Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chicago Teachers' Strike: What ARE the Answers?

The start of the Chicago teachers' strike this week and my extensive reading on the causes of the walkout has caused me to take a long look at how our teachers should be paid and evaluated.  It's been a difficult examination with no easy answers - and in approaching friends who are both teachers and non-teachers, I've found that even those more directly associated with the profession don't have the answers.

When I first looked at the what the CTU was saying were the reasons for their walkout - pay demands that weren't being met (the city offers 16% over four years, while CTU sought 29% over two years, all because the length of the school day was extended beyond the current five-plus hours?), tenure and contract renewal being tied to student performance, and a list of other items that are currently being negotiated (a longer list can be found in this article from the September 11 edition of the River Bend Telegraph) - I can honestly say I wasn't initially sympathetic, particularly on the salary issue.  Teachers in Chicago, for instance, make an average - according to the city's school system - of $76,000 per year for nine months in the classroom, with the average starting salary in Illinois (based on statistics from the NEA) being $42,740.  (I'll interject here that, having been the son of a schoolteacher, I am aware that the work in preparing for the classes goes beyond those nine months with refresher training, renewing accreditation, conferences, etc.)

Additionally, according to the website teacherportal.com, "If you are considering becoming a teacher in Illinois, you will make the fourth highest teacher salary in the country. The average Illinois teacher salary starts at $42,740 and averages $64,509 a year. Starting salaries are the 20th highest in the nation. This fact is especially attractive to new teachers who want to complete a masters degree early on in their careers; bumping them up the pay scale."

For outstanding teachers, I believe you cannot pay them enough.  I was blessed with some wonderful teachers during my elementary, middle and high school years - and I know that they were underpaid for the amount of work and the average class sizes with which they had to deal.  If you're an outstanding teacher, you've earned it.  But what about under performing or poor teachers - why should they be entitled to tenure and a higher salary?  And if they do feel they are entitled, then why shouldn't there be some sort of benchmarking to show that their work and student performance justifies long-term contracts and raises?

I'm also curious to know whether the teachers striking in Chicago have given any thought to (a) the impact of this strike on the kids who are now not learning anything, and (b) the parents who are having to juggle schedules, take off work, and potentially lose their own pay to make alternate arrangements while the schools are out. I saw one lady quoted in a Chicago paper who said she is not getting paid as long as the strike is going on, because she's had to take off work to stay home with her children.  Is this indicative of  teacher concern for the students?

In discussing this the past several days, friends who are teachers (in both high school and college) have raised some very interesting points in response to my efforts to get a grasp of both sides of this issue:

"Teachers don't choose their students - they are not being evaluated on their performance, just on their students' test-taking ability.  Good students can hit the achievement marks in spite of a weak teacher; some students will NOT hit those marks, even with a good teacher.  There are more variables than just assessment data.  The pressure to teach to the test is creating a mess for those of us in higher ed who inherit students driven to acquire material without a developed capacity for higher-order thinking."

"ALL teachers are underpaid. It would be great if good teachers were rewarded, but those very teachers are the ones who teach for reasons other than financial gain."

"Too much weight is given to multiple choice tests which are not the whole picture by any stretch ... [I]t would be like taking one day of observing your performance and making a bonus decision.  For most professionals, evaluation is based on a year of work."

What are the answers?  How do we evaluate and reward good teachers?  How do we encourage and incentivize (and, in the worst case, let go) of the bad teachers?  How do we raise the performance levels of all of our schools?

I hope the Chicago strike is ended quickly, because it's the kids who are hanging in limbo right now.  Unfortunately, the answers to the largest questions won't be found anytime soon, but the conversations - with friends and teachers, administrators, policymakers, and yes, even the unions - must go on.  In a country that's slipping further and further behind other countries around the world in terms of proficiency in math and science, and with children in many instances not being equipped for life after high school, it's imperative that we work for them - not for ourselves.