What Did the Chicago Strike Teach Our Educators?

September 24, 2012

by Jeff Abbott, Ph.D., J.D.

Oh well, the mayor of Chicago settled a labor contract with the Chicago teachers’ union after an eight day strike. Teachers were happy to secure concessions limiting a school-reform program that they said would harm students and cost teachers jobs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel walked away with a teacher-evaluation system and other changes that he says will make educators more accountable.

An eight-year veteran Chicago teacher, however, was disappointed with the settlement. And her reasoning was right on point as we look to the future: We must build a sustainable and dedicated teaching force, she in effect argued, rather than a profession built of teachers who will come and go quickly because of low respect and poor working conditions.

Many states, including Indiana, are now mandating teacher-evaluation policies.Teachers are concerned about using student standardized test scores as a major part of their evaluations. They are fearful of being fired over something they cannot wholly control. Teaching is a two way process – teachers teach and students learn. To say that a teacher is responsible for both is sometimes holding teachers responsible for something that is not entirely in their control. Would a car salesman think it fair if he were fired because he could not motivate all the people who walk onto the car lot to buy his dealer’s most expensive cars, especially if many of them did not have the financial resources to buy the expensive cars and could only buy the junkers?

Some students just don’t have the resources to learn enough to “pass” a standardized test. Many come from families that are high poverty, or do not speak English, or do not value education, or do not create a family environment conducive for their children to learn and have a successful school experience. Additionally, some students simply do not have the intellect to pass standardized tests. We all don’t have the same physical abilities. Likewise, we all do not have the same mental abilities.

Abraham Maslow, the psychologist, long ago observed that the most fundamental need of humans is security. It is this need of security that is at the root of teacher frustration not only in Chicago but all over the country. Teachers’ job security is threatened by this new wave of teacher evaluation “reform.”

The efforts by policy makers all over the country to hold teachers accountable for student achievement on standardized tests will fail because it will drive top-quality teachers out of the profession and will not attract the needed high-quality teachers. There is simply no evidence that holding teachers accountable for students’ standardized test scores will improve the quality of education.

So what will improve the quality of public education?

If this new public-school structure is coupled with informed parent choice of schools and with funding following the students, teacher leaders and their principals will have to compete as a team for students. A one-for-all and all-for-one atmosphere in the school will be created. State-mandated teacher evaluations will become unnecessary as teacher leaders and their principals police themselves. They will not be able to afford incompetent teachers who drag down a school’s overall performance.

Teacher leaders and principals will understand that incompetent teachers prevent the team from getting their contracts renewed. This new school culture will improve our Indiana public schools far more than new top-down rules and mandates governing teacher evaluations.

Jeff Abbott, Ph.D., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is an education consultant living in Fort Wayne. He taught education graduate studies at Indiana University-Purdue University and is a former superintendent of the East Allen County School system. Contact him at director@inpolicy.org.


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