Chicago school teachers give us all a lesson

Two-thirds of parents supported the Chicago school teachers’ protest in spite of the inconvenience caused by the strike.

Chicago teachers go on strike for the first time in 25 years.
Firings based narrowly on test scores may cause "many dedicated and competent teachers to lose their jobs" [EPA]

We don’t know the final terms of the settlement yet, but it appears that the Chicago public school teachers managed to score a major victory over Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s business-oriented mayor. Testing will not comprise as large a share in teachers’ evaluations as Emanuel had wanted; there will be a serious appeals process for teachers whom the school district wants to fire, and laid off teachers will have priority in applying for new positions. 

If these seem like narrow self-interested gains for the teachers and their union, think again. Teaching in inner city schools is a difficult and demanding job. 

Most of the children in Chicago’s public schools are poor. Their families are struggling with all the issues presented by poverty. Many of the schools are in high crime areas and serious crimes often take place on school premises. It can be a lot harder job than working for a hedge fund. 

It will not be possible to get committed and competent people to teach in the public school system if they cannot be guaranteed at least a limited amount of job security and respect. The $70,000 annual pay that was ridiculed as excessive by so many pundits would not even be a week’s salary for many of the Wall Street types who do nothing more productive than shuffle paper. 

The widely held view in the media, that the school teachers and their union are an anachronism, turns reality on its head. The so-called “school reform” movement is by now old news. These people have been more or less calling the shots in public education for the last two decades. Their policies have been tried and failed. 

The reformers have made great promises about the potential of charter schools that would be free of the encumbrances of teacher unions and government bureaucracies. It turns out that charter schools are more likely to underperform public schools than to out-perform the public schools they replace. 


 Chicago mayor threatens legal action
over teachers’ strike

The story on high stakes testing for keeping and promoting teachers is mixed at best. High stakes testing encourages teachers to teach to the test. It also can and does encourage cheating. When scores have risen because teachers have taught to the test, it doesn’t mean the same thing as when scores rise because students are actually getting a better education. 

Furthermore, we know that there is enormous variation in scores for the same teacher either year by year or across classes in the same year. The former can be explained by the fact that teachers can improve or burn out. The latter can be explained by random classroom dynamics. A class that has more than the normal share of troublemakers among the students may not go well regardless of who is the teacher. 

Firings that are based narrowly on test scores may cause many dedicated and competent teachers to lose their jobs, only to be replaced by inexperienced and less committed teachers. Last winter, the Washington Post reported on Sarah Wysocki, who by the accounts of peer evaluators and parents was an outstanding young teacher. 

However, Wysocki was fired from the District of Columbia’s schools because she scored badly on its value added measure. Students in her classes saw their scores decline from the prior year. 

The most plausible explanation for this outcome is that Wysocki had many students in her classes whose scores had been inflated the prior year in a cheating scandal. This means that at the start of the school year the students she was teaching were not actually reading or doing math at the level credited to them. 

Losing an outstanding teacher like Sarah Wysocki is a loss to the DC school system and its students. Being fired from the job she loved was also undoubtedly a traumatic event for Wysocki personally, but such events don’t seem to trouble school reformers like Michelle Rhee, who was the chancellor of the DC system at the time of the scandal. As they say in the school reform movement, getting money from the Gates Foundation means never having to say you’re sorry. 

But the Chicago school teachers managed to overcome the enormous money and power on the other side. This included the media, which is dominated by people who instinctively side with Rahm Emanuel and his Wall Street types whenever they confront workers. 

The teachers did an outstanding job making their case to the people of Chicago, and especially to the parents of school children. A poll of Chicago parents commissioned by the union found that two-thirds supported the teachers in spite of the inconvenience caused by the strike. The parents understood that if the teachers won their demands it would likely mean better educational outcomes for their children. 

The lesson from this strike is that even as money is becoming ever more important in politics, it is still possible for well-planned collective action to win out. The Chicago school teachers and their unions did their homework and moved at the right time. The rest of us can learn a lot from their example. 

Dean Baker is a US macroeconomist and co-founder of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.