scandal. As they say in the school reform
movement, getting money from the Gates Foundation means
never having to say you're sorry.
But the Chicago school teachers managed to overcome the
enormous money and power on the other side. This
included the media, which is dominated by people who
instinctively side with Rahm Emanuel and his Wall
Street types whenever they confront workers.
The teachers did an outstanding job making their case
to the people of Chicago, and especially to the parents
of school children. A poll of Chicago parents
commissioned by the union found that two-thirds
supported the teachers in spite of the inconvenience
caused by the strike. The parents understood that if
the teachers won their demands it would likely mean
better educational outcomes for their children.
The lesson from this strike is that even as money is
becoming ever more important in politics, it is still
possible for well-planned collective action to win out.
The Chicago school teachers and their unions did their
homework and moved at the right time. The rest of us
can learn a lot from their example.
[Dean Baker is a US macroeconomist and co-founder of
the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.]
[The views expressed in this article are the author's
own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's
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