Chicago Teachers Strike: Issues on the Bargaining Table

This morning, I joined a couple of other Chicago mom bloggers on an eye-opening conference call with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief education advisor for CPS, and Becky Carroll, CPS's chief communications officer. I learned about how the negotiations are going, what the sticking points are, and how the strike looks on their end. Now I'm back at my desk, as Ogden teachers walk the picket line right outside my window, cheering and waving at the cars that honk supportively as they drive by. Please keep in mind as you read this that no CTU representatives were on the call to balance out or contradict what the CPS folks were saying. And, to my surprise, my fellow moms on the call did not indicate whether they supported the strike.

Here we go.

According to Barbara, who has been at the negotiating table for the last four weeks, the two main issues where the parties are furthest from agreement are teacher evaluations and layoff/recall policies. Although there are other points to be worked out, CPS informed us this morning that the teachers’ strike is not primarily about air conditioning, lack of books, the longer school day, class size, salaries, health care, or more social workers and nurses. The main points of contention come down to how teachers’ performances will be measured and whom principals can hire for their classrooms.

Let’s start with teacher evaluations. Illinois lawmakers passed a law back on June 13, 2011 requiring all 600 school districts in Illinois to institute a process by which teachers undergo performance reviews. According to Education Week, the measure “gives local school boards much greater authority in dismissing teachers for poor conduct and performance” and links “educators' tenure, hiring, and job security to performance rather than to seniority.”

Chicago was one of the first adopters of the new law and, again according to CPS, spent 90 hours in meetings with teachers to ensure their input and buy-in with the new evaluation system. They agreed upon a five-year plan. Year one would be a trial, where no tenured teacher would have to worry about a negative performance review. For year five, CPS proposed creating a joint task force with teachers to finalize the evaluation system. Sounds simple, right? So why are the teachers in such an uproar?

From what I heard, educators are concerned that they will be unfairly evaluated and compared to teachers who work in very different learning environments. Some of our city’s teachers are in schools where kindergarteners have never even opened a book. Is it fair to assess such a teacher by comparing her kids’ test scores to those of kids at Lincoln Elementary? Frustratingly, what I’m having a tough time understanding is why teachers are so against evaluations. Is this actually the case? Our kids need these evaluations to ensure that under-performing teachers get better training or are removed from the classroom.

Next up is layoff/rehire procedures. Here’s what I learned this morning: Currently, principals in Chicago can hire whomever they want. Teachers are unhappy about this and believe that a principal should first hire a CPS teacher who has been laid off, even if someone outside of the system would be better suited for the opening. To mollify the teachers during the negotiation proceedings, CPS suggested a compromise: principals must also interview candidates who were laid off and justify, in writing, their reasons for not selecting them. As I can tell from the cheering and chants outside my window by the protestors, however, that offer didn’t do much.

Again, that’s CPS’s side of the story. I’m assuming there must be more here, as I’m finding it hard to believe that teachers are demanding that a laid-off CPS teacher be hired before a better teacher who happens to be outside of CPS. At the end of the day, isn’t it about what’s best for our kids? I’m eager to hear from you in the comments section below if CPS’s take on the teachers’ demands is inaccurate.

What the issues surrounding evaluations and layoff/rehire procedures exemplify is how little faith we have in our city’s principals. And Barbara concurs, acknowledging that Chicago principals need better training. Earlier in the year, when I did a tour of Ogden Elementary, I was shocked by what I heard from a kindergarten teacher and from the two parent assistants in his class. The teachers don’t get along, while the principal seems disengaged from his students and staff and more concerned with his relationship with CPS leadership, city officials, trips abroad, and his old friend Arne Duncan. Are our city’s principals listening to their teachers and providing them with the leadership they need and deserve? Are the principals being empowered to do so?

So now everything comes down on the teachers and I think this, for lack of a more articulate way to say it, totally sucks. It also sucks to hear stories of teachers acting unprofessionally on the picket line. Please teachers: parents want to support you, but it’s hard to do so when we hear about name-calling, yelling, and a whole lot of nastiness. You set the standard for our children, especially now, as they learn how honorable it can be to stand up for what you believe in.

That’s one of the sorriest aspects of this strike. We’re all pointing fingers, saying teachers are too demanding and that CPS is unsupportive, when the real issue is that overall our education system is not meeting the needs of our kids. Decades ago, a girl like me from a family with no money could go to school, feel safe, and expect a decent education that would get her to a higher rung on the socio-economic ladder.

Sure, Harvard would be a long shot, but she could go to a four-year college and earn a master’s degree without a shitload of debt. Today, that is nearly impossible. What’s happening here, right next door in fact, is that teachers are representing what many American workers are feeling: frustrated, underappreciated, and scared about the future. When this strike will end is unclear. The crisis in the education system, however, is staring us right in the face.

~By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop

* This post has been updated to reflect that issues related to class size and the longer school day were both mentioned during the call today. CPS officials reiterated that while these areas are under negotiation,  the two primary points of contention are evaluations and layoff/recall policies.

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