Chicago’s battle over evaluating teachers

Chicago’s teachers went on strike over a new teacher-evaluation system proposed by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel

What happened

In a labor battle with nationwide implications, Chicago’s teachers went on strike this week over a new teacher-evaluation system proposed by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, leaving 400,000 students at home or on the streets. About 26,000 educators in the nation’s third-largest school system walked out over Emanuel’s proposed changes to teacher-evaluation procedures, which would emphasize standardized test scores in assessing teachers’ performance. The Chicago Teachers Union says it’s unfair to judge teachers so heavily on their pupils’ scores, contending that student performance can be influenced by poverty, neglect, and other factors teachers don’t control. The same debate over high-stakes testing and teacher evaluation has played out in school districts across the country, so the Chicago strike was being closely watched as a possible watershed event.

The teachers union is also seeking a pay raise of up to 29 percent to compensate for the lengthening of the Chicago school day from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours. With the city in dire financial trouble, Emanuel offered teachers a 16 percent pay increase over the next four years. He insisted that the new evaluation system and longer school day would benefit students, and blamed teachers for calling “a strike by choice” while the two sides negotiated. “Our kids do not deserve this,” he said.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What the editorials said

“Just when you thought organized labor couldn’t get any more ignorant or arrogant,” said the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, along come Chicago’s teachers, demanding a pay raise from a school district “facing a $1 billion deficit by year’s end.” Their $76,000 average salary already makes them the highest-paid public teachers in the land. If this strike has an upside, said The Wall Street Journal, it’s that it might force Democrats to realize that the party’s pact with labor unions—you fund us, and we’ll agree to your every demand—“threatens taxpayers, and is immoral to boot.” Let’s hope Emanuel stands up to the teachers’ blackmail.

The major issue here isn’t pay, said Instead, this strike “marks a major pushback against a national movement” for teacher accountability. Evaluating teachers on their students’ performance is at the heart of President Obama’s education reform strategy, so much is at stake in this strike—and not just for Chicago.

What the columnists said

Despite what the bullying Emanuel says, teachers aren’t “greedy thugs,” said Sally Kohn in They’re “fighting for their students to get a quality education,” with better teaching materials, smaller classes, and air-conditioning in dilapidated, aging schools. Emanuel would rather funnel public money into charter schools, while further undermining underfunded public schools in poor neighborhoods. About 80 percent of Chicago’s students are poor, said Rebecca Mead in They come from neighborhoods filled with violence and chaos, and from homes without parental support or space to study. Blaming teachers for these kids’ failures is “like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.”

Emanuel is right to stand up to the unions’ irrational pay demands, said Frederick M. Hess and Michael Q. McShane in And it’s clear that Chicago’s existing accountability system needs to be changed. It now rates 99 percent of its teachers as “effective,” yet 40 percent of the students drop out before graduating from high school. But progressives like Emanuel and Obama fall into a trap when they believe problem schools can be fixed through “a new bureaucratic diktat,” such as a one-size-fits-all evaluation system based on test scores.

There’s no real evidence that such reforms are working, said Joe Nocera in The New York Times. High-stakes testing and charter schools—which were supposed to introduce “choice and competition” and force big-city schools to improve—have produced very mixed results. And while teachers unions and reformers battle it out across the U.S., our kids continue to fall behind. American students now rank behind most of Asia and much of Europe in math, science, and literacy. That crisis won’t be solved until “we completely rethink the way we offer public education,” coming up with reforms that actually work. What Chicago’s bitter struggle illustrates is “how far we are from that goal.”