What’s Missing from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Posted on September 14, 2012

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Reports coming out of Chicago today suggest that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for the city’s public schools, but even when a deal is reached, the fight is far from over. Until Chicago Public Schools and districts all over the U.S. get their priorities straight, and teachers receive the tools they need, the Chicago negotiation’s major sticking point—teacher evaluations—will continue to be a thorn in the side of educators.

It’s been no surprise to me that as the Chicago strike has ground on, the major sticking point in CPS/CTU negotiations has been teacher evaluations. Regardless what’s happening in Chicago, I’ll be the first to say that CPS has done a fantastic job designing its evaluation system, Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students (REACH). The system is based on the best and most recent research, and includes multiple measures of teacher effectiveness.

However, it’s hard not to sympathize with union apprehensions that the system places too heavy an emphasis on high-stake test scores when evaluating teachers. Chicagoans aren’t the only ones who feel this way. For the better part of a year, groups all over the country have been raising objections to high-stake student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness. In Texas, over 550 local school boards have endorsed resolutions stating that linking high-stakes assessment to teacher performance is “strangling” classrooms. In New York State, more than 1,400 principals have signed a letter protesting the state’s new evaluation policy, which they see as too focused on tests.

There’s a middle ground in all of this, though, that both sides seem to be missing.

The anti-assessment crowd, for its part, too often ignores the reams of documented evidence that find value added, assessment-linked evaluations (as part of a multi-measure system) can be strikingly accurate measures of teacher effectiveness. The fact is, these types of teacher evaluations are working, and working well, in schools all over the country.

Many city and district leaders, on the other hand, can get ahead of themselves when they establish teacher evaluation programs. Simply putting an evaluation system into place is not enough. To the contrary—on its own it’s a recipe for disaster. Teachers need to be more than just examined and judged. They need resources and support to help them improve in the areas that evaluations identify for development. Teachers can only be fairly evaluated if they’ve been properly trained. The Chicago Teachers Union is responding to its members’ concerns, and is saying loud and clear that they do not have the proper tools to succeed in REACH.

Most importantly, no one seems to be talking about the fact that teacher evaluations don’t need to be a punitive tool. In fact, the good ones aren’t. If they’re designed and implemented correctly, teacher evaluation systems are powerful, positive instruments of progress. There is no shame in constructive criticism and improvement—everyone needs it sometimes, even administrators and city mayors.

There are a few emerging teacher evaluation systems that I’ve been following with interest over the past year, systems that are successfully using high-stakes testing to help improve teacher practice. Next week I’ll post about one of those systems, and we’ll take look at exactly what it’s doing to help teachers and students succeed.

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