Rahm v. CTU
September 12, 2012 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the Chicago Teachers Union strike!

As a graduate of the Chicago public schools and a resident of Chicago, I have spent the last three days in a very awkward mood. I feel like I am trying to decide who to vote for based on the candidate's television ads. Even with some digging all I can manage to get is the regurgitated rhetoric of either side rewritten in various newspapers and blogs.

In the political sphere there are objective third parties, like the Congressional Budget Office or the Tax Policy Center, that I know I can turn to for a clear analysis of a bill or budget proposal. I'm looking for this type of thing for the teacher's union strike.

Is the city's hand tied by financial constraints or is Rahm trying to convert us all to the cult of charter schools? Are the teachers really holding out for serious systematic changes or is this about the city reneging on its pay increase promises? Help me sort through the rhetoric and get to the bottom of this.

Ideally I'm looking for some third party to look at each side's actual proposals and not just the press releases. I'm also curious about other informed people's view on this crisis but I don't know if that's possible here without turning this into a debate.
posted by masterscruffy to Education (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Are you already aware of this Metafilter thread? Some helpful information has been posted there.
posted by corb at 8:52 AM on September 12, 2012

Response by poster: I have seen both links. The issue is that I'm clear on the wishes of either side but I cant seem to find any analysis as to why or why not. OK, the teachers want x and y. Why doesn't the city want x and y. Is it because there is no money or because Rahm has a different vision for the system? See what I mean?
posted by masterscruffy at 9:13 AM on September 12, 2012

I believe, though not following this strike closely, that the issue is not really at all about money but rather teacher evaluations.
posted by Postroad at 10:50 AM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a former CPS teacher and now work with teachers across the country. I think one of the biggest issues (and what would have me on the picket line) is the evaluation process and the idea of value-added metrics and how to measure student improvement (I saw a quote this morning along the lines of "no good teacher opposes having their pay tied to effectiveness but no teacher thinks effectiveness can be measured by standardized tests"). This issue is huge and is relevant nation-wide - my school in Oregon opted out of a grant because we didn't like how the testing would be done.

Regarding this issue, I'd look into Diane Ravitch's writings. She initially spearheaded the entire NCLB movement that included testing to identify failing schools. While she is incredibly opposed to that now and her writings are obviously biased, I find she often cites studies you might find more up your alley and you can then interpret the information yourself. You can follow her on Twitter, look at her book, or her website. It WILL be biased, you will see rhetoric but on teacher evals and testing, she is a "horse's mouth" sort of person. She is also honest about why she initially thought testing would be good and then changed her mind.

As a teacher advocate, I appreciate you wanting to look at this side objectively. Ravitch is NOT objective but if you follow her train of thought, I think you'll get a better idea about the nation-wide issues at stake for teachers than you would if you just look at the CTU leaderships views. I would suggest reading up on Ravitch and see who opposes her and go down the links they post to support their side.
posted by adorap0621 at 10:53 AM on September 12, 2012

Best answer: "Is the city's hand tied by financial constraints or is Rahm trying to convert us all to the cult of charter schools?"


(As I think everyone knows by now, I'm an elected school board member in a downstate Illinois large urban district. So I'm pretty invested in these issues and pay a lot of attention.)

The Chicago school district's budget has a shortfall between $650 million and $1 billion, on a budget of $5.75 billion, depending on certain budget assumptions and whether you think the state will pay its legal obligations -- which it won't. It paid only 85% of General State Aid last year, which is the state's required share of school district funding. The state is usually between 3 and 9 months behind on its payments, but has historically paid at least 95%. We knew they weren't going to pay it all but that was startling. School districts can only raise property taxes (and only by capped, constrained amounts, the details of which aren't particularly important here, but the basic point is: only one revenue source, cannot raise revenue enough to match shortfall) and the state has basically informed districts that in addition to not paying their full General State Aid obligation, they intend to raise the share of retirement for teachers that has to be paid out of district funds rather than state funds, to cover a shortfall that was created by the state failing to pay its share. Moreover, the city has shifted some costs on to the district, by, for example, charging the district for garbage pickup, which used to be free to the district. (We have faced similar things in my downstate district; the city put a "use tax" on natural gas that applies even to other government entities, which required the school district to raise property taxes to pay the city tax, but allowed the city to say it "held the line on property taxes" because they simply shifted their burden to other taxing bodies.) Meanwhile, property values in much of the state are flat or falling.

So CPS's budget is in big, bad, billion-dollar trouble and it is only going to get worse.

Meanwhile, Illinois has extremely powerful teachers' unions. They have historically been the largest single contributor to statehouse races. In the 80s and the 90s, those unions won many important concessions, including, in Chicago, a 5.75-hour school day, one of the shortest in the nation, and the shortest legally allowed in Illinois. (I think. 5.5 might be the bottom bound.) Rahm would like to raise the school day to 7.5 hours; the realistic goal is probably 6.5 hours, which is pretty reasonable. But, the city doesn't want to pay teachers more for the longer day. Which, on the one hand, it's easy to say, "There is no way you should have been getting $76k/year for teaching 5.75 hours a day for 180 days for however many years that went on." But on the other hand, it's pretty infuriating to be told your workday is going to be quite a bit longer, with no increase in compensation. And most teachers do, legitimately, do a hell of a lot of work at home in terms of teaching preparation and grading.

But, a longer day is not necessarily a better day. If no extra resources are added, it's essentially another hour of children being babysat by people with masters' degrees, who are losing that time out of their time to grade. If they're adding art and music and PE and teachers' aides who can work one-on-one with children struggling with math and things like that, that's a good extra hour. But that costs even MORE money that isn't there. We should also note that Rahm's children go to a private school (not even a public charter) that has a SHORTER day than the public schools and a shorter year, too, while he is advocating for a longer day and longer year for OTHER people's children. What people aren't saying is that studies show a longer day doesn't do much for children of professional parents, who get a lot of enrichment at home (and tend to have more stable home lives), but it does a great deal for children of impoverished parents who do not. This is one of the Great Unspokens in all of these debates since NCLB about how schools should work and what schools should be: Wealthy children and poor children need DIFFERENT THINGS from schools. But "separate and unequal" as an official policy is ... well, it's hard to imagine. (I mean, it's what we already do, we just provide really low-quality education to poor children.) Also, last year my district pulled some resources out of a middle-class school that didn't need them to put them into an impoverished school that did and OH THE BLOWBACK because middle-class parents are a heck of a lot more politically active than impoverished parents.

Meanwhile, Rahm is very friendly to charter schools, which in Illinois is a VERY corporatized movement. Teachers in charters (of which there are 100+ in Chicago, compared to 650ish traditional public schools) are not unionized. They work longer hours for lower pay and poorer benefits. Charters receive the same money from the state and district -- the tax money follows the student -- and the savings charters get on teachers does not, for the most part, go to hiring more teachers; it goes to earning the corporate parent a profit. Many of those corporate parents are not even located in Illinois. The charters are not, on the whole, more successful than the public schools.

But what most of this centers around is Senate Bill 7, which allows districts to RIF (lay off) unsatisfactory tenured teachers BEFORE they lay off satisfactory untenured teachers. The universal and required yearly evaluation of teachers is a BRAND new thing in Illinois; removing your tenure rights (essentially) if you're bad at your job was NOT in the original bill requiring evaluation.

But Eyebrows, you say, shouldn't people who suck at their jobs get fired?

Indeed, yes, and it's terribly difficult to get rid of a bad teacher in Illinois. Improvements in districts' ability to fire or lay off bad teachers -- and keep good ones -- were badly needed. However, the evaluation system is brand new and has barely been tried (pilot districts, of which my district was one, literally just finished their second year doing evaluations, and their first year doing them universally -- most pilot districts piloted it in a handful of schools before expanding it district-wide), and Chicago is going to include student test scores as part of the teacher evaluation. If you receive an unsatisfactory rating two years in a row, you may now be released from employment even if you are tenured. But here's the problem: As anyone who's ever been in a classroom can tell you, your random mix of 25 students (Chicago classrooms are closer to 30) is pretty unique from year to year, and some years you get a good class, through no magic of your own, and some years you get a bad class, through no fault of your own. Twenty-five student test scores per year, over two years, is not REMOTELY statistically significant. (For some high school teachers who may have 150 students in one subject over a six-period day, there may be at least some significance, but not for elementary school teachers.) In New York City and Los Angeles, where student-test-score-linked evaluations have been in place for a little while, it's been a pretty unmitigated clusterfuck that has penalized good teachers and allowed bad ones to slip through, because student test scores are a bad way to identify good and bad teachers. It also has ended in teacher-sponsored cheating on tests in other districts. But it's quantifiable, which is why the corporate model of school people really like it. But no corporation would ever say, "You have to make widgets to these quality standards in your factory. However, you are not able to monitor the quality control of raw materials coming into your factory and random outsiders are going to be allowed to mess with your widgets every single day. You can only control the widgets 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, but all of your widgets must meet our high widget standards." Because children are not widgets!

Anyway, pilot districts who just finished their second year, and therefore had some teachers with two unsatisfactory ratings, did their first set of layoffs under Senate Bill 7 this spring, RIFfing about 12 tenured teachers, statewide, deemed unsatisfactory. Two of these, both from my downstate district, have, at this time, filed lawsuits claiming Senate Bill 7 is invalid (for various reasons not particularly important here).

So these are the basic issues: The district wants a longer day than the current absurdly short one. They don't want to pay the teachers because a) the day is currently absurdly short and b) they can't afford it. The teachers don't want to work more hours without getting paid more. Both positions are pretty reasonable.

The district wants to be able to fire bad teachers more easily, which is a very necessary thing in Illinois, as it could take more than two years to fire a teacher you have identified as a complete failure, and want a way to measure teacher effectiveness, which is a very important goal (the single largest factor in student success that is within school control is teacher quality). The teachers don't want their employment to be tied to an unproven and subjective evaluation system, which is reasonably fair, or to student test scores, which has failed in every district that's tried it so far.

But these are the underlying issues that aren't going to be addressed by the Chicago strike because they are systemic:
*Schools have undergone incredible change since the hey-day of the 1960s of American education that people are usually mentally comparing them to. In the 60s, 2/3 of households had K-12 children. Today, around 1/3 do. A lot less of the community is engaged with the schools, and it's much harder to pass school-related tax increases. Meanwhile, since then, schools are now required to educate ALL children -- not just the ones who want to be there (far tighter truancy laws); not just the white ones (Brown v. Board); not just the "perfect" ones: before 1973, schools could refuse to educate children with ANY physical or mental disability, including, say, having to use a crutch from having polio as a child. Huge quantities of the increases in public school costs go to special ed. Schools are the primary contact point for providing welfare to children under age 18, through free federal breakfast and lunch and through health care services that must be provided BY LAW by districts to students who need them (through Medicaid) but that otherwise are NOT provided to them at all unless they have insurance. That is expensive.

*Local property tax funding of education means the rich get excellent schools with tons of resources and the poor get terrible schools with few resources. The students with the most need receive the fewest services.

*Most children no longer have a parent in the home. Schools can't count on parent chaperones for field trips, for example, but there's been no funding to replace the huge amount of volunteer work parents (mothers) have been traditionally expected to do during the school day. Those things just get dropped.

*High-stakes testing is largely crap. Good standardized tests are expensive to create, expensive to administer, and expensive to evaluate. So we just use the shitty ones. (We do know what good ones look like -- AP tests are one example.)

*The single largest factor in student success is totally OUTSIDE schools' control: The socioeconomic status of the parents. Poor children are set up to fail by society. Children who are hungry cannot learn. Children who are suffering malnutrition and lead poisoning (from unremediated housing stock) are sustaining brain damage. Children who are sick and have no access to health care cannot learn. Children who are being phyically or sexually abused cannot learn. Children who are working under the table every night for 8 hours are too tired to learn. Children whose parents cannot read have no help with homework. Children who are not SAFE at home because of neighborhood violence have a difficult time learning. 85% of Chicago Public Schools' students are impoverished. The impoverished students who are in a GOOD situation go to school and go home to a badly-maintained slum-lord-owned apartment with lead paint and stay inside and watch TV, because there are no parks, there are no yards, it's not safe to be outside, there are no extracurriculars, and there is nothing else to do. KINDERGARTENERS are truant because they are at home babysitting even younger children while mom works two jobs (or, yes, sometimes while mom does crack).

The strike will settle one way or the other, and I'm following it pretty anxiously because it will have a huge impact on what financial choices my district has going forward. But the truth is that fighting over schools is just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic of totally failed poverty policies. We will have this battle over and over again, but we're offering someone dying of smallpox a little acne cream for those breakouts. The problem isn't the cosmetic impact of the pox, it's THE VIRUS THAT'S KILLING YOU. Fighting over ever-increasing school needs that must come out of an ever-shrinking tax-revenue pie isn't going to stop happening, but it is a distraction from the fact that we're asking schools to solve societal problems that need much broader, more comprehensive solutions that schools can provide.

/I hope you all enjoyed this novel. Sorry for typos, I'm so tired from typing it that my proofreading is poor.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2012 [193 favorites]

Actually Eyebrows, that was the most amazing and illuminating thing I've read on this subject. Mind porting it to the other thread too?
posted by corb at 12:04 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a related question, which I hope is okay: why do I not see discussion of work-to-rule as a first step, before the strike? I sense, from strikes here, that people are much more supportive of teachers or nurses working to rule than striking (unsurprisingly), and though sometimes a strike is necessary, I didn't see this option in the news.
posted by jeather at 2:30 PM on September 12, 2012

Response by poster: Absolutely fantastic, Eyebrows. That certainly clarifies the issue. God damn, I love metafilter.
posted by masterscruffy at 4:03 PM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

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