Threat to Teachers' Job Security Looms Large in Chicago Strike

By Andy Ewing, PayScale.com

The Chicago teachers’ strike is continuing to drag on and may spell trouble for the Obama campaign. The Obama connections are numerous—Chicago, unions, Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, just to name a few. But perhaps the biggest connection between Obama and this strike is what the teachers are fighting hardest—a teacher performance evaluation system based on student performance.


Strike Background

As with most strikes, this one occurred because collectively bargaining labor could not come to an agreement on a new contract with the employer of that labor. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) chose to strike after reaching an impasse with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over issues such as compensation, longer school days, school closings and lowered job security in the face of a teacher evaluation system based partly on student performance. As a result of the strike, teachers did not report to class on September 10, 2012 and are not likely to return until September 19 or later.

As of September 18, the contract on the table is close to being accepted. However, CTU continues to strike, prompting Emanuel to reiterate his "strike of choice" mantra, “I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union. This was a strike of choice and is now a delay of choice that is wrong for our children. Every day our kids are kept out of school is one more day we fail in our mission: to ensure that every child in every community has an education that matches their potential.”

The latest version of the contract under negotiation has the two sides predictably meeting somewhere in the middle on wage demands, a new “CPS Hiring Pool” that forces half of all new hires to be laid-off teachers, and a backing down of CPS and the City on the usage of student test scores in evaluations.

Student Test Scores

It is this last item that is fairly unique to this strike but soon will be a common theme among all disputes between teachers and the states that employ them. CTU highlights fairer evaluation procedures in the face of an increased call for student test scores to be part of any teacher evaluation scheme: “The new contract will limit CPS to 70 percent “teacher practice,” 30 percent “student growth” (or test scores)—which is the minimum by state law. It also secures in the first year of implementation of the new evaluation procedures there will be “no harmful consequences for tenured teachers.”

Measuring student growth and linking it to a teacher’s “value-added” is where the education world has been headed ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. And yes, the Obama Administration has continued in this direction with its Race to the Top program, with money given to states where there is an emphasis on, “Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction.”

A Brave New World?

The new reality for our country’s teachers everywhere is that in the very near future their individual job security will depend, in part, on how their students perform on standardized tests. This is a radical shift from decades past when students took perhaps one or two state standardized tests in their lifetimes or when only schools as a whole were disciplined or rewarded for growth in student test scores. States are creating large databases linking students and teachers over time with the intention of improving our education system. As a consequence, a teacher’s job security will depend on how well their students tackle these tests.

Andy Ewing is an economist and writer living on Bainbridge Island, Wash. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Washington. He has taught economics at Eckerd College and conducted research in the economics of education.

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