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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strike a Pose

I would like to discuss the Chicago Teachers Union strike with the caveats that I neither teach labor law nor have children in the Chicago Public Schools. Some of you do and have one or the other or both, however, and may have both a legal and a personal opinion. My information is derived both from the news reports and from my life experience having a retired CTU parent. It is also widely reported that since the negotiations are confidential no one in the public really knows what is going on in contract discussions.

Something about the strike that I have been hearing in the past few days bothers me is this notion that the CTU is striking not just over their own contract terms, but for "symbolic" purposes, as an objection to the "privatization" of education, primarily in the form of City's investment in and approval of charter schools. I am concerned about the concept of keeping 350,0000 children out of school for symbolic purposes. (As an aside, I believe the Chicago Police Department worked without a union approved contract for more than four years during a prior administration). The CTU characterizes the mayor as a bully. Without arguing against that characterization of the Chicago mayor, is the CTU not also engaging in bullying? Does this sort of strike fulfill a proper labor purpose?

Posted by DBorman on September 18, 2012 at 09:38 AM | Permalink


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The CTU's objection to charter schools, as I understand it, has little to do with sympolism. Rather, charter schools do not hire CTU members and employ teachers on terms that the CTU finds objectionable (and which might bleed into Chicago teacher employment outside the charter school realm).

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Sep 18, 2012 10:18:42 AM

The thing that gets me is that the teachers seem to be so insistent that they aren't mere babysitters (and they should be paid accordingly), yet they vehemently oppose any sort of value-added assessment measure on the grounds that these produce too variable results. That just makes no sense to me. If the best metrics that we can devise show that student performance swings wildly on a year-to-year basis, what that tells me is that teacher quality has a fairly small influence on the output. In which case, why aren't we paying for glorified babysitters?

(I also think the timing in atrocious. The strike days will be made up, but the fact that the kids went a week and then stopped means that the first week was essentially wasted. I have to think that this was intentional on the part of the teachers. They bought themselves a week where they could play around, because why get started on anything serious when a multi-week strike is looming? At least this is what happened in my daughter's class.)

Posted by: Chicago parent | Sep 18, 2012 11:44:17 AM

I don't think any of the striking teachers though they were buying themselves a week to "play around." I make no comment on the wisdom or timing of the strike otherwise. In terms of evaluations, teachers should be evaluated, but it is difficultto hold them fully accountable for learning outcomes when many students suffer from social challenges that teachers cannot control or mitigate.

Posted by: Doug Richmond | Sep 18, 2012 1:18:54 PM

This NYT columnist opines that the real battle should be fought over teacher education: http://tinyurl.com/9czktgt

Posted by: DBorman | Sep 18, 2012 2:42:40 PM

"Does this sort of strike fulfill a proper labor purpose?"

The strike was prompted by a large number of issues. Let's take one: the extent to which teacher evaluations are driven by standardized test scores. Personally, I think that's an issue in which labor has a legitimate and significant interest.

Is it proper that the union went on strike when it and the employer could not reach agreement on this and similar issues? Under the applicable labor law, the union's only option, when bargaining reached impasse, was to strike. Other states have different rules for teachers -- for example, in some jurisdictins, at impasse, issues go to binding interest arbitration. But in Chicago, that wasn't an option. Notably, in 2011, the applicable law was amended such that Chicago teachers could only strike if 75% of the bargaining unit approved a strike.

Perhaps you are asking if striking over the use of charter schools is a proper labor purpose. The law would say "no": unions can't legally strike over issues that are not mandatory subjects of bargaining, and the extent to which a city uses charter schools is not a mandatory subject of bargaining. However, as Doug Richmond points out, the use of charter schools does have an impact on teachers. Further, teachers may have opinions and knowledge about the advantages and disadvantages of such schools.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Sep 18, 2012 7:24:38 PM

"If the best metrics that we can devise show that student performance swings wildly on a year-to-year basis, what that tells me is that teacher quality has a fairly small influence on the output."

Your premise does not support your conclusion. The fact that input X_1 is relatively stable and output Y is highly varient does not lead to any conclusions about the amount of influence that X_1 has on Y.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 18, 2012 7:53:33 PM

"The fact that input X_1 is relatively stable and output Y is highly varient does not lead to any conclusions about the amount of influence that X_1 has on Y."

It does tell you how much influence X1 has relative to some second input, or even sheer randomness. So yes, X1 + R1 will tend to be greater than X2 + R2 where 0 < X2 < X1 < 10 and R1 and R2 are randomized integers between 0 and 100, but if you were playing a game of hi-lo, you'd be a fool to pay much money for the right to go with X1, at least on a one-off basis. It's just dwarfed by the noise associated with R.

Similarly, if value-added metrics (presumably test scores adjusted for the socioeconomic characteristics of a class) swing markedly based on some input other than teacher quality (whatever that is, and even if it's just randomness), then why are we paying a ton of money for higher quality teachers? As is the case with the hypothetical game of hi-lo, best to pocket the premium and let the overwhelming arbitrariness do its work.

(And I say this as both a Chicago taxpayer and the parent of a child in CPS.)

Posted by: Chicago parent | Sep 18, 2012 9:01:17 PM

Your latest argument relies on more that you were initially claiming, since you're talking about variance relative to some sort of baseline. We don't have a good baseline in education (and I don't think we even have good relative metrics, but that's a separate argument).

Nor does your analogy to hi-lo make much sense, since that has a binary output. The output of education is continual, so the question is "are we willing to pay $X for the marginal increase that good teachers provide to education." While the marginal increase might have different value at different points along the spectrum provided by randomness, but the degree of random variance doesn't directly affect the value of the marginal increase without a lot of intervening and contestable empirical claims.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 18, 2012 10:56:03 PM

There is nothing merely "symbolic" about the strike, unless your claim is that teachers should only strike over matters affecting their own pecuniary interests, narrowly conceived. The strike was in significant part about whether teachers should be evaluated on the basis of standardized test scores and whether the current embrace of "value added" and "data driven" metrics has a place in education. These measures affect teachers tremendously: they determine whether they can deploy their full and unique talents on a professional basis, or instead whether they must teach to mind-numbing standardized tests that they don't prepare. (Trust me that they are mind-numbing. My kids have had to suffer through them, at the expense of the kind of genuine, humanistic education that we all ought to revere. And education professors almost universally decry them, noting that they are not meant to bear anything close to the weight they were asked to carry in places such as Chicago.)

The teachers were striking for their own job conditions, yes, but also for their students and the kind of education they'd like them to receive. That's as direct as I can imagine.

For a statement of what the strike tried to accomplish, see this piece by Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten, via Diane Ravitch's blog:


Posted by: David | Sep 24, 2012 1:15:14 PM

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