Teachers Strike in Chicago: Is This an Effective Catalyst for Change?

As of 12am this morning, teachers in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) are on strike. Their last major strike was a 19 day strike in1987. In the intervening 25 years, many of the same issues driving the strike remain: pay raises, merit pay, and job security.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been in negotiations with CPS since November of 2011. Rumor has it (because the negotiations are private) that CTU wanted a 30% salary raise over 2 years. CPS responded with a 4% raise this year. Then they took it back and offered 2%.

Teachers are demanding higher pay because of longer school days and longer school years. They are upset that their pay is tied to their students’ performance on standardized tests (I discuss this pay for performance policy in Romney on Education ). They are also alarmed by the fact that according to NCLB, if their students don’t score well on end of year tests, they could lose their jobs.

Historically, teachers in our country have been severely underpaid. The salary of public school teachers (non-Charter schools) in the US is highly variable ranging from $23,000 to over $100,000. Of course part of the variability is tied to cost of living, degree attainment, and years of experience. But some of the variability is due to state-level policies that allow local districts to determine teacher salary. The variables entered into that equation remains a mystery on which superintendents are unsurprisingly closed mouth.

While I thoroughly agree that teachers across the board need pay raises and other support, I am concerned that going on strike is not the way to achieve these goals. Here are questions I’d love answered:

  • What happens to students’ learning opportunities? Should students suffer because adults can’t get it together? How do we recover the missed instruction time?
  • Where is the money coming from to increase salaries 15% for all teachers in a single year? There is no magic pot school officials are hoarding; funding for schools is clearly a multi-level problem that a localized strike can’t hope to affect. (See Why Isn’t My Money as Good as Theirs? for a description on school funding)
  • Why do teachers expect to have everything at once? (I am not saying CPS teachers are asking for too much. This is a general comment) This is the problem with strikes: people get greedy and figure they might as well ask for everything. You can’t have pay raises, smaller classes, more texts, and more instructional support at once. Even if the district had funds for this, asking for it all at once will only incite their anger further thus making it even less likely you will get what you want.

Now here are 2 cautions for teachers on strike right now: a) these are bad economic times to forfeit your job. There are plenty of out of work teachers who will gladly accept your position because a salary is better than no salary; b) are you prepared for the accountability that comes with higher pay?

It is really that last point that has me slightly annoyed. I agree that teachers should be paid more, especially when asked to do more work. I agree that our current system rarely gives teachers the materials and support they need to effectively do their job. But, I also believe that teachers need to be held to universal standards with constant evaluation on them, not the students. This would look like principal and peer observations, student feedback (professors gather student feedback all the time via course evaluations. Why can’t K-12 teachers do the same?), continuing education (many states do require teachers to attend workshops/seminars), outcome analysis that is not limited to students’ test scores (what about teachers’ development?). In other fields, when you attain a certain amount of knowledge and skills, you get promoted. In public education, you are rewarded with continuing to do the same job for basically the same pay. It seems that the CPS teachers on strike want the reward, but not the increased expectations. Frankly, it doesn’t work that way.

To implement what I suggest would take a) a universal curriculum; b) scheduling flexibility that allows principals and teachers to spend time observing one another (which basically means a lighter course load for all teachers and more teachers); c) well developed measures to gather useful student feedback and the time and knowledge to interpret and use it effectively; d) free opportunities for continuing education that are rigorous and verified/tracked by school leaders; e) clear and consistent goals/standards for teachers across grade levels with valid and reliable assessment methods.

This list seems to only exist in Candyland. I am not naïve enough to believe that our country has the courage to implement such drastic change, nor the civility to devise unified goals and assessment methods. We are too caught up in our own selfishness, our intellectual and political territories, and our own perspectives, to recognize that our continual quests for self-preservation are occurring at the expense of those to whom we’ve promised a fair chance to achieve the American Dream: our children.


This entry was posted in Policy.