CHICAGO – 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 District to 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)."