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.

churning not learning

New research shows just how much losing a teacher midyear hurts students

PHOTO: Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post
Brown International Academy teacher Kate Tynan-Ridgeway works with a student.

The consequences of teacher churn were apparent to Esperanza Vazquez, a mother of two from New York City.

I had an experience with my son where he had a new teacher every week in math,” she told Chalkbeat recently. “That doesn’t help students.”

Now new research backs up Vazquez’s experience, documenting for perhaps the first time the steep consequences for students after teachers leave a classroom in middle of the school year.

The finding comes in a trio of new studies focusing on North Carolina. Together, they suggest that ill effects of teacher turnover identified in previous research may be driven largely by midyear departures; that those consequences extend even to students in the same grade whose teachers stay on; and that midyear turnover may be more common than previously thought, especially in schools serving more students of color and those from low-income families.

“While it is possible for turnover to be beneficial for school systems, an extensive body of research points to the ways that teacher turnover disrupts … the continuity of a child’s learning experiences, particularly in underserved schools,” write researchers Gary Henry of Vanderbilt and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida in one of the papers.

Henry and Redding’s three studies — two of which were published earlier this year in peer-reviewed journals, with the other is set to be published in coming weeks — home in on the rarely studied phenomenon of midyear teacher turnover.

Using recent data from North Carolina, two of the papers focus on the prevalence of the phenomenon. Annually 4.6 percent of teachers in the state departed midyear; among teachers in their first three years the rate jumped to 6 percent. The number was higher in schools deemed “underserved,” meaning they had more students of color and students in poverty, as well as lower test scores and fewer resources. Turnover was lower when principals were rated as more effective by teachers. It was higher among teachers who were less effective, those eligible for retirement benefits, and high school and middle school teachers.

Roughly a quarter of all teacher turnover in the state occurred in the middle of the school year.

The third study uses data from 2008 to 2014 to examine the consequences of midyear teacher attrition on elementary and middle school students’ test scores. In both math and English, students saw drops in learning as a result, controlling for a number of other factors. The decline in math scores was nearly as large as the difference in performance between an average teacher and an excellent one — a difference that has motivated dramatic policy changes in many places.

Impacts were smaller in English and in middle school, but also consistently negative. Students in the same grade level, but not class, of teachers were also harmed, but again less so.

The negative results are consistent with research on the effects of hiring teachers after the school year starts, in some ways a mirror image of the phenomenon.

The paper suggests three things that might explain the results: disruption in classrooms where teachers leave, instability in a school where teachers are exiting midyear, and less effective teachers replacing those who depart. The study suggests the first two theories seem to be clearly at play, since it was relatively ineffective teachers who were particularly likely to leave.

“When multiple teachers exit a school during the year, it can become increasingly difficult for teachers to maintain a work environment with a high degree of collaboration,” the researchers say.

The study did reach some surprising results: Students of color, students in poverty and students with lower prior test scores, generally did not suffer more as a result of midyear turnover; if anything, they suffered less in English. It may be that their schools were better prepared for midyear exits since they happen more frequently; it could also be that those students were simply “not well served by the teacher who departed,” the paper hypothesizes.

Another counterintuitive result: Unlike midyear turnover, departure of teachers at the end of the school year did not lead to declines in student learning, and even led to small benefits in some cases. That’s surprising in light of past research — and conventional wisdom — suggesting that teacher turnover harms students. (Prior studies generally have not distinguished between midyear and end-of-year turnover.)

The latest research does come with a key caveat: Test scores might be lower in classes where teachers leave midyear for other reasons — perhaps a particularly disruptive class causes both a teacher to quit and students to learn less in school. The authors attempt to account for this by comparing how the same student did in years when their teacher does not turnover.

The studies also look at just a single state, so it’s unclear whether the results would look similar elsewhere.

The researchers point out that some churn is inevitable, even healthy. “Many of the personal factors driving within-year teacher turnover are unlikely to be amenable to change: a teacher takes time in the middle of the school year for parental leave; a veteran teacher retires midyear; a beginning teacher leaves a few months into the school year after realizing teaching is a poor occupational fit,” write Henry and Redding. Indeed, female teachers between the ages of 26 and 40 years old were particularly likely to exit mid-year, indicating that parental leave plays a significant role in the results.

But the studies collectively conclude that students could benefit from combating midyear departures — although the best way to do that is not clear.

In Detroit, some schools have adopted a crude — and some would say cruel — approach, imposing financial penalties for teachers who left midyear. Studies focusing on turnover in general have found that higher pay, better working conditions, and more effective principals can make a difference.

At the same, time Henry and Redding argue that policymakers ought to make extensive efforts to avoid midyear teacher turnover when possible. For instance, they point out that information from teacher evaluation systems, including “value-added” test scores measures, aren’t always available until after the school year has begun. Finalizing those results before classes are underway could decrease midyear exits, they speculate.

“All measures of teachers’ performance, including their value-added scores, should be provided during the summer to allow teachers and administrators to attend to employment decisions without disrupting classes that have already begun,” the researchers conclude.

First Person

Staying ‘neutral’ after the Jason Van Dyke verdict was a tough ask of Chicago teachers like me

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
A woman holds a sign outside the courthouse after a murder verdict is handed down in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

At the beginning of every school year, I introduce myself to my students with a very personal presentation.

I show them pictures of where I grew up, my family, and the students I’ve taught at two other Chicago schools. I’m a human, not a robot, I tell them, earning a couple of laughs with my corny robot impression. At the end, I show them a signed copy of John Lewis’s “March,” the graphic novel that illustrates his experiences as a Civil Rights Movement leader. I talk about seeing Lewis speak at a Chicago Public Schools event years ago, and how he inspired me to speak up when I saw injustice.

In return, I ask my students to introduce themselves. They bring pictures of their lives, families, friends, and travels, and they talk about who they want to become. These presentations help to turn the library and writing center I oversee into a community.

The connection I have with my students isn’t out of the ordinary in Chicago. I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher in the three very different high schools I’ve taught in and in schools all across the city who didn’t have strong ties to the students they teach. That’s why it felt so problematic that my district, CPS, asked its teachers to remain “neutral” about the Van Dyke case — the trial of a Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a Chicago teenager.

Two days before the Van Dyke decision came down, amid warnings that riots could follow a “not guilty” decision, the district sent an email advising teachers about how to handle discussions surrounding the verdict. I applaud the email for its initial statement: “It is critical that educators are prepared and provide space for students should they and their students choose to engage in this critical and timely public issue,” it read.

But in the next paragraph, the district said that teachers “must remain neutral.” The email cited a 2007 Indiana circuit court decision, Mayer v. Monroe County Schools, that ruled that “teachers do not have the constitutional right to introduce their own political views to students, ‘but must stick to the prescribed curriculum.’”

That left me with several questions. First, is an opinion on the Van Dyke trial truly a political view? Many of my students, now juniors and seniors, were just becoming teenagers when they watched the dash-cam video where 16 bullets riddle Laquan McDonald’s 17-year-old body.  The opinion CPS is concerned about me sharing, presumably, is that Van Dyke should face consequences.

I have taught many students like Laquan McDonald, students who have grown up in foster homes, who have failed out of the very school I taught in, whose city literally left them behind. When I saw Laquan McDonald in that video, I saw their faces grimacing on the ground, their bodies writhing. To me, his death, the subsequent cover-up, and the verdict, is personal, not political.

Asking me to “stay neutral” as a white teacher in a classroom full of African-American and Latinx students is asking me to send a message that I am indifferent to their experiences and to have them see me as a stereotype of whiteness. I am on their side. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them know this. But the message I received implies that my district does.

In the court case evidently used as proof for why staying neutral is mandatory, students asked their teacher whether she ever protested. She told them that she honked her car horn at demonstrators calling for peace at an anti-Iraq War demonstration. The teacher believed she was fired because of this discussion. The court ruled in favor of the school district, stating, “the First Amendment does not entitle primary and secondary teachers, when conducting the education of captive audiences, to cover topics, or advocate viewpoints, that depart from the curriculum adopted by the school system.”

How this applies in my situation is confusing, since every year in my career I have either had the freedom to construct or co-construct curriculum for my classroom. It also reminds me of what Holocaust survivor and award-winning author Elie Wiesel said in his speech when winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Asking teachers to remain neutral when discussing Laquan McDonald teaches my students something I don’t want them ever to learn: that my connections with them, and my pursuit of justice for our shared community, are not my highest priority.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.  She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.