Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chicago Teacher's Strike Roundup

So the blog has been in hibernation for quite some time (predictably so) because, it turns out, I am generally a bigger fan of using my free time to watch online TV than formulate thoughts about education policy, but with the Chicago teacher's strike happening, I thought it might be good to revive the blog for a bit of a roundup of interesting things I've read on the subject and then add a few thoughts of my own at the end.

First, we should look at what's really being asked for in this strike. Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog did a great rundown of the basic parameters of the strike. The biggest disagreements, he says, are about evaluation and hiring practices:
What do the two sides still disagree on? 
The Chicago Public Schools in March unveiled an evaluation system (pdf) in which standardized testing makes up 40 percent of the rubric, which was designed by panels that included teachers, principals, and teachers’ union officials (including the president). The system goes above and beyond the state requirement that testing make up 20-40 percent of teacher evaluations. The teachers’ unions are resisting this system, calling it too punitive. 
Teachers also want laid off teachers to be able to be automatically “recalled” to positions if they open up. Emanuel would allow these teachers to apply to new openings, but given his desire to focus layoffs on worst-performing teachers, does not want automatic recalls. Finally, the teachers’ union is demanding smaller class sizes (both to improve working conditions and to improve student learning and life outcomes) and air conditioning for classrooms that don’t currently have it.
Matthews also adds important context to the evaluation point, noting that the Illinois legislature has already passed a law that dictates that "schools must incorporate standardized tests as a 'significant factor' in their evaluations of teachers, which the state school board has defined (pdf) as meaning 20-40 percent of those evaluations’ content."

Next, a few pieces of relevant info on the state of Chicago schools and school children. In the same post, Dylan Matthews also gives an informative explanation of the current state of Chicago public schools, as seen from the national point of view. The first of those points is that Chicago significantly underperform national averages. He explains, "As Reuters notes, fourth-graders in Chicago performed an average of nine points worse than the big city average and sixteen points worse than the national average on the math section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national gold standard for measuring learning. On reading, they were eight and seventeen points worse than big city and national averages, respectively."

Another great source of info on Chicago student outcomes is a great article Paul Tough had in the New York Times magazine recently (pre-strike) that took a look specifically at the challenges of poor Chicago students, which is nearly all of them:
Chicago’s public-school population is almost entirely low-income — just one in eight students does not qualify for a federal lunch subsidy — but within that population, some students are much more disadvantaged than others. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research were able, recently, to identify a subset of students who were particularly disadvantaged, living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and unemployment, with high levels of crime and an elevated incidence of child abuse.
And these extra challenges result in persistently lagging educational outcomes for many, many students in Chicago Public Schools:
The researchers found that these students were clustered at 46 public schools, which the researchers, borrowing a phrase from William Julius Wilson, labeled “truly disadvantaged” schools. These 46 schools were the targets of frequent reform efforts. But they were much less likely to respond positively to those reforms than schools with a less disadvantaged (but still poor) student body.
And the challenges of the school system go beyond just the poorest of the poor. As Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach For America) noted in her piece on the strike in the Financial Times:
Chicago, where 80 per cent of public school students qualify for free or subsidised lunches, is a microcosm of the national education crisis and its devastating consequences. Only 20 per cent of city students perform at “proficient” levels based on national standards. Four in 10 do not graduate from high school. At a time when a university degree is a prerequisite for financial security, only 6 per cent graduate by the age of 25.
So what does this all mean?

This debate about the state of Chicago public schools has quickly switched to debate about the reform efforts of the Obama administration and Mayors like Rahm Emmanuel and Michelle Rhee. It's easy to see why: Emmanuel is the president's chief of staff, Chicago is Obama's adopted hometown and his current Secretary of Education used to run (gated link) the Chicago public school system. And, in an election season that will have a lot to do with turnout, the implications of an administration pitted against one of its most important political constituencies, the unions, are considerable. But with the nationalization of the debate comes a great deal of the national rhetoric about the reform movement. You get pundits such as Diane Ravitch who continue to lament the rise of charter schools, merit pay and other reform ideas. (For my view on Diane Ravith's conventional anti-reformist arguments, see Matt Yglesias here.) And you get anti-unionism of the Scott Walker sort. But the real debate on this subject takes place in the specifics. That is, your views on the reform movement or the value of collective bargaining need not dictate how you come down on this. Matt Yglesias said it best recently: 
Indeed, what baffles me about these discussions is the tendency of labor's alleged friends to simply refuse to look this reality in the face and instead insist that any hostility to specific union asks must secretly reflect the skeptic's hostility to the existence of the union or its members. If you think that Chicago's teachers deserve the right to form an association to advocate, lobby, and bargain on behalf of the interests of its members (and why shouldn't they?) then you have to think that they deserve the right to advocate for ideas that may not be in the public interest.
In order to judge the demands of the teachers unions, you have to understand them in context. A crucial component of that context is the current attainment levels of students in Chicago public schools. Simply put, Kopp's quoted college graduation rate of 6 percent by age 25 is devastating. A 6 percent college graduation rate destroys the social mobility and, as Kopp notes, financial security of the students stuck in that system. And one of the main pro-union arguments that results from seeing such numbers is that high-poverty is entirely to blame for educational outcome in the city. As Ravitch asserts, "Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.Are there non-educational factors that play into that abysmal level of educational outcome? Of course! Paul Tough himself notes how highly correlated failing schools are with high levels of poverty. Does this mean that teachers are therefore absolved of their responsibility for student outcomes? Definitely not. 

Because one's judgement on matters of education so often gets clouded by a number of biases we have in our lives (one's own educational experience, one's personal relationships with educators, one's own self-identification as educators, or one's reflexive sympathy for workers in labor disputes), I like to apply the doctor test to questions of our expectations for teachers. In other words, in situations where I wonder, Is this reasonable to ask of a teacher?, I check my conclusions against the question, Would it reasonable to ask a reasonable analogue of this job demand of a doctor?

In this case, would we accept a 6% survival rate? Further, would we accept a 6% survival rate even if we knew that the doctor treated patients that on average began at a much lower levels of health? I really don't think we would. True, we wouldn't instantly fire all of those doctors, but we would be singularly focused on ways to improve care and get survival rates up. And if we saw that some doctors or hospitals were managing to significantly raise survival rates despite the extra health challenges in their patient community, we would study what they were doing. And we would be begin to increase the number of successful doctor types and decrease the number of unsuccessful ones. And we would feel bad that those unsuccessful doctors lost their jobs, but we wouldn't feel nearly bad enough to let that cloud our judgement about whether or not they should still be doctors.

And if the types of hospitals that were getting unusually high results were part of a class of hospitals called charter hospitals and we knew that many charter hospitals were doing significantly better than the average hospital, while many (perhaps even more) were doing significantly worse than the average hospital, we would know better than to try to say anything about the class of charter hospitals generally and focus instead on what those successful charter hospitals were doing right. And once we established the factors that allowed success in those charter hospitals, we would see if they could be applied to regular hospitals. And if they could, we would apply them.

What does this all have to do with the Chicago teacher's strike? I think it clarifies the stakes a bit. 
Because the effects of limited educational opportunity are so distant we tend not to understand the immediacy in the same way that we do with health care, where mistakes often have instantly disastrous or salubrious results. Still, educational attainment is incredibly intertwined with matters of poverty and it remains one of the most powerful levers we have for helping children to find a way out. So when we measure the interests of teachers (and we certainly should measure the interests of teachers; they work hard and do important work) we need to measure it against the fact that a quality education is just as important as quality health care. 

So to address the exact demands of teachers in this debate, let's apply the doctor test once more. We're in a hospital with a 6% survival rate that is losing funding (Matthews: "Chicago public schools are facing a $665 million deficit, one which even raising property taxes to the maximum amount allowed by law and tapping reserves that had been built up by the district in better economic times could not close.") and therefore has to fire some doctors. Which way will you fire doctors? Consider two options: 
  1. Fire doctors by when they were hired (the most recently hired will go first).
  2. Fire doctors by how effective they have been in raising the survival rate, among other factors. 
Now consider a few added details: You're hospital has suffered financially in large part as a result of a major financial crisis and may at some point in the near future have improved economic conditions and be able to afford more doctors again. The rehiring method can also look a lot like either of the firing methods, but in reverse. That is, you can either rehire in order or by effectiveness. Also, consider another thing: the method by which you judge effectiveness can be unreliable. But the unreliable part will be just 40% of the overall evaluation and can be outweighed by more subjective methods of evaluation, such as evaluation by superiors. Finally, know that firing doctors by when they were hired will force you to fire more doctors, because junior doctors are cheaper to employ because they've been employed for a shorter amount of time. Which do you choose? 

Even knowing that judging effectiveness is tricky, I choose basing it on effectiveness. Judging effectiveness accurately is crucial in any profession, but especially in those as important as education and health care. Even a flawed system of judging effectiveness is better than one that openly disregards quality. In addition, the only way to put enough pressure on the system to create the most effective methods of judging effectiveness is to increase the importance of getting it right, which putting it at the center of hiring and firing methods will do. 

Ok - one last programming note. As I'm currently living and teaching in Madrid, I will have a bit more time on my hands and will hope to give some insight into the Spanish school system, which has it's own fiscal difficulties right now. So stay tuned and hopefully I will do a better job of blogging!

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