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.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.