If This Chicago Teacher Does Not Prove to You Why Rahm Emanuel is Wrong About the Union Strike, Then Nothing Will

It is no secret that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel endorses a new teacher evaluation system. In this proposed system, at least 25% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on standardized test results. The exact details of the new evaluation system are currently being negotiated, but if Emanuel had it his way, standardized testing would make up nearly half of a teacher’s evaluation and impact teacher compensation. While it may seem fair, in theory, to evaluate educators based on their students’ test scores, in practice it is an ineffective measure of quality and would be detrimental to the students of Chicago. 

To illustrate this plan’s imperfections, let me first provide a realistic snapshot of the working conditions and the types of resources available to Chicago Public School teachers. By contract, class sizes are supposed to be capped at 28 at the primary grade levels and 31 at the intermediate and upper grade levels. I have been teaching for four years, and not once have class sizes at my school been that low. 

In actuality, the majority of class sizes at all grade levels are between 30-40 students. Resources are also scarce. Teachers who have enough textbooks for all of their students on the first day of school consider themselves lucky. Many essential pieces of a well-rounded education such as physical education, art, music, and world languages have been cut. One-hundred sixty schools do not have libraries. In addition, there is an enormous shortage of school nurses and social workers. In my school, for example, there are 1,065 students; we have a nurse one day per week and a social worker two days per week. This is insufficient given the number of health and social issues our students deal with on a daily basis. Furthermore, there is extreme disparity in resources and working conditions across the 600+ CPS schools — it is unclear to me how one would control for these variables as part of a teacher evaluation. Finally, there are circumstances that are completely out of a teacher’s control such as student attendance. Last year, for example, I had a student who showed up several hours late nearly every day. His mom worked a night shift and rarely woke up early enough to get him to school on time. Despite countless phone calls and notes home, in-person meetings with his mom, the creation of an incentive program in the classroom to motivate him to come to school on time, and even the purchase of an alarm clock for the student, he still came to school late every day. None of this background information would ever show up on a standardized test; in Mayor Emanuel’s eyes, it would only show that his reading score did not improve, and therefore I am an ineffective teacher.

There are a few clear problems with the aforementioned reform. First, when a teacher’s evaluation is directly impacted by his or her students’ performance on a test, then test scores take priority over other aspects of the curricula. This has already happened to some extent due to the pressure to improve test scores on a school-wide level. One can imagine how teachers will modify their practices when their careers depend on the outcome of these standardized tests. Teachers will spend more time teaching test preparation strategies, and less time teaching non-tested subjects (science, social studies, art, music, etc.). 

Another problem with this reform movement is that it creates a huge disincentive for teachers to work in low-performing schools. It is almost always the case that the lowest performing schools have the least amount of resources and the most severe working conditions. With standardized test scores driving teacher evaluations, there would not be a very large number of teachers fighting over those jobs. The most skilled and qualified teachers will look for jobs in the top performing schools, or seek jobs in other school districts, leaving inexperienced or ineffective teachers to work in the schools where good teachers are needed most.

A third problem with the mayor’s proposal is that test scores do not always tell the whole story for a student’s learning. Rahm Emanuel and his team have come up with “one size fits all” policies that, in a district of over 600 schools, are not practical. For example, ten years ago about 50% of the students at my school passed the state standardized exam. Last year, nearly 90% of the students passed. Here is where it becomes complicated. Chicago Public School administration wants to see improved test scores each year. They don’t look at the percentage of our students with special needs, or the percentage of our students who moved to the United States a few months before taking the state exam. They see that 90% of students passed last year, so more than 90% of students better pass next year. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Children do not fit in a box. Only educators understand these issues. Unfortunately, many of the policies that we are forced to implement in our schools are created by people who have absolutely no classroom experience.

It is unfortunate that this issue, in addition to many other issues, resulted in the first teacher strike in 25 years. I am still almost bewildered at how these issues were not resolved over the summer. (The Chicago Teachers Union voted to authorize a strike, if necessary, in May. Meetings should have been held daily beginning in June until all issues had been resolved. In my mind it is inexcusable that this was not seriously addressed until September.) It shouldn’t have come to a strike, but this is a fight worth fighting. The Chicago teachers are standing up for a better education for their students and will continue to fight for a contract that prioritizes student learning.