Resources and testing at the heart of Chicago teachers strike
Post by Jesse Russell on 9/14/2012 9:05am
It’s difficult to find a single teacher who would say "wages" are the priority in the strike that currently has the Chicago Public School system shutdown for a fifth day. The stand-out issues cited by teachers interviewed during a march in the streets surrounding the CPS Central Administration building at 125 S. Clark Street were “teacher evaluations” and “resources.” In the Chicago system, the latter issue is directly related to the former.
According to Kevin Jackson, a social worker at Orr Academy High School, the issues teachers can strike over are limited to financial ones such as wages. He said, “We don’t have the right to bargain for the longer school day, the longer school year, classroom size, or anything like that. The only thing we can truly strike over is teacher salaries. That’s the only thing we have as our weapon, so we’re trying to use that as a way to bargain for those rights as far as curriculum, classroom size, and the things that other students need for support so they can have a successful school day.”
Special Education District Representative Cynthia Rossi-Mack said paraprofessionals, such as teachers' aides, are one thing students need more of to have a successful school day. She said Orr Academy has a special education population of more than 200 students, and Jackson is the only social worker in the school. “And I think that’s grossly, grossly, grossly deficient to what we really need,” Rossi-Mack said.
Chicago has seen an uptick in homicides this year, up 30 percent over 2011. There have been more than 350 homicides in the city already, and August went down as the deadliest month in the city with 55 reported homicides. The majority of those homicides have been concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides.
The violence in the streets can have a direct impact on how students perform in the classroom. According to RedEye's Chicago homicide tracker within a three-mile radius of Benito Juarez Academy High School, where the student population is 94 percent low income, there have been 29 homicides this year. The majority took place on the street or in a parking lot.
Max Hobbes, a teacher at Juarez High School, said, “Kids come to school angry and depressed, because they don’t have access to proper social work and therapeutic services.”
Rossi-Mack said Orr Academy has also felt the impact of shootings. According to RedEye’s homicide tracker there have been 25 fatal shootings within a two-mile radius of the school this year.
Hobbes added that during the first week of school, when the temperature in Chicago was as high as 90 degrees, his school didn’t have any air conditioning. According to news reports, more than 100 schools in Chicago were in a similar situation. Hobbes said, “They come to school in crowded, hot conditions and sitting in a classroom of 40-plus students with no air conditioning in the sweltering heat and are expected to perform the same as their counterparts in Lake Forest and selective enrollment magnet schools. It's not fair.”
It’s the expectation that students at all schools should perform well on the same standardized tests regardless of resource distribution or socioeconomic demographics of a school that has teachers in Chicago so concerned about evaluations. The tests, implemented as part of the Bush Administration's “No Child Left Behind” initiative, have been criticized for resulting in schools building curricula that “teach to the test.”
And, there’s been a sharp increase in school districts tying teacher evaluations to student performance standardized testing results ever since the Obama Administration started encouraging education reforms with the $4 billion Race to the Top program. Typically, the pressure on school districts comes from state and city governments hoping to receive a chunk of that federal money to offset budgets still recovering from the loss of revenue in the recession.
The Chicago Teachers Union had expressed concern that a heavy dependence on test scores in teacher evaluations could lead to more than 6,000 teachers losing their jobs within two years. The state requires 35 percent of the teacher evaluation be based on "student performance" and the city wanted to use testing exclusively to gauge student performance. Under a new proposal suggested during negotiations since the strike started 25 percent of student performance would be gauged by testing and the remaining 10 percent would be based on teacher evaluation of student performance. The new agreement would also provide additional chances for teachers who initially score on the low end of evaluations if they can make notable performance improvements.
While not the first priority for many teachers, wages are still of concern. Last year Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel nixed a 4 percent increase that was promised under the previous contract. Teachers were hoping the city would make up for what was viewed as an affront by replacing the increase in the new contract. The union has been pushing for an increase of 5.4 percent in the first year of the new contract, while the city is only offering a 2 percent increase.
Rossi-Mack explained, “When we are vilified in the media that all we want is money, it needs to be understood that we can’t do an apprenticeship to get our job. We have to be highly qualified, we have to go to college, and we have to borrow against ourselves to be able to remain highly qualified and every four years we have to go through that process again.”
The strike hasn't been easy on parents. Naomi Israel was at the strike on Monday, but she wasn't there to support the teachers, instead she was trying to raise money to pay for a hotel room so she could keep the roof over the heads of her kids for one more night. She lost her job and car earlier this year.
Israel said, "I sympathize with [the teachers], but I need my boys to be in school. I was waiting all summer vacation, because I need this time to have them out of my hair so I can find a job."
She said her three children were spending the day out of school with her cousin, but she was concerned about the other children on the streets. "These children need their butts in school, they need education, they need structure, they're getting younger and younger walking around with nothing to do and it's bad enough they take themselves out of school," Israel said.
As of Friday morning negotiations are expected to continue, but it is unknown when students and teachers will be back in school.
Reporting from Workers Independent News contributed to this story.
Jesse was born and raised in Connecticut, began blogging in 1997, and moved to Madison in 2003. In 2005, he co-founded dane101 along with Kristian Knutson and Shane Wealti. In addition to helping nearly a dozen contributors run this website he's helped launch various events in the city including What's Your Damage?!, the MadPubQuiz of Awesomeness, the Fire Ball Masquerade, Dane101's Freakin' Halloweekend, and more.