primer

Why Chicago teachers are on strike and what could come next

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Striking Chicago teachers picket today outside Ray Elementary School, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent his children when he was Chicago's schools chief. (Photo: Raiselle Resnick for GothamSchools)

Chicago’s long-threatened teacher strike, which began today, isn’t just about Chicago teachers. It’s also something of a referendum on the current moment in education policy.

Of the many reasons for the strike, three stand out. We explain each one below — and then explain how the strike could evolve from here. In a second post, we’ll explain why the Windy City’s labor conflict matters here in the Big Apple.

1. A new mayor. Chicago teachers have been distressed for several years as budget cuts caused school closures and hundreds of layoffs. Tensions between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city mounted last year when former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor, bringing with him an aggressive approach to cost-cutting, the support of national education reform advocacy groups, and a superintendent who cut his teeth under Joel Klein in New York City. Jean-Claude Brizard quickly earned criticism as “anti-teacher” based on his record in Rochester, N.Y., where 95 percent of teachers gave him a “no-confidence” vote shortly before he departed.

Emanuel immediately announced that he was canceling raises promised to Chicago teachers and requiring teachers to work longer days and years. The extended-day gambit backfired when a state labor board ruled that Emanuel could not unilaterally require that kind of change. But Emanuel pressed on, offering incentives to schools that would add teaching time. He and Brizard also introduced a new rating system for schools, engineered closures and multiple “turnaround” efforts that cost some teachers their jobs, and introduced a new teacher evaluation system without union consent. (WBEZ Chicago has a comprehensive timeline of Emanuel’s education initiatives and how they were received.)

2. A new teachers union. Emanuel’s moves would have angered any teachers union. But since 2010, Chicago’s has one of the most aggressive in the country. That’s when a minority party known as the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, took power from the reigning union leadership, which it criticized as complacent on issues of privatization and community engagement. After contract talks failed to satisfy the union this year, its members voted to authorize a strike in June, in a vote with a 91.5 percent turnout rate and a 90 percent approval rate. Since then, the city made several rounds of concessions and reached a deal with CTU about how to extend the school day. But several issues remained unresolved by the strike deadline on Sunday.

CORE started out as a minority party in the union that was organizing with the goal of pushing the union’s agenda to the left. As budget conditions worsened and city officials took an increasingly aggressive tone, the group gained traction with a platform that stood apart from most union leaders’.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national union headed by Randi Weingarten of which CTU is a part, has been willing to collaborate with members of the education reform movement, including President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg. But  CORE urged outright resistance. Its platform echoes criticisms levied by the historian Diane Ravitch, who characterizes Obama and Bloomberg as profiteers who seek to privatize public education and shove teachers and students to the margins.

“What drives school reform is a singular focus on profit,” said Karen Lewis, the party’s presidential candidate, in her acceptance speech after she and other CORE candidates won a come-from-behind election in 2010. In her fiery debut speech, Lewis told the then-superintendent, “You’ve met your match.” Tensions only escalated after Emanuel became mayor last year.

3. A reform movement that left many teachers feeling alienated and angry. As in most contract talks, one big issue in Chicago’s was pay. The union wanted members to get raises that Emanuel had canceled and additional pay for working longer hours. But both CTU officials and Emanuel said on Sunday night that the compensation issues were surmountable.

The real sticking point was teacher evaluations: Chicago has rolled out teacher evaluations that will ultimately be based 40 percent on student performance, and the union doesn’t want student test scores to play any role in how teachers are rated. On Sunday night, Lewis said thousands of teachers could lose their jobs under the new system, which she said could not possibly account for poverty and other issues that students and teachers face.

Holding teachers accountable for how much their students learn is a signature platform of the education reform movement. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program encouraged states across the country to rewrite their laws governing how teachers are evaluated, hired, and fired, prompting dozens of states to rewrite their laws. Illinois and New York are two of them.

But there are other issues at play, too. The union also wants class size limits added to its contract; currently, Chicago has large classes and only guidelines, not rules, governing their size. And the union also wants teachers who were displaced because their schools closed or lost enrollment to have “recall rights” to claim any new jobs — a pressing issue right now because schools must extend their day by hiring a second shift of educators. It’s not legal for the union to strike over recall rights, but CTU officials say it has to get settled as part of a broad slate of contract issues before teachers will go back to work.

Chicago’s final offer, which the city published after the union turned it down on Sunday, offered “joint implementation” of a new teacher evaluation system, “improved monitoring of class size issues,” and a five-month window for displaced teachers to find new positions before being fired. But it did not dial back the role of test scores in evaluations or introduce recall rights, which Emanuel said would have compromised principals’ ability to choose who is on their staff.

What happens next? The strike seems assured of bringing more attention to the thorny issues that have divided unions and mayors not just in Chicago but across the country — and, potentially, of bringing sympathy to their position. But the strike also gives the Emanuel administration new ammunition to use against teachers and their union in the future.

Ending the strike quickly would be politically expedient for both the city and the union, neither of which wants to be blamed for disrupting instruction, leaving children without care, and potentially costing parents pay or even their jobs. But that doesn’t mean either side is going to cede ground easily. Some components of the teacher evaluation plan CTU opposes are set in Illinois state law, so the city can’t change them. And Lewis has sworn not to return teachers to their classrooms until they have a contract that responds to the union’s complete set of contract demands.

One interesting dimension is the contrast introduced by Chicago’s charter schools, which enroll about 50,000 students and are operating as usual today. It’s the first time that a major city has had a teachers union strike and a large swath of non-unionized schools remain open.

As for today, union and city officials are back in contract talks after a night’s break. Meanwhile, Chicago teachers are picketing outside their schools today while classes are canceled for about 350,000 students. This afternoon, they will rally at their union headquarters.

And parents who expected to send their children off for the second week of school today must fend for themselves. The city is encouraging parents to handle chid-care on their own but has opened about 150 school buildings and other sites to families with no other options. Non-union Chicago Public Schools employees and volunteers are staffing them in an arrangement that the union has warned will expose children to strangers. Students will do independent reading, arts and crafts, and athletic activities, but they cannot be taught without certified teachers on hand. The city is also deploying hundreds of police officers to the temporary “Children First” sites, picket lines, and places where out-of-school students might congregate.

help wanted

Colorado education officials hope these three ideas will reverse the state teacher shortage

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and Executive Director of the Department of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed take questions on the state's teacher shortage. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado education leaders are zeroing in on three broad ways to curb the state’s teacher shortage: increasing compensation, improving preparation and training, and “lifting the profession.”

While specific strategies are still being fleshed out, those three themes were highlighted Wednesday at a press conference held by Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, and Kim Hunter Reed, the executive director of the department of higher education.

“We have a lot of work to do to talk about the profession that makes all other professions possible,” Hunter Reed said.

Anthes and Hunter Reed spoke to reporters as the two departments are wrapping up a series of forums across the state to gather input on how to best the shortage, which is especially pronounced in rural Colorado and in high school math and science classrooms.

The departments are tasked with creating a strategic plan to present to state lawmakers by December. The department heads said the plan will provide a mix of approaches that lawmakers, local school districts and communities can deploy based on individual needs.

One suggestion that has been a crowd favorite at the town halls is a statewide base-salary for teachers, officials said.

Share your solutions on the teacher shortage
There are three more town halls to address the teacher shortage:
  • 4:30 p.m., Aug. 23 at Las Animas Elementary School
  • 4:30 p.m., Aug. 30 at Vilas School in Collingwood
  • 5 p.m., Sept. 6 at Monte Vista High School.

However, neither Anthes nor Hunter Reed would commit to making such a recommendation to the legislature. Such a mandate would likely require an extensive influx of cash to schools, or at the least drastic cuts to other school-based programs at the local level. The latter scenario would infuriate superintendents in smaller school districts who are already feeling the squeeze to increase the required minimum wages for other workers.

“The answer doesn’t have to be to raise the entire school finance formula,” Anthes said, adding that changes to compensation could include loan forgiveness and block grants.

Both stressed that it would take more than new state laws to boost the number of new teachers and keep current teachers in the profession. That’s especially true, they said, when it comes to reframing the public conception of educators.

“You can’t legislate value and professionalism,” Hunter Reed said.

“We need to lift the profession of educators,” Anthes said. “I do think teaching is harder than rocket science.”

More specific ideas the departments are considering include developing new training at the college level, increasing awareness of alternative ways to become a teacher and providing educators better access to affordable housing.

“It’s a lot of little things that we hope add up,” Anthes said.

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.