*Most school children – and their teachers – love snow days, those delightful, often unexpected holidays from school due to inclement weather. But the holiday Chicago’s public school children have had for over a week now due to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike, the first in 25 years, has been anything but delightful for parties on both sides. *
The fact that the strike takes place in President Obama’s hometown just eight weeks before Election Day in large part because of the education reform efforts of his former Chief of Staff, now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ensures that the story will continue to make front page headlines.
*But aside from all the political finger-pointing, what is the strike really about? What are the main issues that Emanuel’s administration and union could not come to an agreement on? *
Central to the debate are issues involving salary, length of the school day, working conditions, lay-offs, and test scores. A closer look at these issues can give us a glimpse into the murky education waters that teachers, union leaders, government officials, and concerned parents and citizens swim in today.
*Salary, Length of School Day, and Working Conditions. *
*Some have little sympathy for Chicago teachers whose average salary of $75,000 is higher than the $50,000 average found in many other cities. At a time of persistent 8% unemployment nationally, many think they should be happy just to have work. But those on the other side of the issue point out that Chicago’s cost of living is significantly higher than in many other U.S. cities. *
*Also, Mayor Emmanuel rescinded a 4% pay increase for teachers that was promised last year amid budget woes. That financial pinch also resulted in increased class sizes, with some teachers having 40 children in one class, and a failure to provide appropriate resources and updated facilities. Some teachers had class in old, decrepit buildings without air conditioning during the intense August heat. *
The new deal that is on the table now includes a 3% pay raise in year one of the contract, 2% in years two and three, and a 3% raise in year four. Also, the proposed merit pay system, in which teachers are paid based on their evaluations rather than their seniority and educational background, has been scrapped altogether. But Emanuel has held firm on his desire to lengthen the school day, and the new proposal contains a provisions for hiring new teachers to add more world language, physical education, music, and art instruction during the additional time.
*A major sticking point in the debate involves “recall rights.” *
*A “recall” takes place when a school district has had to lay off teachers, usually because of school closing or mergers, and then draws first from this pool of teachers when new openings become available. Layoffs and recalls are normally a function of seniority; teachers newest to the profession are the first to be laid off and the last to be hired back. *
Some maintain that this is a foolish practice because it does not take teacher effectiveness into account when rehiring. Others say that the policy is necessary to provide job security in the face of teacher staffing changes that they have no control over. Since the Chicago Public School system will likely close over 200 school in the next couple years, the issue of job security is in the forefront of teachers’ minds. The new proposal requires that 50% of new hires in the school system must come from its recently laid-off teachers.
*Test Scores. *
Perhaps the most critical – and complicated – issue at stake on a national level is that of teacher accountability. Many advocates of reform argue that teachers need to be more accountable for their performance. They maintain that the use of public money to finance public education needs to be justified quantifiably, which is why standardized testing has become such a central factor in any discussion of education today. Teachers should be evaluated on – and their salaries and continued employment determined by – their students’ performance on these tests, reform advocates claim. To continue to throw large amounts of public funds at a system that can’t demonstrate its “return on investment” makes no sense to them.
*Opponents of this view counter that students’ test scores are the result of many factors, only one of which is teacher effectiveness. Referring to the roughly 17,000 of the 350,000 students in the Chicago public school system who are homeless, the over 30% of kids in Chicago who live in poverty, those in the inner city who encounter drug use and violence every single day, and those who have no positive role models or parental support at home, they argue that social factors can negatively affect students’ test scores no matter how talented the teacher is. They also say that teachers often have large class sizes and include many children who have learning disabilities and need extra individual attention. Additionally, they complain that the focus on standardized test results forces them to “teach to the test” at the expense of quality learning experiences. *
Emanuel’s original proposal would have made students’ standardized test scores worth 40% of a teacher’s evaluation, but this was later rolled back to 30% in the current proposal, the minimum requirement under Illinois state law. Also, the school board has agreed to hire more social workers, counselors, and nurses to help address the many social challenges children face but only if new revenue becomes available.
Both Emanuel’s administration and champions of education reform as well as the Chicago Teachers’ Union and the teacher advocates who support them will both likely claim victory once the strike ends, at least to some extent. But it’s hard to identify a winner at all when Chicago’s children have lost out on several days of school. Hopefully, the lessons learned by both sides can help other districts avoid a similar outcome. Hopefully, snow days will be the only unexpected school holidays the rest of America’s children have this year.
**Mary Ann is a career educator with 20 years of experience as a high school teacher, assistant principal, and principal. She has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Secondary Education, and an M.A. in School Administration. Currently a Learning Consultant for a Fortune 100 company, she is also a freelance writer, the mother of an elementary school student, and a member of the advisory board at her son’s school. **
Image courtesy of MisterJayEm on Wikipedia