A few weeks ago I ventured my take on why the Chicago strike matters going forward. Here’s another view via a guestpost from TNTP President Tim Daly on what the events in Chicago mean:
Chicago teachers recently ratified a new contract, the product of a seven-day September strike that shook the entire city. It took 350,000 students out of class, upended the lives of working families, and had an economic impact that has yet to be tallied. It played a major role in the departure, last week, of the district’s superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard.
More than anything, the strike was a howl of frustration from teachers. What started as a dispute over salaries evolved into one over everything from air conditioning to the intricacies of teacher recall rights. Now that the dust has settled, it is difficult to argue that these issues justified the cost and damage of a strike, the nuclear option of labor disputes. But it is undeniable that it exposed legitimate discontent that city leaders need to take seriously.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) seized the opportunity for a strike and made it a referendum on lack of respect and poor working conditions, big-tent themes that resonated even with teachers who generally support education reforms. Unfortunately, the deal that ended the strike is unlikely to truly address teachers’ concerns or their hunger for respect. Based on our review, it’s more likely to take schools and teachers a step backwards.
That’s because the CTU won several concessions from the city that will make it harder for schools to ensure that every student will get effective teachers—the single most important thing they can do to put students on the path to success in college and beyond.
The final agreement weakens teacher evaluations by allowing teachers who earn low ratings to continue teaching indefinitely. As long as they make a minuscule amount of improvement each year, they can teach class after class of students—even if they never become effective. Students and their fellow teachers will pay the price.
Second, if layoffs become necessary—which is increasingly likely, given the district’s precarious finances—the contract says that high-performing early career teachers must be cut before more experienced but lower-performing teachers. These quality-blind rules could force schools to fire some of their best teachers at a time when such decisions are more critical than ever.
Finally, the deal could deprive teachers and students alike of a wide range of future academic and extra-curricular opportunities, because it promises across-the-board teacher raises that have already caused another downgrade to the district’s credit rating. The likely result will be drastic cuts, school closures and program reductions that are sure to drive away more great teachers than the raises retain.
While the media was obsessed with the personal feud between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CTU President Karen Lewis, it glossed over these compromises that could hurt the academic fortunes of a generation of students. It’s a sad reminder that what’s best for kids is usually an afterthought in labor disputes.
Unfortunately, despite overheated claims of CTU triumph, rank-and-file teachers don’t come out much better off, either. Instead of taking the teaching profession forward, the new contract doubles down on factory-era policies that perpetuate many of the same challenges and frustrations that sparked the strike in the first place—policies that a growing number of teachers reject.
At TNTP, we’ve surveyed tens of thousands of teachers in recent years, including many in Chicago. We’ve heard time and again that the best teachers want to work in schools that not only offer atmospheres of mutual respect and trust, but also set high expectations, recognize great work, and refuse to tolerate poor teaching. In other words, teachers want respect, but they also want rigor—and in healthy schools, the two go hand in hand.
This sets up a critical choice for the city and the union. The CTU can keep defending policies that treat its members like 19th-century factory workers instead of 21st-century professionals, or it can embrace common-sense reforms being adopted across the country to raise standards—and respect—for the teaching profession.
The Mayor and Chicago Public Schools can dismiss the strike as a political ploy, or they can take on the urgent task of improving working conditions for teachers—without compromising on high expectations. More than anything, that means holding principals and district officials accountable for building school cultures where great teachers want to work.
Respect and rigor: That’s the path to a teaching profession that has the status it deserves, and to strong public schools that help every student rise to a brighter future. The strike and the resulting contract made that path a little longer in Chicago, but the path remains. Now it’s time for the city and the union to decide whether the next step is backward or forward.
Timothy Daly is president of TNTP, a national nonprofit working to ensure that all students get effective teachers.