primer

Why Chicago teachers are on strike and what could come next

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Striking Chicago teachers picket today outside Ray Elementary School, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent his children when he was Chicago's schools chief. (Photo: Raiselle Resnick for GothamSchools)

Chicago’s long-threatened teacher strike, which began today, isn’t just about Chicago teachers. It’s also something of a referendum on the current moment in education policy.

Of the many reasons for the strike, three stand out. We explain each one below — and then explain how the strike could evolve from here. In a second post, we’ll explain why the Windy City’s labor conflict matters here in the Big Apple.

1. A new mayor. Chicago teachers have been distressed for several years as budget cuts caused school closures and hundreds of layoffs. Tensions between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city mounted last year when former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, bringing with him an aggressive approach to cost-cutting, the support of national education reform advocacy groups, and a superintendent who cut his teeth under Joel Klein in New York City. Jean-Claude Brizard quickly earned criticism as “anti-teacher” based on his record in Rochester, N.Y., where 95 percent of teachers gave him a “no-confidence” vote shortly before he departed.

Emanuel immediately announced that he was canceling raises promised to Chicago teachers and requiring teachers to work longer days and years. The extended-day gambit backfired when a state labor board ruled that Emanuel could not unilaterally require that kind of change. But Emanuel pressed on, offering incentives to schools that would add teaching time. He and Brizard also introduced a new rating system for schools, engineered closures and multiple “turnaround” efforts that cost some teachers their jobs, and introduced a new teacher evaluation system without union consent. (WBEZ Chicago has a comprehensive timeline of Emanuel’s education initiatives and how they were received.)

2. A new teachers union. Emanuel’s moves would have angered any teachers union. But since 2010, Chicago’s has one of the most aggressive in the country. That’s when a minority party known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, took power from the reigning union leadership, which it criticized as complacent on issues of privatization and community engagement. After contract talks failed to satisfy the union this year, its members voted to authorize a strike in June, in a vote with a 91.5 percent turnout rate and a 90 percent approval rate. Since then, the city made several rounds of concessions and reached a deal with CTU about how to extend the school day. But several issues remained unresolved by the strike deadline on Sunday.

CORE started out as a minority party in the union that was organizing with the goal of pushing the union’s agenda to the left. As budget conditions worsened and city officials took an increasingly aggressive tone, the group gained traction with a platform that stood apart from most union leaders’.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national union headed by Randi Weingarten of which CTU is a part, has been willing to collaborate with members of the education reform movement, including President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg. But  CORE urged outright resistance. Its platform echoes criticisms levied by the historian Diane Ravitch, who characterizes Obama and Bloomberg as profiteers who seek to privatize public education and shove teachers and students to the margins.

“What drives school reform is a singular focus on profit,” said Karen Lewis, the party’s presidential candidate, in her acceptance speech after she and other CORE candidates won a come-from-behind election in 2010. In her fiery debut speech, Lewis told the then-superintendent, “You’ve met your match.” Tensions only escalated after Emanuel became mayor last year.

3. A reform movement that left many teachers feeling alienated and angry. As in most contract talks, one big issue in Chicago’s was pay. The union wanted members to get raises that Emanuel had canceled and additional pay for working longer hours. But both CTU officials and Emanuel said on Sunday night that the compensation issues were surmountable.

The real sticking point was teacher evaluations: Chicago has rolled out teacher evaluations that will ultimately be based 40 percent on student performance, and the union doesn’t want student test scores to play any role in how teachers are rated. On Sunday night, Lewis said thousands of teachers could lose their jobs under the new system, which she said could not possibly account for poverty and other issues that students and teachers face.

Holding teachers accountable for how much their students learn is a signature platform of the education reform movement. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program encouraged states across the country to rewrite their laws governing how teachers are evaluated, hired, and fired, prompting dozens of states to rewrite their laws. Illinois and New York are two of them.

But there are other issues at play, too. The union also wants class size limits added to its contract; currently, Chicago has large classes and only guidelines, not rules, governing their size. And the union also wants teachers who were displaced because their schools closed or lost enrollment to have “recall rights” to claim any new jobs — a pressing issue right now because schools must extend their day by hiring a second shift of educators. It’s not legal for the union to strike over recall rights, but CTU officials say it has to get settled as part of a broad slate of contract issues before teachers will go back to work.

Chicago’s final offer, which the city published after the union turned it down on Sunday, offered “joint implementation” of a new teacher evaluation system, “improved monitoring of class size issues,” and a five-month window for displaced teachers to find new positions before being fired. But it did not dial back the role of test scores in evaluations or introduce recall rights, which Emanuel said would have compromised principals’ ability to choose who is on their staff.

What happens next? The strike seems assured of bringing more attention to the thorny issues that have divided unions and mayors not just in Chicago but across the country — and, potentially, of bringing sympathy to their position. But the strike also gives the Emanuel administration new ammunition to use against teachers and their union in the future.

Ending the strike quickly would be politically expedient for both the city and the union, neither of which wants to be blamed for disrupting instruction, leaving children without care, and potentially costing parents pay or even their jobs. But that doesn’t mean either side is going to cede ground easily. Some components of the teacher evaluation plan CTU opposes are set in Illinois state law, so the city can’t change them. And Lewis has sworn not to return teachers to their classrooms until they have a contract that responds to the union’s complete set of contract demands.

One interesting dimension is the contrast introduced by Chicago’s charter schools, which enroll about 50,000 students and are operating as usual today. It’s the first time that a major city has had a teachers union strike and a large swath of non-unionized schools remain open.

As for today, union and city officials are back in contract talks after a night’s break. Meanwhile, Chicago teachers are picketing outside their schools today while classes are canceled for about 350,000 students. This afternoon, they will rally at their union headquarters.

And parents who expected to send their children off for the second week of school today must fend for themselves. The city is encouraging parents to handle chid-care on their own but has opened about 150 school buildings and other sites to families with no other options. Non-union Chicago Public Schools employees and volunteers are staffing them in an arrangement that the union has warned will expose children to strangers. Students will do independent reading, arts and crafts, and athletic activities, but they cannot be taught without certified teachers on hand. The city is also deploying hundreds of police officers to the temporary “Children First” sites, picket lines, and places where out-of-school students might congregate.

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.