Striking Chicago teachers' situation has some local parallels

Striking Chicago teachers' situation has some local parallels

Michele Ellson

Chicago teachers who went on strike this week reportedly had dozens of contract issues to sort out with that district’s leaders, with benefits, raises, training and a lack of air conditioning in classrooms among them. But one of the most contentious issues was the way administrators proposed to handle teacher evaluations.

The complaint bore a striking similarity to one lodged earlier this year by Alameda teachers who said that concerns about the way their work is judged by administrators topped even those voiced about their nearly lowest-in-the-county pay.

There as here, teacher representatives complained about a sense of disrespect from administrators who are seeking to change the way the business of education is conducted – a task some teachers feel is being undertaken without their input.

“Money is important, but not the main reason that Chicago is going on strike. It’s not the reason that we voted no on that tentative agreement,” Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris said, referring to an earlier contract proposal that teachers rejected. “It was more the other stuff. There are some parallels.”

The Chicago strike comes against a backdrop of potentially radical changes in the way school services are delivered, with much of the change being pushed by the Obama administration. Its signature program, Race To the Top, offers billions of dollars to states and school districts that adopt a more data-driven, standards-based approach and are more willing to open the door to innovative programs and charter schools. The proposed changes, whose proponents cut their political teeth in Chicago, have split liberals who have traditionally been unified in their approach to schools.

“Chicago teachers are kind of taking a stand, taking their fight directly to the Obama administration, though sort of in a proxy fashion,” said Cynthia Liu, who runs the K-12 News Network, an education news and advocacy website.

She said teachers in Chicago and elsewhere feel they are being held accountable for poorly maintained facilities, late textbooks and different student readiness levels – things that are beyond their control.

“This is not purely about, ‘We want a certain percent raise.’ This is about pointing out the hugely under-resourced and chronically under-resourced schools,” Liu said, adding that Chicago’s teachers see some of the changes as efforts to strip them of their collective bargaining power.

But some feel there’s a place for testing and accountability programs. Alameda Board of Education president Margie Sherratt said that when she first became a principal, the emphasis shifted from what she called “the whole child” – which included consideration of the arts and physical education, recess and healthy eating, along with core academic learning – toward one of standards and accountability. While there was “a lot of pushback from teachers” on the new measures, Sherratt said she thinks the standards and testing offer students an opportunity to be more accountable for their own learning by helping them understand their strengths and challenges and giving everyone benchmarks to reach.

“I think there’s definitely a place for accountability and benchmarks and standards in our schools. And I’m glad they’re there,” Sherratt said.

But observers like Liu, who opposes a move toward more charters and what she sees as the corporatization of schooling, argue that tests were never meant to be used as an evaluation tool for teachers. And the union that represents the state’s teachers has completed an alternate evaluation framework with a reduced reliance on testing for member unions like Alameda’s to use in bargaining, said Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association.

“Clearly, a student is more than a test score. And so is a teacher,” said Myslinski, who said teachers feel shut out of the reform process.

But while there may be parallels between the situation Alameda and Chicago teachers find themselves in, there are also some notable differences. While Chicago’s leaders sought to increase the weight test scores would carry in a teacher’s evaluation, California Governor Jerry Brown has bucked national trends by calling for less testing. The state Legislature just approved a bill authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that would reduce the weight tests are given in evaluating the state’s schools. (But Brown signed an earlier bill that would set common core standards for all the state’s districts by 2014, which is one of the criteria judged in the scoring for Race To the Top funding.)

Here in Alameda, teachers became angry when Superintendent Kirsten Vital changed the way they handled their evaluations without discussing it first at the bargaining table, though an arbitrator ruled that the district hadn’t violated the teachers’ contract by making the changes.

Before Vital came to Alameda, Harris said that teachers were judged on two of six state standards each year, with reviews based on a pair of scheduled observations. But when Vital joined the district, her administration began reviewing teachers on all six standards, with the reviews based on formal observations and informal classrooms visits, complaints, disciplinary issues and test score data.

Vital said in May that the evaluations were enhanced to gain a more accurate picture of teacher performance, while Harris said the changes made reviews feel punitive, rather than helpful. (Sherratt said that efforts to hone the evaluations have been “a focus of the current superintendent and staff” and that she believes the process is worthwhile.)

Teachers and school district officials are set to embark on fresh negotiations for a new contract starting at the end of this month, with a handful of dates approved and others not yet set. The teachers’ entire contract, including language relating to evaluations, is due to be negotiated; the agreement teachers and district leaders struck last June only resolved class size and calendar issues that had arisen out of a temporary agreement teachers signed in lieu of a full contract in 2009.

When asked if Alameda’s teachers could strike, Harris said that such an action would be undertaken only as a last resort, though she didn’t rule a strike out. Still, both she and the district’s chief business officer, Robert Shemwell, said they’re hopeful for progress at the bargaining table this year.

“Everything is a possibility,” Harris said. “But my hope is that we will settle a fair contract this year.”

Comments

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Fri, Sep 14, 2012

Thanks Michele for covering this story!

I think most teachers have made peace with data-driven standardized testing and that we are still able to teach the "whole child" within this framework. It seems we can all agree that test scores are one piece of a large pie when it comes to both evaluating student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

That said, standardized test scores for AUSD students improved last year and it's time to improve AUSD teacher salaries.

Submitted by Doc on Fri, Sep 14, 2012

In response to Ms. Sherratt's Statement Below:
Sherratt said she thinks the standards and testing offer students an opportunity to be more accountable for their own learning by helping them understand their strengths and challenges and giving everyone benchmarks to reach.

Students have absolutely no stake in the State Testing results and are never held accountable! The scores do not appear on their transcripts or, if low, prevent them from taking the next course or passing on to the next grade. For years teachers have tried to get the district to make the students also accountable for their performance. To their dismay this has never happened. The only person accountable for the test scores under present district policy is the teachers even if the student didn't care or try their best. Instances of just bubbling in answers to make a picture have often been reported.

How can a teacher be evaluated under such circumstances?

Submitted by Mike on Fri, Sep 14, 2012

In my opinion, whenever unions say it's not about the money, IT'S DEFINITELY ABOUT THE MONEY. "Dozens of contract issues" is what one creates to trade away for more money.

The money part of the Chicago teachers strike bears no similarity to Alameda. Furlough days and more expensive health insurance make Alameda teachers net financial losers.

A 15% raise over 4 years would make Chicago teachers huge winners. Their union president said something like 25% over 4 years was more like their position.

IMHO, it's overpaid administrators held to virtually no apparent educational performance standard in Alameda and striking teachers getting big raises in Chicago and railing against standards there that bear a striking resemblance to each other.