Last Updated:November 27 @ 11:14 am

Chicago teachers fear job evaluations

By Sophia Tareen

CHICAGO (AP) - Educators in Los Angeles just signed a new deal with the city's school district. So, too, did teachers in Boston. Both require performance evaluations based in part on how well students succeed, a system that's making its debut in Cleveland.

So what's the problem in Chicago, where 25,000 teachers in the nation's third-largest district have responded to an impatient mayor's demand that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance by walking off the job for the first time in 25 years?

To start, contract agreements in other cities have hardly come quickly or with ease. They were often signed grudgingly, at the direction of a court or following negotiations that took years. And mayors and school officials have also won over reluctant teachers by promising to first launch pilot projects aimed at proving a concept many believe is inherently unfair.

"It has been a very tough issue across the country," said Rob Weil, a director at the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's two largest teachers' unions. "Teachers in many places believe that they see administrations and state legislatures creating language and policies that's nothing more than a mousetrap."

Chicago's teachers have drawn the hardest line in recent memory against using student test scores to rate teacher performance. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing hard to implement the new evaluations. That clash is one of the main points of contention in a nasty contract dispute between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union, which President Karen Lewis has called "a fight for the very soul of public education."

The strike, which has left approximately 350,000 students out of class as the city and the union also fight over pay and job security, entered its fourth day Thursday. After late-night talks Wednesday, both sides expressed optimism that students could be back in class as soon as Friday.

The push to judge teachers in part by their student's work stems from the reform efforts of the Obama administration, which has used its $4 billion Race to the Top competition and waivers to the federal No Child Left Behind law to encourage states to change how teachers are assessed.

Teachers unions argue that doing so ignores too many things that can affect a student's performance, such as poverty, the ability to speak English or even a school's lack of air conditioning. Or as said by an incredulous Dean Refakes, a physical education teacher in Chicago, "You are going to judge me on the results of the tests where there could be some extenuating circumstances that are beyond my control?"

Yet, tempted by the money offered by the federal government, lawmakers have made that directive in several states. In Florida, 50 percent of teacher appraisals must be based on student scores on standardized tests. In California, after the state legislature mandated the use of student progress benchmarks to rate teachers, an education reform group sued the Los Angeles Unified School Districtto force the issue.

The nation's second largest school system eventually found itself under a court order to come up with a plan to start using such evaluations by this December. Superintendent John Deasy announced this week the district had reached a one-year agreement to do so with the union that represents the district's 2,000 principal and assistant principals.

"It's a remarkable breakthrough," Deasy said.

But it's also a limited one, said Judith Perez, the president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. Student test scores won't be used to judge individual performance, but will rather be reviewed at the beginning and end of each school year — along with additional measures, such as attendance and graduation rates — to give principals feedback on how to improve a school's results. It's a one-year deal designed simply to comply with the court order, she said.

Meanwhile, the district faces thornier negotiations with the union representing its 36,000 teachers, which has already objected to a voluntary pilot project in 100 schools that uses test scores in evaluations.

Illinois lawmakers voted in 2010 to require that all public schools use student achievement as a component of teacher evaluations by the 2016-17 school year. In Chicago, Emanuel is living up to a promise made during his inauguration speech by demanding the Chicago union agree to make the change years ahead of that schedule.

"As some have noted, including (his wife) Amy, I am not a patient man," Emanuel said after he was sworn in as mayor a year ago. "When it comes to improving our schools, I will not be a patient mayor."

The issue of teacher evaluations has only been on the table in Chicago for a few months, and Emanuel acknowledged this week that his swift push for change could be a factor in why his relationship with the union has been so contentious. In other big cities, a more patient approach has led to success in finding agreement with reluctant teachers.

The deal reached Wednesday in Boston will allow administrators to rely more heavily on student achievement in teacher evaluations and remove from the classroom those receiving poor evaluations within 30 days. That contract came after 400 hours of contract negotiations that spanned more than 50 separate sessions over two years.

"Change is hard and is often hard-fought. But we should make special note that through all the tough negotiations, neither side let their frustrations spill onto the students of the Boston Public Schools," said Mayor Thomas Menino. "I tell you, this is a contract that's great for our students, works for our teachers and it's fair to our taxpayers."

Slowing down the timeline for implementing the evaluations has also led to success elsewhere.

Chicago's current offer to teachers includes not counting the new evaluations for a year as any kinks in the process are worked out. In Cleveland, the city's school district made its deal with teachers by agreeing to a loose framework for the new evaluations that would take four years to implement. The school system and the union spent a year constructing the evaluations, and then began a two-year pilot process that will not incorporate student test scores. That will come for the first time in the 2013-14 school year.

"This is complex work and it takes time to build it thoughtfully and carefully," said Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon. "It really has been a joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is the right (approach)."


Associated Press writers Christina Hoag in Los Angeles and Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.

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  1. TucsonTerpFanComment by TucsonTerpFan
    September 13, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    I read a recent report that said that 39% of Chicago public school teachers who have school-age kids send them to private schools.

    One of the big “elephants” in the room in this teacher-strike issue, and one that most Chicago teachers and city officials (includeing the mayor) don’t want to mention is the fact the most of the failure in performance of the city’s schools is not just because of the teachers; much of it is because of the student population.

    Most of the city’s public school students are minority. Today, 73% of African-American and 53% of Hispanic kids are born to unwed mothers. Over the years, that means the majority of students in Chicago’s public schools now come from low-wage, single-parent homes, and these students daily bring a lot of problems exacerbated by that situation with them to school.

    This demographic situation is reflected in the poor performance of Chicago’s students and, in turn, impacts on the overall performance of Chicago’s teachers. (This is a situation that, for many, is even taboo to discuss as a factor in student and teacher performance.)

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    • Brian in MIComment by Brian in MI
      September 14, 2012 @ 4:44 am

      How could “most of the city’s public school students” BE minority??? I grew up in Detroit, went to Detroit public schools. I was turned down for scholarships and jobs, in writing, because I wasn’t a minority – in a city that’s 75% black, a high school that was 80% black. That city is run by black, for blacks… and they are STILL the minority?

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    • middlegroundComment by middleground
      September 14, 2012 @ 9:01 am

      Reply to Brian in MI

      Minority like poverty and hunger is in the minds of those who write the rules and definitions. For example, a person who sleeps in their car for one night and who goes without a meal is both homeless and hungry. By this extreme definition a billionaire who skips breakfast could be regarded as one of the hungry in America. Some countries don’t count infant mortality until the child reaches 1 year; we reportedly count every birth including OctoMom’s 8 one ounce births as live. Unless, you know the parameters fed into a report, the results are totally worthless.

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  2. bna42Comment by bna42
    September 13, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    “President Karen Lewis has called “a fight for the very soul of public education.”

    Teachers are public employees and as such should not be allowed collective bargaining through a union. The average salary of teachers in Chicago is $76,000, yet they don’t want to be evaluated on their performance!

    All the usual liberal excuses about bad environment, poor minorities, etc. are being used to avoid the fact that teachers aren’t doing their jobs and our public education system is in shambles. Eliminate the teachers unions and the rest of it will take care of itself.

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  3. thomasjeffersonComment by thomasjefferson
    September 13, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    Only BAD teachers need fear evaluations.

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    • aretiredgiComment by aretiredgi
      September 14, 2012 @ 1:23 am

      Don’t all unions protect non-performers?

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    • middlegroundComment by middleground
      September 14, 2012 @ 9:12 am

      Evaluations should only measure academic results, but they are one of the reasons American K-12 education is among the World’s least effective. Examinations used as motivation have always been the most effective and used cleverly they can make the teacher and the student allies interested in the student’s future success. Remember it works in athletics, we just won’t use it in academics, and anyone who thinks Minorities aren’t motivated in athletics hasn’t been paying attention to the makeup of pro teams.

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  4. johncarlsonComment by johncarlson
    September 13, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    We homeschooled our kids for a few year. My middle child taught herself to read by us playing a letter sounds game at dinnertime. The problem with our schools is the teaching materials used and the teachers being taught to use them. More failure adds more jobs in remediation and administration which equals more union dues to add more tachers and administration. It’s a conspiracy against the students, taxpayers and our country. Privatize all education or demand performance at high achievement levels, quit dumbing down standardized tests like Iowa Basics and others to “fake” success in our schools. Demand discipline of students who interrupt classroom activities. Teaching isn’t rocket science, it just requires common sense and good tools.

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