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Hard facts behind union, board dispute

Updated: September 11, 2012 12:48PM



As a CPS alumnus of the strikes of ‘83, ‘85, and ‘87, and as a parent of two Chicago Public Schools students, I know how hard strikes are on students and families. But as a CPS teacher with 12 years of experience, I encourage my students to understand the facts before they make up their minds. I can’t speak for the union, but I can help shed light on some of the facts underlying this week’s labor dispute.

Are teachers underpaid?

Chicago Public Schools starting salaries are among the highest in the region. That’s good news to parents who want their children taught by first- and second- year teachers. (Indeed, many early-career teachers are highly energetic and innovative, making up in enthusiasm for what they lack in experience and well-honed tactics. As department chair, I hired several.)

But the annual increases for teachers in CPS are much smaller than the annual increases in many suburban districts. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree, 30 additional credit hours, and ten years of experience, can expect to earn $87,513 in Evanston this year; last year, in Oak Park, a teacher would have made $88,978. In Chicago this year, the same teacher will earn $75,711 — about $12,000 a year less than in districts to which he or she could walk or take public transportation from a home in Chicago.

Over the course of a career, that difference amounts to over a quarter of a million dollars. This disparity should concern everyone, because it’s a primary reason why experienced teachers leave CPS to go to the suburbs — and why CPS has to train thousands of brand-new teachers every year.

Do teachers oppose merit pay?

It’s hard to argue with the idea of merit pay, and perhaps even harder to understand why parents should care about it one way or the other. Tying meaningful evaluations to salaries should, in theory, reward teachers for doing the things we want them to do: build skills, teach our children to reason rather than simply memorize facts, and become better teachers by building on strengths and improving identifiable weaknesses. But the fact is that the largest-scale merit pay implementation, in New York City, has done none of these things.

Now in its second year, New York’s system has shown remarkable inconsistency. In some cases, the New York system gives a single teacher very different scores based on different classes, even though he’s teaching both classes the same subject during the same year. How would you tell that teacher what to improve? Skills-based tests penalize teachers who emphasize learning to think rather than memorizing facts that can be Googled. In New York, more than 70 teachers of high-performing students received scores placing them among the worst teachers, in large part because they taught critical thinking, and used projects to teach higher-level reasoning, rather than drilling skills: at the end of the year the students’ amazingly-high test scores were slightly lower than their even-more-amazing scores the previous year.

On the other end of the scale, a teacher who manages to drill in a few basic facts can show dramatic improvement in test scores among very weak students — from abysmal to only terrible — without actually teaching the concepts and ideas that would help the students learn more in succeeding years. So on both ends of the scale, New York’s system discourages teachers from doing what will help their students in the long run.

Maybe Chicago can do better than New York; as a lifelong Chicagoan and CPS graduate, I would certainly hope so. But, personally, I’m skeptical. Trying to measure how well people perform a complex skill is tricky at best; simple numbers rarely tell a consistent story.

For example, the White Sox’s best batter this year is Paul Konerko, with a .308 for the season. But last year he batted .300, and while he batted .312 in 2010, his average was below .280 for the three previous seasons. These variations are for the same batter, hitting with the same bats and balls, in the same parks, against (largely) the same pitchers; the factors that cause the variations are often impossible to identify, because of the complexity of the task. Why would we expect a scoring system for teaching to be less random than an average of over 300 at-bats per season? And if that system isn’t consistent, how can we use it to get better teachers?

Will firing bad teachers produce better educational results?

This answer is simple: not unless we’re willing to live with substantially larger classes. An individual school of 50-odd teachers, with good hiring practices and reasonable incentives, can hope to replace three to five poorly performing teachers with teachers whom it expects to do better. (It’s important to remember that even this process is something of a crap shoot: every chair and principal can tell you about the “amazing” candidate who turned out to be anything but.) But there are over 500 Chicago public schools with over 21,000 teachers. Nobody knows how many would be let go under a more rigorous evaluation system.

But if we assume three to five teachers per school, the total comes to about 2,000 teachers in all. Replacing that many teachers is an entirely different task, especially when that number is added to the annual drain of teachers leaving the profession or moving to higher-salaried jobs in the suburbs. The pay difference makes outbound flow of teachers one-way, especially because CPS does not give credit for teaching experience outside the system. In my years hiring teachers in my school’s math department, I always found one or two candidates whom I felt really good about — but never four or five. Do we really think there are several thousand strong teachers who would rush in to replace the ones we let go?

Should teachers who have been fired get first crack at new jobs?

This seems like a no-brainer. But think about it: CPS plans to close — by some estimates — about 100 schools in the next several years, which translates to a loss of about 5,000 positions. From a statistical perspective, while it’s likely that some of these 5000 teachers are unsatisfactory, it’s extremely unlikely that all of them are. And further stigmatizing teachers who gave it their best shot at the city’s roughest schools will only discourage talented young teachers from applying for those jobs in the future.

If a new evaluation system is consistent, fair, objective, and rigorous, then a reasonable compromise might be that displaced teachers with satisfactory evaluations under the new system go to the head of the line for new jobs. But it’s hard to imagine a trade union sitting by while 5,000 of their workers are told to “get in line” behind new hires for possible employment at other factories or sites; why should CTU be any different?

Teaching is a complex task, requiring a subtle weave of intellectual ideas, interpersonal dynamics, and emotional investment. Negotiating a new teachers’ contract is no less complex: we all feel passionately about educating our kids. But to get anywhere, we need to acknowledge the underlying facts.

Teachers in Chicago are paid well initially, but face rising financial incentives to move to the suburbs as they gain experience and proficiency. No currently-existing “value added” evaluation system yields consistent, fair, educationally sound results. And firing bad teachers won’t magically create better ones to take their jobs.

To make progress on these issues, we have to figure out a way to make teaching in the city economically viable over the long-term; to evaluate teachers in a way that is consistent and reasonable, and that makes good sense educationally; and to help struggling teachers improve their practice. Because at base, we all want the same thing: classes full of students eager to be learning from their excellent, passionate teachers.

Paul J. Karafiol is the coordinator for curriculum, instruction and assessment and a nationally-recognized math teacher at Walter Payton College Prep High School.



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