It’s as much a strike as it is a referendum on a school reform agenda favored by President Barack Obama.
The Chicago teachers strike that began Monday is less about money and smaller class room sizes than it is about the other improvements championed by the president, his Education Secretary in Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
They include merit pay, an expansion of charter schools, teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores, a longer school day and job security for veteran teachers.
The Chicago Teachers Union is also striking for financial reasons, but even the group’s president, Karen Lewis, acknowledged that the two sides were very close on those issues. It’s the other issues that are proving more problematic.
That especially holds true to test-based evaluation and merit pay. Reformers want to use the standardized test scores of students as a key measure of principal and teacher evaluation, but assessment experts across the country say these tests aren’t designed for this purpose and that it is an invalid evaluation tool.
A number of states have passed laws requiring that test scores be used in evaluation in varying degrees, but Chicago is at the cutting edge with its plan to have the testing make up half of an educator’s evaluation.
Some of the country’s best school systems use multiple measures to evaluate teachers that don’t include test scores, and they work just fine.
Merit pay, or performance pay, is just what it sounds like — giving more money to educators for doing a great job. But studies show that offering more money will provide an incentive for teachers and principals to do a better job doesn’t actually work in the real world.
Teachers would like to make more money, but most still work as hard as they can whether they get a bonus for it or not.
Chicago teachers are already among the nation’s highest paid with an average salary of $76,000, according to the National Council of Teacher Quality.
Emanuel wants to expand the number of public charter schools that don’t have teachers unions in the city in the hopes that would also help.
In July, the Chicago teachers and school officials came to an interim agreement on extending the school day. The city’s elementary school students had the shortest day of any urban district in the country at five hours and 45 minutes, well below the national average of 6.7 hours in school.
High school students were in school for seven hours. Under the agreement, elementary school students would see their day extended to nearly seven hours and high school students to 7 1/2 hours.
As part of the deal, the city agreed to re-hire 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours.
Reformers often say that successful school systems in countries such as Finland, Japan and Korea spend more time in school than American students, but researchers say that is not true on average.
In the meantime, more than 350,000 idle Chicago children remain idle.
Roughly 11,000 students showed up at the 144 schools kept open by the district to offer breakfast, lunch and activities on Monday. Another 7,000 attended activities at other sites, meaning the majority of Chicago’s students either stayed home or made other arrangements.