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Five Thoughts on the Chicago Teachers Strike

Here are five thoughts on the Chicago teachers strike. My friend Andy "Eduwonk" Rotherham had seven thoughts, but he's smarter than I am. So, RHSU readers will have to settle for five. On the bright side, you get your daily ednews that much quicker! (Oh, and if you're bored, Andy, Adrian Fenty, Diane Ravitch, and I discussed the strike on Diane Rehm's show this morning on NPR. You can listen to the segment here.)

One, as Marty West and I argued several years ago in Education Next (see here), teacher strikes are a huge blow to families and kids. At the same time, the occasional teacher strike can actually be a healthy sign. The lack of strikes in recent decades isn't especially laudable; it's mostly a reflection of school boards and superintendents folding in the face of union demands.

Two, most attempts to reform teacher evaluation or pay have been accompanied by big new dollars. Whether we're talking Denver's ProComp, Joel Klein's 43% teacher pay raise in 2005, or Michelle Rhee's philanthropy-funded cash infusion in DCPS, union intransigence routinely gets bought off with new dollars. (Don't forget the hundreds of millions ED offered states through Race to the Top if they promised to tackle teacher quality policies.) Well, as some of us have been warning for a while, this kind of "powdered doughnut reform" (e.g. just sprinkle a little sugar on top) hits a wall when the dollars run out. Chicago is a sign of things to come, as cash-strapped states and districts push to adopt contentious reforms to teacher pay and evaluation.

Three, the whole thing is an unhelpful squeeze for President Obama at the moment he's opened up a lead on Romney. On the one hand, Obama can't afford to undercut a major public employees union less than two months before the election. (Unions aren't going to come running to Romney, but Obama needs union members energized and enthusiastic in critical swing states like Ohio and Wisconsin.) On the other hand, Obama can't walk away from his former chief of staff as he fights for reforms that Obama championed. Doing so would fuel the Romney assertion that Democrats may talk a good game on school reform but that they'll ultimately back down when challenged by the teachers unions. Lacking an obvious path forward, the President has tried to stay out of it. The White House is leaning on folks in Chicago to get a deal done, and fast, before the President starts getting pressed to take sides. The President's best outcome? This thing gets settled in a day or two, and then he can get back to talking about Romney's taxes.

(Quick aside: Now, if Obama didn't need the unions so badly, the whole thing would provide an enviable Sister Souljah moment for him--allowing him a perfect platform to tout his moderate bona fides. Hell, if Obama had the breathing room to make that play, some might wonder if Emanuel had worked with the administration to tee things up.)

Four, the CTU has been remarkably tone-deaf in all this. The decision to strike turned a familiar storyline (union ticked at "reform-minded" Democratic mayor) into a national firestorm less than two months before a presidential election between a union-baiting Republican and a Democrat who's worked hard to earn the mantle of "education reformer." Meanwhile, the AFT is licking its wounds after getting manhandled on the Walker recall last spring. And the CTU decides to kick things off by asking for a thirty percent raise over two years, pushed back on a sixteen percent raise over four years (or four percent a year), at a time of 8% unemployment and tight budgets, and while the average Chicago teacher makes $76,000 a year. And then the CTU explains that it's not really about the money--it's about air conditioning and the kids. What's the union doing for the kids? It's resisting efforts to get serious about teacher evaluation and to lengthen a ridiculously short school day. The only two explanations for the CTU's behavior that I can think of are that they got some really awful political advice or that blood-lust from last spring's vote to authorize the strike just got out of hand.

Finally, I think the CTU actually has some valid points to make, on school closures and teacher evaluation. RHSU readers know that I have concerns about simple-minded teacher eval systems, the rush to evaluate teachers based on reading and math scores, and the contemporary love affair with cookie-cutter observations. And there are legitimate concerns that good teachers may lose their jobs in the course of school closures. But the way to address these concerns is at the table and through the press, not with a strike that alienates just about everyone and sucks all the oxygen out of the room.

Okay, one last thought. So far, only one evident winner in all this: Chicago's charter schools. They're looking pretty good right now. They're doing their thing, educating kids, and taking care of business. What an "innovative" concept.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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