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Opinion: Columnists

Manhattan Moment: In Chicago, the education status quo makes its stand

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All this week, public school teachers in Chicago have refused to show up for work unless they get a "fair" contract -- by which they mean one that pays them even more without meaningfully changing the status quo. The Chicago strike reflects the resentment many teachers feel about accountability and choice reforms, which undermine the teachers union's once-ironclad hold on the school system.

Over the last several decades, it has become increasingly clear that the system that Chicago's union is fighting so hard to protect benefits teachers far more than students. Consider the incongruity in these two basic facts: Less than 1 percent of Chicago's teachers received below a "satisfactory" rating in 2007, and less than half of Chicago's fourth-grade students are even basically literate, according to a respected test administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

The teachers claim that poor student outcomes are society's fault, not theirs. Defending the strike, Chicago union boss Karen Lewis complained that "there are too many factors beyond [(teachers'] control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control."

The nation's expanding charter school sector, however, both disproves the union argument and demonstrates that an alternative exists: an educational system aligned to student, rather than teacher, interests.

The amazing and consistent success of charter schools such as KIPP, Democracy Prep and Harlem Success in educating populations of almost exclusively minority, low-income students from troubled neighborhoods now provides ample proof that students who come from challenging backgrounds can learn if given the chance.

Tellingly, students enrolled in Chicago's charter schools are in school today. That's because teachers in most charter schools aren't unionized.

Freedom from union influence allows charters to experiment with policies and instructional techniques that can make an enormous difference for students. In a recent study, Harvard University economist Roland Fryer evaluated which policies influenced effectiveness in charter schools. He found that the most successful schools embraced frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, increased instructional time and a relentless focus on academic achievement.

These are precisely the policies, among others, that Chicago's union is fighting against.

The union's complaints reached a fever pitch when Mayor Rahm Emanuel insisted on lengthening the school day. As it currently stands, the negotiations' primary sticking point is whether to utilize student test score data to assess teacher effectiveness and drive instruction.

The union has found particularly distasteful the recipe of measurement and accountability, which makes the best charter schools successful. They want to keep the current system, in which they are never seriously evaluated and stand little chance of losing their jobs, even if they make no impact on the lives of their students. Their written-in-stone contract requires that they be in school for a low total number of minutes each day.

Chicago's teachers are fighting for their own interests, which is not surprising or even inappropriate. That's precisely what union leaders like Lewis are hired to do. But what's changing is that parents and policymakers are catching on to the game. They are beginning to think of their own interests and those of their children. More and more school systems are insisting on meaningful reform to public schools, to put the students first instead of last.

Marcus A. Winters is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and author of the new report "Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers."

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