Posted by Rojas @ 6:31 pm on September 12th 2012

An educator reflects on the Chicago teacher strike

Relative to your average Chicago public school teacher, I have it very easy. Most of my students do not come to school hungry. Most of them are relatively willing to at least give an outward appearance of obedience to authority most of the time. My school performs well enough on standardized tests that we don’t feel compelled to make them the centerpiece of our existence. I spend a significant portion of my day working with students of high ability on activities we find mutually rewarding. So, while I envy the Chicago TU their sixish-hour workday (I work about 55 hours a week), their elaborate job protections (I have none), and their mean salary of between $56k and $74k (I earn roughly half of the larger figure), I would not willingly switch places with them. Nor would I do their jobs for any less than their full compensation package, and probably not even for that.

I look on the three-day-old strike in Chicago with no particular allegiance to either faction involved, and with considerable dismay at the thick-headed political provincialism involved. Both on the ground in the Windy City, and in the social media more broadly, the issue has become yet another excuse for everyone to retreat into their pre-determined red vs. blue camps and lob approved talking points at one another. The fact that this particular conflict pits public sector unions against Barack Obama’s ex-Chief of Staff ought to tell us that this issue is a bit more complex than that, and that there is room for more nuance.

A few takeaways based on the early posturing, positioning, and preening.

1. ANYONE WHO OPENLY CELEBRATES A TEACHER STRIKE ABSOLUTELY SUCKS, AND OUGHT TO FEEL BAD ABOUT THEMSELVES. It has become quite clear, particularly based on the cheering sections forming among Progressives in the social media, that there are a lot of people who are quite glad that it has come to this; that this is an excuse for another hate-in and political pep rally. The approval expressed transcends “support for teachers” and in many cases openly extends to pride in the strike itself.

That is bullshit. The average Chicago public school student comes from a home with an income of $27k a year. The vast majority are members of radically underserved populations and experience significant learning loss during the summer months due to an absence of enrichment activities outside the school building. For many, the alternative to school is the streets, and violent crime is at epidemic levels. These kids need to be in school.

A teacher strike can, in some instances, produce reform that can improve a school system (although I know of few that have done so). It can be argued that a teacher strike is, under certain circumstances, unavoidable. But there can be no circumstances in which a teacher strike is anything other than a failure or anything better than a regrettable necessity. A person who celebrates a teacher strike, as opposed to its goals, cares more about teachers than about the students they serve. And speaking as a lifelong teacher, I have no use for that sort of person.

2. IT REALLY IS NECESSARY TO COMPENSATE PEOPLE FOR THEIR LABOR. The wage aspect of the strike is something of a sideshow, but I have to admit that I find it utterly baffling nonetheless. Whatever the mean salary of Chicago PS teachers is (and the exact figure is in dispute), it is 1) damn high and 2) apparently the assigned figure FOR A SIX HOUR SCHOOL DAY. That is a thirty hour work week, folks, for ten months out of the year. At a salary of $56k to $74k per annum.

Now: as I acknowledge above, that would appear to be the agreed-upon market value for the work involved. I cannot in good conscience argue that Chicago PS teachers are overpaid, for the simple reason that I would be unwilling to do their jobs at the salary offered. Would you? Are plumbers overpaid? That’s not the point I’m trying to make here. The issue is: the negotiated agreements between administration and teachers had arrived at that particular price point prior to the beginning of the current negotiations.

Enter Rahm Emanuel. The first thing he does is repeal a previously-negotiated salary increase, because apparently, he can just DO that. He replaces it with a mandate that the workday for teachers increase to something more along the lines of seven and a half hours a day–closer to the national norm–in exchange for a sixteen percent salary increase phased in in four annual increments of four percent. So, immediately: twenty percent more work for four percent more pay.

Set aside the question of whether the resulting salary/work ratio is more along the lines of what you’d think of as “fair”. If your boss were to require a twenty percent increase in your workload, relative to the negotiated baseline, in exchange for a four percent salary increase, relative to the negotiated baseline, would you accept that? How much is your time worth to you? I will say it flat-out: at this point in my life, there is probably no amount of money that would be worth ninety extra minutes of my day. Offered that deal, I would walk out the door.

One of the latest fads among education reformers is the concept of “year-round school”. The advocates of this approach seem to be of the belief that it is legitimate to initiate this reform while still requiring all of the same burdens that teachers used to fulfill during the summer months (such as the sadistic charade that is teacher “recertification”) and while still paying teachers, administrators, janitors, and the rest of the army of people it takes to keep the school open more or less the same annual salary. This despite the fact that the majority of these people would be giving up other summer employment used to supplement their salaries.

It is traditional, in America, to pay people for their labor. You want more labor, you pay more money. On a per-hour basis, the hours you tack on at the end are MORE expensive, not less. Each free hour you take from people is worth more and more to them. It had better be worth more and more to you. If there is ever a serious effort made in this country to implement year-round schooling at existing annual compensation levels, you are going to see an absolute train wreck. Chicago offers you a little taste of it.

3. IMPERFECT ASSESSMENT IS NOT AN EXCUSE NOT TO ASSESS. The core of the Chicago strike revolves around questions of testing. Students will take more standardized tests to assess annual progress. Teachers will be evaluated based largely on their students’ test performance. Teachers whose students make more progress relative to the baseline will be paid more; teachers whose students do less well relative to the baseline will be easier to fire. The prospect of this drives unions CRAZY. It’s not low pay or general disrespect for the profession that is really core; it is the idea that anyone would have the gall to think that a set of class-biased and poorly-constructed standardized tests, taken by disinterested and malnourished students, are an accurate measurement of the quality of their work.

And, yes, much of this reasoning must be granted to the unions, because it is indeed functionally impossible for even the best teacher to teach a student who does not care to learn. And it is just amazingly damned difficult for even a great teacher to make progress with a student whose family has moved six times to six different schools over the course of a single year, especially if the student does not speak English. And the kid with the still-bleeding puncture wound or the kid who hasn’t had breakfast–not this morning, but you know, EVER–is going to have a hard time focusing on even the best-constructed lesson plan. All true. And all irrelevant.

There are public spokespersons for the Chicago teachers union who are openly telling the media that it is impossible, given the circumstances, to assess teachers. Not that it is impossible to assess them through standardized test scores, or that it is impossible to assess them with perfect accuracy, but that it is IMPOSSIBLE TO ASSESS TEACHERS AT ALL. The teachers’ unions had better hope that that argument is not taken seriously by policy professionals. Because if it is, the next question is going to be, “if there is no valid way to assess teacher performance, then how do we know that certified teachers are better than random hirees from off the street who will work for half the salary?”

The truth? Most people in any given building have a pretty good idea who the bad teachers are. We know who is pounding away in noble futility, giving their best in front of a generally unreceptive audience, and changing the occasional life with a miraculous breakthrough; we know who gave up trying five years ago and surfs the net while the kids do busywork. We get a pretty good idea pretty early on which young teachers are fighting their way through rookie mistakes and picking up the tricks of the trade, and which ones are just flat-out uninterested in getting better and are trying to survive long enough to get tenured. We know who works to the job and who works to the clock. No, a standardized assessment is not going to provide you with a perfect measurement of the teaching skills of the people in your building. But no assessment mechanism in any job is perfect. And even if standardized mechanisms cast the net too broadly, and underrate some faculty, they are unlikely to OVERRATE the skills of the true turds in the building. If you’re not teaching at all–and god forgive us, some of us aren’t–you need to be called out, and it needs to be a hell of a lot easier to get you out of the building than it is presently.

Speaking for myself, I don’t fear assessment. I seek it. I believe myself to be damned good at my job, and every piece of objective data available confirms that belief. Debaters and speakers at my school have been in competition since 1920, in front of objective judges all that time, and they’ve never done as well as they do now. But if there is other data to be gathered that indicates that I am worse at my job that I prefer to think–or worse at hidden aspects of it that don’t show up in the box score–then why the hell would I want to remain ignorant of that fact? Is the marginal increase in the likelihood that I’d keep my job worth the suffering that the kids would go through as a result of my quackery? If your answer is yes, you care more about teachers than students. And speaking as a teacher: that makes you a walking, talking turd.

And in the final analysis, standardized tests, for all their flaws, are not terrible indicators of MINIMUM COMPETENCE, which is what the assessments the Chicago unions fear are intended to measure. If a high school student fails a minimum English proficiency exam, the chances are bloody good that the kid can’t write or read English coherently. That may not be entirely the fault of the teacher in question, and yes, you’d better be asking how much the student improved over the course of instruction by that teacher. But if the numbers suggest that the kid didn’t learn under that teacher’s instruction, and that none of the other kids did either–if this is a prominent, statistically measurable feature of a teacher’s classroom–then it is time to give somebody else a shot at doing that teacher’s job.

In Chicago, teachers are striking in reaction to the prospect of being assessed imperfectly. I can’t get behind that. I can’t even respect it. Doing a job means being judged on how you do the job. Judgment is never perfect. But if you are competent, most assessments will give some indication of that fact. If you are not, the kids deserve better than you, and you need to spend your life performing some other function. In the end, it is not about your job or your preferences. It is about the kids. Grasp that. Embrace it. Move on.

  • I suppose I will have more later as the strike evolves, mutates, and inspires public idiocy. Hopefully our eight readers will forgive the length of this post. What you do with your days is what you do with your life; I spend my life on these questions, and I think of them always.

    4 Comments »

    1. I have read a lot on the strike. A lot. (It’s been slow at the office) This is BY FAR the best thing I have read on the issue. I don’t agree with all of your positions, but the points are so well crafted and balanced it would be, as Sullivan would say, churlish of me to cavil. But I will anyway:
      – Do you really believe the Chicago teachers only work six hours a day? My understanding of the work time is that elementary schools have less than six hours of class time a day, which will increase to seven, but high schools have seven which will increase to seven and a quarter. Mitigating this is the apparently already agreed to compromise solution involving 500 new hires to off set the increased classroom time. But even if there was only, as you say, six hours of classroom time now, and even if that included some sort of teacher prep period, can you honestly say that the Chicago teachers don’t have a good amount of post school work to do? Because that would make them pretty unique in my experience.
      – If it is a 16% raise spread over four years, then I don’t think it fair to characterize the changes as a ” twenty percent more work for four percent more pay.” In the worst case, discounting the 500 new hire offset, it is 20% more work for a phased in 16% raise.

      But seriously well done on this post.

      Comment by Jack — 9/12/2012 @ 8:53 pm

    2. I appreciate the sentiments. It sounds like we have read some of the same stuff about the strike, and your points are well taken. Addressing each individually:

      1. As I understand the data, the six hour figure was an average figure across various grade levels prior to the initiation of Emanuel’s reforms. I have read some of the same materials you have with regard to differences in specific grade levels; it seems very hard to tell exactly how many teachers will be working exactly how much longer. I don’t know of anyone, though, who is arguing that the per-hour compensation of teachers doesn’t decline under the new arrangement.

      2. The question of “off the clock” hours is one that is often raised by teachers’ unions. I don’t know that this is unique to the teaching profession, nor do I know to what extent it can be taken seriously as a justification for compensation. In my experience the amount of time spent on education outside of the classroom varies radically from teacher to teacher depending on the instructor’s specific curriculum, personal commitment level, and general efficiency. I know English teachers who put in three or four hours every night grading essays, and I know English teachers who administer machine-graded vocabulary tests and skim papers with a rubber stamp in their hand. My own example is representative of the impossibility of assessing this question: as a speech teacher, a whole lot of my own grading has to occur during the class period. When I am doing grading or other work outside the classroom, it is often in the context of a debate tournament; at the tournament, I am technically earning a coaching stipend (fifty cents an hour or so in exchange for five hours Friday night and an eight to twelve hour Saturday). The grading and other work is not continuous, as I am advising my debaters for a big chunk of that time, and also grazing in the hospitality lounge like the fat pig I am. So am I on or off the clock for those hours? I counted them towards the “55 hours” figure I gave in the post.

      I guess I would put it this way: I think that high-performing teachers put in a lot of hours outside the classroom, and that low-performing teachers generally put in fewer such hours. That, to me, is not a justification for raising teacher salaries across the board, or for blanket protections of any sort. It is a justification for determining which teachers are doing their jobs and assigning those teachers merit pay–the merit pay becomes, in effect, the compensation for effective work during those extra hours. I like to think that I would feel this way even if I didn’t wind up with merit pay.

      3. If I am working 20% longer in the first year for a 4% raise, you had better believe that it’s a 20/4 split from my perspective. Note that there was no proposal on Emmanuel’s part to phase in the additional workload; the entire idea was more work now for more pay at some point down the line. I would want my union to object to that.

      Comment by Rojas — 9/12/2012 @ 10:50 pm

    3. Coming from a multigenerational family of teachers I’m pretty in tune with the spectrum of prep time, and agree with all that. My point is that even the bottom 5% or 10% have to put in more than six hours a day, and even if they don’t there is no field on earth that doesn’t have a bottom 5% or 10% that slack off quite a lot. I can assure you that mine does.

      I agree that the actual time increase is not well understood, there might not be anyone who actuall knows the effect yet. But I still can’t buy into your 20/4 line. One, I think the 20% is just wrong, and mathematically, the ONLY person getting only 4% pay raise is the person leaving the field in one year. Everyone else phases into the 16%. I think it perfectly fair to assess the pay raise over the estimated average of the teachers future career. If it were 8 years, then it would be fair to say they only got ended up with an effective 13% pay raise. I also think it fair to say that phasing in the pay raise aggravates and obscures the effect of inflation, unless there is an annual increase in the pay index tied to that. But 20% more work for 4% pay raise is at best distortive, and at worst flat out wrong for both numbers.

      Comment by Jack — 9/13/2012 @ 8:35 am

    4. Heh.

      Comment by Brad — 9/13/2012 @ 10:20 am

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