With Chicago public school teachers ending their strike on Wednesday, we can step back and look at the winners and losers of the ten-day-long holdout. Fortunately, the city’s teachers and, more importantly, students won measurable gains, while “reformers” saw their less-than-impressive track record exposed.
In striking, the teachers themselves secured more pay, reflecting their longer hours, a freeze on health-care premuims and reimbursement for teachers who purchase classroom supplies. They also negotiated a much more sensible evaluation model, with only 30 percent based on students’ test scores and 70 percent based on “teacher practice.” As Dana Goldstein points out, “tests are not the only way to judge effective teaching” — classroom observation and other methods should also play major roles, a mix that the teacher-school board agreement reflects.
The city’s public-school children are even bigger winners. For starters, they get a longer school day and school year. (Okay, the kids won’t feel like that’s a “win,” but in the long term more time in the classroom will be good for them.) They’ll get almost 600 teachers for art, music and physcial education — last year, only a quarter of Chicago elementary schools had teachers in both arts and music — and the city has also allocated $1.5 million for hiring new special-education teachers. In addition, students will be guaranteed textbooks on the first day of class, as opposed to the current practice of waiting up to six weeks before textbooks appear. (As for how all this would be paid for, Emanuel can start by not using the city’s Tax Increment Financing program to divert $250 million per year from the city’s public schools.) Claims that the strike would “hurt children” look even more silly in retrospect.
The strike also gave people a chance to examine the track record of an education “reform” movement that has finally had the chance to implement its proposals. I’ll hand the microphone over to my Post colleague Harold Meyerson:
The presumably numbers-driven educational reformers are highly selective when it comes to which numbers they take seriously. For years, many have touted charter schools (which usually are not unionized) as the preferred alternative to (unionized) public schools. But the most extensive survey of student performance at charter schools, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that, of the 2,403 charter schools tracked from 2006 to 2008, only 17 percent had better math test results than the public schools in their area, while 37 percent had results that were “significantly below” those of the public schools and 46 percent had results that were “statistically indistinguishable” from their public-school counterparts.
There’s also a good amount of data — including a study of high-performing public schools from the National Center for Educational Achievement — showing that ongoing teacher collaboration and mentoring and using tests for diagnostic, rather than evaluative, purposes produce better outcomes than the reformers’ brand of measuring teacher and student performance. The Cincinnati school district, which measures teacher performance chiefly through repeated peer evaluation, has the best student performance of any big Ohio city.
Even the poster child for charter school reform, New Orleans, has a mixed record, with recent test data even less impressive. It’s worth noting that some charters do produce better results, but given that even more do worse than public schools, it seems more accurate to credit individual schools’ approaches to teaching, rather than whether the school is a charter or public. Hopefully, the strike will make Emanuel rethink his plan to open more charters, at least until more data is available.
Indeed, Chicago parents have experienced the failed promises of “reformers” close up. For the past 20 years, the city has opened numerous charter schools while firing entire staffs at low-performing public schools. But test scores have remained flat or only incrementally improved among elementary and middle school students, schools remain woefully underfunded and understaffed compared to nearby school districts, and racial gaps have “steadily increased.” That’s why two-thirds of Chicago public school parents supported the teachers’ strike.
So what comes next? Josh Eidelson at Salon suggests that “national critics of Emanuel-style reform” saw the strike as “a chance to reshape a debate in which they’ve long been on the defensive.” One can only hope so: The bipartisan consensus that unions are the great obstacle in educating children is flat wrong and needs challenging. Only by recognizing the lacklustre record of recent “reforms” and the importance of addressing other factors in student achievement, ranging from classroom supplies to poverty, can we make progress on impoving our nations’ schools.