Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Strike

I've been wanting to write a post about the strike, my thoughts on it, and what it means for my school and my situation, but I've been reluctant to stick my neck out there because there are a lot of strong feelings on all sides of this thing.

Here's a good summary of what's going on with the strike.

On the strike, my feelings are mixed. This has been brewing since long before I got hired in CPS, and I think I may feel differently than a lot of teachers do as a result.

The raise issue: last year I taught at a contract school (essentially a charter, and non-union), so moving to CPS was a 20% pay increase for me. I think CPS teacher pay is pretty fair. And I certainly understand the role that the union plays in getting it to that point, but at this time, I don't think that the raise CTU was asking for was reasonable (I use past tense because I think at this point the money issues have been sorted out). I also tend to be a bit fiscally conservative, and I know there's really not any money to be had, and the Board's credit rating has actually been downgraded recently. So I think teachers need to take one for the team this time and lay off the pay increase issue. Plus I think we look like jerks asking for a pay increase when there's still such high unemployment. And it is really hard for me to feel okay picketing in a community that quite likely has over 25% unemployment. On the other hand, I can see how teachers who worked under the previous contract probably don't feel it's fair that Emanuel rescinded the raise that was in their contract. But the thing is, teachers get step increases every year for each year of experience, and the 4% we were asking for was on top of the step increase. So it was actually something like a 5-6% raise effectively, which is a rather handsom raise to most people.

The big issues still holding things up are teacher evaluation and school closings. I completely and totally agree that teachers should be held accountable for student achievement. The tricky part comes in measuring that. The main issue holding up negotiations right now is that they want to use state standardized tests for this, which are problematic for a few reasons:

1) They're horrible measures of student progress, for students, parents, teachers, and teacher evaluators.

2) They are a narrow assessment of the teaching I do and the goals I have for my students (though the PARCC test, aligned to the Common Core Standards, seems somewhat more promising than the ISAT on this front, but still will not test all areas of student learning).

3) It totally sucks to depend on one week of a pressure-cooker test that students could do poorly on for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with me.

4) A teacher could quite conceivably show varying levels of student growth from year to year and still be a good teacher with the same level of quality and expertise from one year to the next, and that is not being taken into account. I only got to see percentile data from last year's ISAT for my students, but I moved my students an average of 13 percentile points higher from third to fourth grade in math last year. I can assure you that, as a first-year teacher, I did not perform some kind of miracle with my students last year. I am a much better teacher now, but I think the odds of me making a gain like that this year are really slim. Plus, there's the complication of teaching third grade this year: how exactly will they measure the progress I've made with my students? Third grade is the first year they do state testing. The progress I can make also depends what the students' education has looked like up to the point they enter my room. Consistently high-quality teaching is likely to make my job at any grade easier. (FULL DISCLOSURE ON THIS ITEM: I have no idea if Emanuel's proposal calls for student performance to be measured as value-added as I've described above, or a percent meets/exceeds. If it's just a flat percentage of students who meet or exceed, then I'm totally hosed. This year's No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress for percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards is 92.5%. Last year my school's meet/exceeds average was close to 50%. That represents gains in meets/exceeds for every single grade who took the ISAT, by the way. No small feat, but still failing miserably by NCLB milestones, and still heart-breaking as a teacher to see what that actually means in terms of student achievement.

5) Focusing on one test for evaluation means that teachers will focus more on the test with what they teach (read p. 28 in the link) which means your teaching is only as good as the test you use. This means two things: a) that teachers in struggling schools where students are below the target meets/exceeds goal spend time on test prep, which is something that I know as a kid I never experienced going to suburban schools, and b) teachers spend less time on subject areas that are not tested. So reading and math start to crowd out social studies and science. The recent alarm over science time in schools is actually a result of science not being a tested subject for most grades (only 4th and 7th). The other grades spent relatively little time on science because it wasn't tested at their grade, and science education suffered as a result. I guess the answer might be to test science every year, but then what about social studies? Or writing? And I spend a good deal of time helping my kids learn about getting along with each other, managing their emotions and reactions, navigating conflicts and misunderstandings, making going decisions—social-emotional learning. I do this because it's important, and because I frankly couldn't keep my classroom calm and safe without it. But this isn't tested. Should I get rid of that?

6) Particularly in schools with a high mobility rate, standardized testing sometimes is measuring student progress of students who haven't spent much time in front of that teacher. When I was a teaching intern, we had a girl transfer in two weeks before the ISAT. Should her scores be a part of my mentor teacher's evaluation?

The thing is though, if Emanuel is in good faith trying to gradually implement an evaluation plan that he's willing to tweak (on an ongoing basis) to fix its inevitable shortcomings (and include teachers in the formulation of the evaluation system), I'm personally okay with that. This is one thing I wish the union were a little more flexible on:  I think people would be much more sympathetic if we adopted some kind of performance-based evaluation and then later protested unfair outcomes or implementation of it. 

In terms of the other part of teacher evaluation—observing instruction—CPS has just switched from the infamous "checklist" system of observation-based teacher evaluation to one based on the Charlotte Danielson Framework for teaching, which is a wonderful tool for assessing teaching. I think I'm actually going to write a separate post on my thoughts about teacher evaluation and what I think it should look like, and I'll talk more about the Danielson Framework in that post.

The other big issue for me (and the other big issue still not resolved in talks) is closing schools. My school would more than likely get closed under the proposed plan. First of all, it's really small (one teacher per grade level) which makes it a target for consolidation. But I feel very strongly that the size of the school is really important for our students. Many of our students have really unstable home lives, for any number of reasons. We also have an extremely high mobility rate: we get new kids, kids leave, and some kids who were there and left, come back mid-year. It's chaotic and stressful. But I believe that having a small school is a hedge against the chaos of high mobility and difficult home situations. The teachers who have been at the school for a couple years know all the students by name. The kids know all the teachers. It's a very close-knit community, and feels like a family. My personal feeling is that larger schools can't provide this same level of stability and security for students who are in inherently unstable situations, and I think it's wrong to close schools just because they're small. I think the opposite, in fact. We should have more small schools. I know it costs more, but at some point we have to ask ourselves whether we're willing to accept the cost of what it takes to give kids what they need.

In addition to being small, we're on probation due to extremely low scores (though they've been going up: my principal has been at this school for five years and I think it could be demonstrated that she and the staff she's put together are making progress. But that's not something that's necessarily considered.) So I would likely get laid off, and then I would not have recall rights, which it seems would suit Emanuel just fine because by his logic I am a bad teacher from the bad school he just closed. 

Teachers are also asking for smaller class sizes, air conditioning (yes, sad), more support services like counselors, social workers, and nurses (badly needed), and to stop expansion of charter schools. I know a lot of those services are not going to happen because the money's not there. But the same thing applies there as with the small schools: are we willing to actually pay for things that will help students who struggle the most?

At the end of the day, my feeling about the strike is that I want it to end, and I don't care how it ends. There are things I think the union is asking for that are unreasonable and not in students' best interests, but I also feel strongly that some things Emanuel wants to put in place are perhaps well-intentioned or pragmatic, but ultimately not good for students. I support the strike because I think Emanuel is trying to bust unions, and I believe we have the right to collectively bargain. But I would be okay if the strike ended now and the board got to implement everything they're currently asking for.

To be honest, I just want to get back to teaching. I love my students, and I love my job. I'm a good teacher and I'll only get better each year. I want to be respected for what I do, and I want to be supported in my growth and improvement.

1 comment:

Ms. Clements said...

Thank you for the insight! I have read 4 or 5 articles about the strike, but nothing from the perspective of a CTU teacher in your position. I have taught for four years in Florida, three of which were at a very low-income, Title I middle school in Orlando. I never joined the union, although I was strongly encouraged (bullied even) to do so (FL is a right-to-work state, so public school teachers have a choice); I chose not to because I didn’t want someone else speaking on my behalf and lumping me into a group I most likely didn’t agree or fit with.

My experience gives me a different perspective on a lot of the things you say are necessary in order for schools to be successful. The middle school I taught at had approximately 12 teachers per grade level plus elective teachers, and we had around 800 students every year (although our population was constantly in flux). We did not have a nurse and only had access to one visiting social worker, who came to the school for a few hours per week. Over 90% of our students were on free/reduced lunch and a huge number were children of immigrants, learning English as a second language.

I can’t say exactly how our school would have performed in Chicago, under different tests and different regulations, but I can tell you that none of these factors kept us down. Our school made more learning gains in reading my second year than any middle or high school in Orange County (10th largest school system in the country). We beat out schools in beautiful brand new buildings, with three nurses, a social worker, and wealthy parents. We ignored what we couldn’t fix (home, parents, income-level) and focused 100% of our efforts on what we could.

I’d love to talk more, especially in regards to teacher evaluations based on data (which is already being implemented here in Florida) and charter school expansion, if you are willing! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Check out my blog (may want to skip the latest post :)) www.ateachertransformed.com