I’ve been meaning to post about the beginning of year two for some time now, but, in usual form, I’m too busy to type! In the first two weeks of school I’ve been putting together my classroom, getting to know my new students, continuing my own education at Cardinal Stritch University, and following the teachers strike in Chicago. It’s the last item that compelled me to post for the first time this year!
This evening, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) delegates decided to take an extra day to review the proposed contract with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). According to WBEZ, they want to hear from their fellow teachers before voting on the deal. While it’s unfortunate that students and teachers will not be back in the classroom tomorrow, what I find most interesting about the whole process is how people show their true colors during the course of a strike. Everyone has an opinion. Mine, as I’ve made clear on social media, is that CTU is right to hold a strike. As a Democrat, it’s easy for me to stand on the side of workers; however, as a corps member within Teach For America, it’s a bit taboo to speak my mind. In our training we’re told that students come first. That’s true. Yet, somehow, a myth has emerged that any kind of work stoppage is damaging to students. I believe this claim is false, and, in the wake of CTU voting down the latest contract offer, I think it’s critical to take a closer look at what’s happening in Chicago.
While this contract dispute is not about wages, teacher pay is central to the ongoing fight between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel–via the appointed CPS Board of Education–and CTU President Karen Lewis. Last year, Chicago teachers were due a four percent pay raise. Mayor Emanuel pressured his appointed CPS Board to rescind the raise due to the state of the city budget. This caused many of the tensions between Mayor Emanuel and CTU. It looks like the two sides have settled on a seven or ten percent raise over three or four years. Also, the contract should preserve steps and lanes which reward long-term educators.
What I think is interesting about urban educators is that in a city like Chicago, eighty-seven percent of the teachers are women and nearly half are African-American or Latino. I’d wager that many of them came from low-income homes or were the first in their family to attend college, too. In many recent conversations with fellow TFA teachers, I’ve highlighted the fact that many of us are minority, low-income, or first-generation college students, and we’re drawn to the work because we want to teach people we identify with and want to boost to greater heights. Yet, if being an urban educator is not a decent paying job, how are we supposed to continue in this line of work? I made $29,500 last year and I’ll make the same this year. That’s fine as a TFA teacher, but, if I’m going to continue and raise a family, then it doesn’t cut it in America. This is supposed to be a middle-class job and Chicago teachers deserve a Chicago-sized living wage. Otherwise, we can’t attract top talent to this profession, and that’s something I’ve heard all sides say we need in order to boost the profession.
The contract does not have a provision for merit pay. Originally, Mayor Emanuel and the CPS Board were interested in the idea of merit pay for teachers. I believe I’ve argued before that I’ve seen little evidence that supports the idea of merit pay. In fact, I’ve heard of many situations where teachers are promised merit pay, and cash-strapped schools have to back down from their promises at the end of the year. I’m happy to see CTU stand against it. In fact, I don’t think teachers should take merit pay until Mayor Emanuel’s plan for principals pans out because I haven’t heard anything about it since the launch last year. That said, if someone can provide me supporting information for merit pay, I’d be more than happy to read and post about it.
This is one of the major points of contention within the contract. In CPS’s original proposal, a whopping forty percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student test scores by the end of the contract. That’s the maximum amount recommended by President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and Illinois’ Race to the Top legislation with regard to value-added data within teacher evaluations. The low end recommendation is twenty percent. Fifty percent would be teacher practice and ten percent would be student feedback.
While I think value-added assessments are beneficial as a tool for teachers in determining how to teach their students, I still question using them to evaluate teachers. I question it even more when it is worth forty percent of an evaluation. Then the other sixty percent is based on how an administrator and students feel about a given teacher. In my own middle and high school experience, I know several outspoken teachers who could have been targeted by my principal and fellow students had this system been in place. This is not to say I don’t agree with teacher evaluations, but, if we are going to hold teachers to a high standard, there needs to be an equal measure with which we hold administrators accountable, too. In my mind, let’s get rid of bad teachers and bad administrators, because I don’t think you can have a good school with either.
From what I saw over the past week, recall and school closures have been the biggest issues for CTU. For those of you who don’t know, recall is the process of rehiring laid-off teachers when positions open within CPS. Mayor Emanuel wants laid-off teachers to have to apply for new openings within the district. With many schools slated to close in the coming year, CTU wants laid-off teachers to be automatically recalled if positions open at other schools. It appears the compromise is that teachers will be able to follow their students. For example, if school “x” closes at the end of the year and its students go to school “y” the following year and school “y” has new openings, teachers from school “x” will be automatically hired at school “y” since students from school “x” enrolled there. Ultimately, CTU is calling for a moratorium on school closings, but I doubt that happens given the state of our public schools and the increased flow of students to charter and suburban school districts.
Environmental Issues and Respect
On top of the financial issues for which CTU is allowed to strike, teachers are on the picket line for a litany of other reasons, too. They’re calling for more art, music, physical education, and language teachers, they want an anti-bullying policy for staff, they want more diversity among staff (the majority of lay-offs have been African-American teachers), greater reimbursement for school supplies, more wrap-around services (counselors and nurses), air conditioning in hot classrooms, books for students on day one of school, reduced paperwork, and a unified school calendar.
Above all else, I think Chicago teachers are looking for respect. Since Mayor Emanuel has been elected, he has tried to tell teachers what they were going to get in their contract and that they were going to like it. Rahm is not keen on compromise, he’s a man who wants to win. He didn’t think teachers would get the seventy-five percent authorization within the union they needed to go on strike, so he acted like an ass. I think he’s learned that collective bargaining is not like legislation as the teachers came back with ninety-five percent authorization within the union for a strike, and it appears they have the support of most parents, too. Might this change in the second week of a strike? We’ll have to wait and see.
What needs to change in the long-term is that Chicago needs a publicly-elected school board. Many may point to my hometown of Detroit as a reason against this, but it is clear that the CPS Board acts in the interest of the mayor as opposed to the interest of its constituents and students. Also, and elected school board would give parents a direct say in their schools when they go to the ballot box.
As for the claim that a teachers strike hurts students, I just don’t believe that to be true. In the short-term, parents have to find and pay for daycare. They weren’t expecting a strike. But, ultimately, these school days will be made up once both sides agree to a deal. Students will not miss instructional days, and they will not fall behind because of a strike.
What most concerns me is the amount of money that has gone toward Mayor Emanuel from charter school advocates. Stand for Children, a charter advocacy organization, has stood behind Mayor Emanuel during the contract negotiations and put up a number of ads in the greater-Chicago area. Huffington Post writers Paul Blumenthal and Joy Resmovits claim that Rahm Emanuel took $720,000 from “Stand for Children” donors during his campaign for mayor. So, the question is whether Mayor Emanuel is an advocate for charters because he believes they’re good for Chicago or because they’re another cog in the Chicago machine.
I do like some charter schools; however, I want to see more data that good, quality charter schools outweigh bad ones if we are to believe they’re even part of the solution to failing public schools. In Milwaukee, I can’t think of one charter or “choice” high school I would want to send my future children. The top two high schools in the state are a Milwaukee Public Schools. Quite honestly, I am tired of union bashing in school communities. The union is what gives teachers a voice. At my school, a “choice” school, I have little to no voice. Nor do my colleagues in charter and “choice” schools across the City of Milwaukee and across this country. I challenge public school teachers to make sure they are active within their union, and to stand up and be part of the discourse within public schools. As a collective body of teachers, we can make a powerful change for our students; however, if we allow for the continued destruction of the public school system, we will not have any ground to stand on in the future.