In case you haven’t heard already, Chicago’s 350,000 public school students didn’t attend school last week because their teachers are out on strike. The teachers have also decided to take two more days off this week to think about whether to accept the deal hammered out by their union and Chicago’s board of education. Led by a fiery woman called Karen Lewis, the teachers have made the following demands:
1. They will not agree to 40% of their evaluation being based on their students’ test scores. They ‘might’ agree to 25% but no more than that
2. Once they complete probation, they must be guaranteed a job for life (tenure)
3. Already averaging $76,000 a year, they want an inflation bursting 30% pay increase despite their city being on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, and the average wage in their city being $47,000 a year
4. They don’t want to spend longer than they do now teaching children, and if the school day must be extended, more teachers should be hired
I was a teacher in my past life; a life I look back at with fond memories but with no inclination to ever return to at all. So, I am sympathetic when I hear teachers demanding fairness. A teacher’s lot is a tough one especially in public (state) schools where parents drop off children at the beginning of the term and don’t bother showing up again. Teachers then have to teach, babysit, break up schoolyard fights, act as social workers and nurses for all sorts of recalcitrant wastrels, even as they bear the brunt of the persistent public perception that most inner city state schools are terrible places that you send your child to as a last resort.
A public school teacher’s lot is indeed a difficult one.
The question in my mind is whether the union’s demands make sense. I can’t, for instance, understand why anyone in 2012 should expect job protection for life. It’s already almost impossible to fire any American teacher in a unionized environment which commensurately means that keeping a bad teacher on the job is fairly simple if they have union backing. Given that bad teachers are rather easy to keep on the job, why is automatic tenure good for students? I am not quite sure I can answer that one.
I am also puzzled about why teachers don’t want to be evaluated based on test scores. The 40% suggested seems quite modest but you get the sense that the Chicago teachers are negotiating on this in bad faith. They want 25-30% as the threshold but it is not clear to me why they feel there is a lot of difference between what they want and the 40%. Why is an extra 10% detrimental to them? This sounds as though the teachers don’t want to be evaluated at all based on their students’ results and the quibbling over percentages is just a smokescreen.
Finally, if poverty, deadbeat dads, unwed mothers and gun violence are all going to be factored into why teachers in state schools can’t teach, what burden of responsibility should these teachers (who are guaranteed a job because of their automatic tenure) whether or not their charges have learned anything, bear? Just showing up to the chalk face? Half of Chicago’s public school pupils don’t learn anything worthwhile but their teachers should continue to just show up, teach nothing and still collect their hefty paychecks anyway?
Why does all this sound as though only the teachers matter here?