TOPICS > Education

Students of Chicago Public Schools Back in Class, Broader Reform Issues Remain

September 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Chicago students head back to class as Chicago Public Schools and teachers unions compromise on the issues that led to a seven-day strike. Jeffrey Brown talks to American Enterprise Institute's Michael McShane and Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond for more on the broader education reform issues involved.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: Chicago schools were back in session today.

Ray Suarez takes a look at the conclusion of that city’s teachers strike.

RAY SUAREZ: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel greeted students and faculty at Frederic Chopin Elementary School this morning, as the nation’s third largest school district went back to work.

WOMAN: Good morning, Mr. Mayor. How are you?

RAY SUAREZ: The welcome back for some 350,000 students and more than 26,000 teachers and support staff followed a seven-day strike, the first by the Chicago Teachers Union in 25 years.

But, Tuesday evening, some 800 union delegates cheered after a nearly unanimous vote to end the strike.

MAN: We got what we wanted. That’s what it seems like.

WOMAN: I’m just glad we’re going back to work. That’s all.

RAY SUAREZ: Two days earlier, the delegates had balked at returning to work, as they demanded more time to study the tentative deal. But union president Karen Lewis welcomed the ultimate outcome last night.

KAREN LEWIS, Chicago Teachers Union: We feel very positive about moving forward. We feel grateful that we have a united union and that, when a union moves together, amazing things happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Leaders of the city’s public schools also struck a celebratory note at their own news conference, like public schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD, Chicago Public Schools: With this agreement, now we have the foundation for transformation.

With an amazing education team and the folks that we have back at central office, with the support of our teachers and our principals, we know that we can make Chicago the best urban school district in America.

RAY SUAREZ: The contract would run three years, with an option for a fourth year. It was also widely reported that teachers would receive an average pay raise of 17.6 percent over that period.

In addition, the schools would fill at least half of new job openings with highly rated laid-off teachers.

And under a new evaluation system, student test results would account for nearly a third of a teacher’s rating by the third year of the contract.

All in all, not a perfect deal, according to union president Lewis, but acceptable.

KAREN LEWIS: There is no such thing as a contract that would make all of us happy, and we’re realistic about that. But the other issue is, do we stay on strike forever until every little thing that we want is capable of being gotten?

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Emanuel called it an honest compromise. He conceded on some fronts, losing his fight to institute merit pay, for example. But he pointed to other provisions, including a longer school day and school year, and said Chicago students will be the better off for them.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D-Chicago): Starting in kindergarten, by the time they finish high school, will get two-and-a-half years more of schooling than they would have had over the old system. That is a fundamental departure from the past.

RAY SUAREZ: The teachers union members still need to ratify the deal. That’s expected to come within the next couple of weeks.

For a look at some of the broader issues of education reform the Chicago strike brought into the limelight, we turn to Linda Darling-Hammond. She is professor of teaching and teacher education at Stanford University.

And Michael McShane, a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

And, Michael McShane, though it wasn’t all about money, the teachers got a raise. Rahm Emanuel got a new evaluation system for teachers that he wanted. The kids are back in school.

Is it, as the mayor calls it, a grand compromise?

MICHAEL MCSHANE, American Enterprise Institute: I think it’s definitely a compromise. Now, how grand it is, is probably a little bit up for debate.

Depending on how you look at the issue, if you are for more robust systems of teacher accountability, that’s definitely something that is part of this agreement. Up to a third of a teacher’s evaluation is going to be based on student test scores.

And as far as hiring teachers, that only half of those that are in the pool that can be hired are those that have already been laid off, the other half, principals will be free to choose on their own.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Darling-Hammond, in the recent past, we have had recent debates in D.C., New York, L.A., Boston. Is this following a pattern and also setting a pattern for coming negotiations in other big city school systems?

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND, Stanford University School of Education: Well, it certainly might, and particularly around the issue of teacher evaluation, which has come on to the national landscape with incentives and encouragement from the U.S. Department of Education.

I think the compromise, as you called it, did secure some pieces that will improve the capacity of teachers to improve with evaluation, as well as well as for the city to do the evaluations in productive ways.

But there are some real land mines in the teacher evaluation landscape that are certainly being contended all over the country.

RAY SUAREZ: On the picket lines, Professor, you heard a lot of teachers talking about not these technical disputes, but about respect.

The Chicago Teachers Union had delivered a generation of labor peace. There hadn’t been a strike in 25 years. They had worked with widespread reform, school closings, reassignments, and were still being blamed for everything that was going wrong with education in Chicago.

Was there more at play here than just the contract negotiation?

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Oh, absolutely. I think we have also seen over recent years a battle between different visions of what we need to do to improve education in the United States.

And one piece of what’s been ignored in that conversation quite often is that we have growing childhood poverty with lots of side effects that influence what happens in schools and influence what teachers have to be able to do.

We have one in four children in poverty, way above any other industrialized country in the world. And when we look at progress in the schools, quite often, the discourse has been that it’s all about the fault of teachers.

If anything goes wrong, it’s all the teachers, not the declining budgets, growing poverty, increased class sizes — some of the kindergartens in Chicago are 40 children now — the lack of resources for meeting the needs of children.

So, I think the point about let’s have a reciprocal mutual accountability system in which teachers are held accountable for what they can be held accountable for, but the system is held accountable for the resources, is definitely an issue that’s going to be on the agenda in lots of places.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael McShane, held accountable for what they can be held accountable for, would any teacher want to teach the toughest kids if they’re going to be assessed in this way?

MICHAEL MCSHANE: You know, I absolutely think so.

Under the current generation of assessments that we have now as part of the No Child Left Behind program instituted by the Bush administration, teachers and schools are evaluated based on levels of student achievement.

So a bar is set for what students are supposed to know in the fourth grade. And students are judged how many — or a teacher or school is judged by how many students they’re able to get over that bar.

Now, under those circumstances, you’re absolutely right. It’s a huge disincentive to want to teach the lowest-performing students.

However, with assessments that measure growth, any student — and, in fact, it may lead to the point that students that are the lowest perform having the biggest opportunity to grow and might actually do a much better job in making the system more equitable.

RAY SUAREZ: What do you think of that, Professor, that the battle lines are really shifting, that teachers are willing to be assessed, willing to have their performance evaluated, but just want to be part of the negotiation over how that machinery is put in place?

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Yes, it has to be fair, it has to be accurate.

In this current bargain in Chicago, there will be at least three measures of learning that are looked that in that 30 percent, so that you’re able to look in a broad way.

One of the problems with our current tests, the state tests that are being used in Illinois and other states to measure so-called value added or gains, is that the tests are designed by federal law only to measure the grade level and not above the grade level and not below the grade level.

So the two-thirds of kids who are already achieving above or below grade level, their gains can not be measured on the tests, because the tests don’t ask questions that allow you to even evaluate those gains.

So teachers are concerned about the accuracy of the information that will be used to evaluate them. We know that there have been distortions and biases in those kinds of state test score-based systems.

And they, I think appropriately, ask for a basket of evidence that allows us to look in many ways at how kids are achieving, how they’re growing, how they’re learning and what the influence of the teacher is, hopefully taking into account the influences of all the other things that affect student achievement as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Public Media’s held a series of teacher town halls throughout the year, and a lot of teachers have said, oh, I’m ready to be assessed, but no one’s ever come into my classroom. They’re basing it all on the standardized tests.

Is that really the next front in this national negotiation about how we’re going to bring this system into play?

MICHAEL MCSHANE: Sure.

I don’t think there is any serious evaluation plan out there that is planning to base teacher evaluation 100 percent on student test scores. Even the most sort of aggressive systems, the IMPACT system that’s here in Washington, D.C., caps it off at 50 percent.

So in all of these systems that are being developed, which I think the point is well taken that there are still kinks that need to be worked out in these plans — but even the most aggressive are only talking 50 percent test scores.

And the rest will be multiple measures, the professional expertise of principals, could be peer evaluations, any way that districts or states would like to work those out.

RAY SUAREZ: So you do you see a happy ending for this, Professor?

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: The New York Times just reported that the D.C. schools are reducing that proportion from 50 percent to 30 percent because of some of the problems they have found with the particular measures they’re using.

But the key issue is, can we get time and expertise on the part of principals to get into classrooms to really look carefully at practice to find time to do that, and to do it accurately and well, and then have additional teachers available to help teachers who are struggling?

Because principals don’t have time and sometimes the expertise to do that in every subject area.

RAY SUAREZ: So is a new system going to be found, Professor, finally, very quickly, with the time we have left, that will allow a more comprehensive view of really what goes on 9:00 to 3:00 in a classroom?

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: Absolutely.

And there fortunately are some districts that are doing just that, that have put in place good systems with trained evaluators, good observation systems, multiple measures of student learning.

We can learn a lot of from places like Poway, like Columbus, like those that have been put in place in a variety of states across the country to ensure that evaluation helps teachers grow and learn and get better, and also identifies those who need help, and if they get help and don’t improve, to help them find another profession quickly and efficiently.

RAY SUAREZ: Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael McShane, thank you both.

MICHAEL MCSHANE: Thanks for having us.