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The chicago teacher strike

Negotiations about teachers’ contracts happen in secret. That is madness, of course. The negotiators are making huge decisions about taxpayers’ money and kids’ lives.

Nevertheless, this shroud of secrecy helps explain why the Chicago dispute seems so confusing. Because no one can say exactly what it is about. So all kinds of misinformation floods the void, further entrenching both sides and sending reporters off in search of vapid-but-passionate quotes. (Like this one in today’s New York Times: “‘Clearly the teachers’ unions are under attack and under siege,’ said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University who often defends the unions.”)

Here are 2 things we can say for sure:

1. Reporters are Getting an Important Fact Wrong

Like many teachers and parents and humans everywhere, most reporters do not understand how test scores would be used to evaluate teachers. They assume—understandably—that teachers will be judged based on how high their students score on tests. So reporters repeat claims like this one—from Chicago union president Karen Lewis:

“[U]nion president Karen Lewis, who has sharply criticized [Mayor] Emanuel, said the standardized tests do not take into account of the poverty in inner city Chicago as well as hunger and violence in the streets…..‘Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children we do not control,’ Lewis said in announcing the strike.”

In fact, as you can see by reading this PDF from the web site of Chicago Public Schools, the proposed model was designed to “take into account” the poverty that Lewis mentions—and evaluate teachers on what they do, not on things they can’t control.

The algorithm compares how kids perform on a test—compared to their performance the year before. It looks at growth, not absolute scores. Then, to judge whether that growth was relatively strong or weak, the model controls for the effects of gender, race, ethnicity and poverty. So let’s say a 4th grade boy performs poorly on the end-of-year math test in Chicago. Now let’s imagine that he qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, like most kids in Chicago. Well, his teacher could still be judged to be among the best in the city! How? Because the child’s score would be compared to his score from the previous spring—and compared to his expected score, given his demographic profile. If his score went up only a little bit, he could still have performed better than most other Chicago kids from a similar socio-economic background. See why this is complicated?

In fact, these models were designed to promote fairness and assuage union and teacher objections; but facts are secondary in education debates. (See next thing-we-know-for-sure…)

2. Nothing Good This Way Comes

There is no country in the world that has an outstanding education system and a toxic relationship with its union. There are many, many countries whose leaders have fought with their teachers’ unions, and many more who have rolled over for unions, agreeing to policies that doom children to years of boredom and incompetence. But the best results have come from places that have managed to raise the professionalism of teachers—while not going to war with them. How is this possible? Sometimes it takes a crisis; we have that in Chicago. Always, it requires a deft political hand; we don’t have that in Chicago, at least not that I can tell.

For a real-life example, consider Ontario, Canada.

Like the U.S., Canada is a decentralized system in which locals control the schools. Canadian schools are also very diverse, with a higher immigrant intake than that of the U.S. And until recently, Canadian schools were not getting great results for all kids. In Ontario in the 1990s, there were several teacher strikes—including a two week shut down in 1997. “Morale was extremely low and the relationship between the government and teachers was highly acrimonious,” as this OECD report describes in detail.

What happened? In 2003, a new leader came into power. Premier Dalton McGuinty appointed an education minister named Gerard Kennedy (a critic of the previous regime, it should be noted), and together they tried a radically new approach:

“We needed to create a new political consensus on education. the current level of politicisation of the system was taking a huge toll on public confidence. in the preceding eight years of conservative government hundreds and hundreds of hours of school had been lost to strikes and lockouts, and this level of disruption was at the core of public discontent with the system. We felt we had to change that dynamic if we were going to have any chance of successfully moving our reform agenda. We needed to re-establish trust between the government and the profession, and between school boards and teachers.”—Gerard Kennedy quoted in Lessons from PISA for the United States

Check out the report for the rest of the story, but the point is that no major improvement can occur in an atmosphere of distrust and animosity. I wish it could, but it can’t. To get past that kind of poison—while still standing up for kids’ interests—is the Holy Grail of education reform. Are the likes of Union president Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel capable of such transcendence? I’d say No—if I didn’t know that 350,000 kids were counting on it.