One of the key disagreements driving Chicago teachers to the picket lines this week is also a central component of President Barack Obama’s education policy: evaluating instructors in part on how much their students improve.
Through its $4 billion Race to the Top competition and No Child Left Behind waivers, the Obama administration has encouraged states to change how teachers are assessed and include data on student growth as a component. That policy has hit a nerve in the education community, and not just among the unions.
Critics note there is little, if any, evidence that basing evaluations on test scores will improve student achievement, and they argue it is being implemented at a large scale too quickly. Those in support of the revamped evaluations argue that far too many teachers are retained and given above-average reviews without any real assessment.
The dispute has now reached Obama’s hometown, and some say it could have an impact on get-out-the vote efforts for him in November. While both of the nation’s largest teacher unions endorsed him, teachers ultimately could become hesitant to get family and friends to vote for him.
“What really matters is whether teachers are going to be active in October and early November knocking on doors, manning the phone banks,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
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The Chicago Teachers Union argues the new evaluation system being put into place in the city is unfair because it relies too heavily on students’ standardized test scores and doesn’t take into account external factors like poverty, violence, and homelessness that affect performance. They estimate 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs within two years as a result of the evaluations.
City officials contend the union hasn’t explained how it arrived at that figure. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, said the evaluation would not count in the first year as any kinks in the process are worked out.
Second-grade Chicago teacher Krystal Brown said one of the biggest issues for her in the negotiations was evaluations. She said often students land in her classroom one to two grade levels behind—and even if they improve by a year, her evaluation would only show they didn’t meet grade level.
Students in her South Side classroom deal with hunger, poverty, and learning disabilities, and her classroom has just two working computers.
“You can be doing everything—coming in early, staying late, going to their parents’ house—but there are other factors,” she said.
Driving the change in policy is a state law passed in 2010 requiring all schools in Illinois to change how teachers and principals are evaluated and include student achievement as a component in that process by the 2016-17 school year. In the case of Chicago Public Schools, however, the timeline was moved up to September of this year for 300 schools.
Illinois isn’t alone in considering changes to evaluations; legislatures and districts all over the country have been grappling with the issue. Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, said the prospect of receiving of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding through Race to the Top drove Illinois’ state legislature to pass the law unanimously. The state was ultimately granted nearly $43 million in the competition.
Also driving the reform was a broken evaluation system. In 2007, 99.7 percent of teachers in Chicago Public Schools received a satisfactory to distinguished rating, Knowles said. Critics say that rate is extraordinarily high—the professional equivalent of every student passing a class.
“The state law was designed to disrupt that and say, ‘This can’t continue, this isn’t professional for teachers to be treated this way,'” Knowles said.
Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union had settled in March on having student growth on tests and other goals count as 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the upcoming school year, down from the district’s proposal of 45 percent. Months later, though, those numbers and the timeline for implementation are still being disputed and are part of what is keeping negotiations rolling past deadline.
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Knowles said basing 25 percent of teacher evaluations on standardized tests would actually be modest compared to some other parts of the country. In Florida, for example, 50 percent of teacher evaluations this year will be based on student growth.
Florida was also the site of an education showdown that focused largely on teacher evaluations back in 2010. After protests and teacher walkouts, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have made 50 percent of teacher appraisals based on student growth on standardized tests. He won the support of teachers but ultimately lost the election. When Republican Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, the legislature passed a similar bill, and this time it was signed into law.
Teachers aren’t entirely opposed to changing how they are evaluated, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union.
“What the Chicago Teachers Union is doing is what teacher unions across the country have tried to do, which is be very open to new evaluation systems but wanting them to be reliable and about continuous improvement, as opposed to about narrowing curriculum and fixated on testing,” she said.
How much the reforms factor into Obama’s votes among teachers in November is yet to be seen. Teachers will be deciding between a Democrat who supports education reforms his party typically hasn’t or Romney, who described teachers Sept. 10 as turning their backs against students and supports many of the same reform ideas, such as teacher evaluations based on growth and expanding charter schools.
“I think most labor union members and organizers are going to see the forest from the trees, and they are going to do what they can to support Obama,” Knowles said.