As a former educator myself and the spouse of a current educator, I understand the hard work that teachers and other education professionals put in, often off the clock.  I understand that teachers’ salaries are often not equivalent to other professionals with similar educational credentials, and that teachers often have to spend a portion of those limited salaries on supplies and materials that, in an ideal world, would be provided by their schools and districts.  I understand that we pay athletes and financial professionals immense sums of money because they have the ability to create immense amounts of wealth for their employers and their clients, while we pay teachers much less even though the effectiveness of our education system is the foundation on which all other wealth creation is built.  I understand and I sympathize with those concerns, and I truly believe that they are national concerns that will continue to hamper our educational and economic success well into the future if they are not addressed.

The strike in Chicago is not about salaries.  True, Stephanie Gadlin of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) listed “fairer distribution of pay,” meaning greater compensation for teachers, as one of the Union’s concerns.  True, Rahm Emanuel rescinded a previous plan that would have given teachers a 4-percent cost of living raise, and instead gave teachers only a 2-percent raise this year.  But it is simply not true, as the previous Salon post states, that the city is asking teachers to work “20 percent more, for 2 percent more pay.”  True, teachers will be asked to work more, in part because Chicago already had one of the shortest school days and school years in the country.  The teachers are right to ask to be paid more for more time in the classroom, and that is exactly what the district has offered.  In fact, CTU was already offered a deal that would have included “16 percent average salary increase equaling $320 million over the next four years, security for laid off teachers, and paid maternity leave, among other things,” and now the union has said that the two sides are close to a deal on that issue.

*There are two other provisions that appear to be the greater sticking points in the negotiations: teacher evaluations and recall procedures for laid-off teachers.  These two provisions can honestly be considered hand-in-hand.  As Nick Kristof put it “the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers.”  Chicago’s teachers are objecting to the use of standardized testing as part of the teacher evaluation system because they are concerned about the number of factors outside the classroom that can affect students’ test scores.  This critique has particular salience under system’s like the one originally employed under No Child Left Behind, under which schools were evaluated based solely on the percentages of students within the school who achieved a certain classification (e.g., failing, proficient, advanced).

*Chicago, on the other hand, wants to use a value-added system to measure teachers’ effectiveness.  Such a system is based on aggregating a teacher’s standardized test data over multiple years to determine whether students are making academic gains in the classroom.  Because value-added evaluation takes into account the level at which students enter the classroom, the system does not punish teachers for poverty, or reward teachers who work in schools whose students come in to classroom above grade level and predictably pass state tests with flying colors.  In fact, it’s flaw may work in the opposite direction when students have already mastered the tested material at the start of the year, a concern that should be addressed.  The system is designed to isolate the effects of a student’s teacher from the effects of all the outside influences in the student’s life.  Value-added evaluation is a way to identify which teachers within a school are most effective, and to remove those teachers who are not.  Reflexive opposition to standardized test-based evaluation fails to account for the changes in data analysis that have occurred since regular testing was first mandated under NCLB.

*The second thing the teachers are demanding is a recall system that would given any laid-off teacher first priority for rehiring if new positions open up.  The teachers are right to demand a recall system that will provide protections for teachers who are laid off because of budget cuts or school closures.  However, the union envisions a recall system that would also prioritize teachers who are fired because they were found to be ineffective.  Only because the union fails to recognize that standardized testing can be part of a fair and accurate evaluation system can it continue to advocate for the rehiring of teachers laid-off after successive poor evaluations.  When new schools open, those principals should have the freedom to staff their schools with a staff that represents the best talent available and that shares the principal’s vision for school culture, without having to give first priority to teachers formerly employed at other district schools.  When any new positions become available, it is nonsensical to demand that teachers laid-off for ineffectiveness be rehired before engaging in an outside search for the best available employees.

Another aspect of this debate surrounds the expansion of charter schools, and with it the expansion of non-unionized teacher workforces.  Charter schools tend to be demonized by public union advocates as a step toward privatization of education and union busting.  I don’t disagree that those are exactly the results that some politicians want when they advocate for charter schools.  You often hear Republican politicians talk about charter schools, privatization, and vouchers all in the same breath.  But the divide in Chicago is between union liberals and progressive education reformers.  Progressive education reformers recognize that charter schools are not a scalable model to fix public education, and they recognize, as is frequently highlighted by union supporters, that not all charter schools are effective.  Instead, progressive education reformers see charter schools as laboratories, and rather than asking “Are charter schools effective?”, they ask “Which charter schools are effective and why?”  That was the motivation behind President Obama and Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program, and it is the motivation behind the type of reforms that the city wants to see in Chicago.  They want to take the model of successful charter schools – longer school day, longer school year, highly effective and accountable teachers – and move that into the standard public schools.

There are a lot of arguments about why even normally progressive, union-supportive people are willing to push back against teachers’ unions.  Some say it is because we as a society cling to the old view that “those who can’t do, teach,” and that teachers don’t fit into our definition of economic success.  Others argue it is because teachers’ salaries and benefits (like all public-employee union members) are drawn from the public fisc, and therefore their gain is the taxpayers’ loss.

I think the better explanation, especially when liberal support for teachers’ unions is compared side-by-side with support for other public-employee unions, is that teachers are viewed as members of the professional class.  Teachers are educated; teachers practice their craft with individualized strategies and methods; and one teacher can’t be fired and replaced with another without losing the benefit of that teacher’s knowledge and experience.  If teachers are paid well, which in Chicago they are, then they should expect to perform their work the same way other professionals, e.g., lawyer, doctors, engineers, financial professionals, perform theirs.  Teachers should expect to be hired to perform to a certain expectation of success, to be compared to the success of their peers at achieving those expectations, and to be fired if they consistently fail to meet them.

Once teachers start expecting to be evaluated and promoted like professionals, then they can equally start expecting to be treated like professionals in other ways, like earning the greater pay and benefits that school districts would be willing to provide if they were competing for employees who had proven to be effective at their jobs.  Simultaneously, teachers should continue to push for better learning and living environments for their students.  Unions should call out politicians who favor charter schools or vouchers, but don’t favor increased social services, easier access to low-cost food and health care, and criminal justice reform that will help build low-income communities.  Teachers and unions should push for the type of reforms that will allow teachers to better serve their students, including smaller class sizes, more support staff, and more teacher training and collaboration so teachers have the opportunity to improve.  The ultimate result would be the achievement of the one thing that all sides in this fight seem to agree that they are working, the best possible education for Chicago’s public school students.

*These paragraphs have been updated for clarity.

Noah Kaplan was a 2007 Teach for America corps member in Phoeniz, Arizona.  He taught fourth grade for three years in the Glendale Elementary School District in Glendale, Arizona.  The opinions expressed in this post are his alone, and do not reflect the views of the Civil Rights-Civil Law Review.  He welcomes your comments below.