A few weeks ago, a collective sigh of relief rose up from the city when the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached a last-minute agreement that averted a teacher strike. Both sides scored important wins: Teachers got their best contract in years, and the School Board got four years of labor peace without sacrificing reform programs.
Yet the settlement left a sense of foreboding in its wake. Given the politics that preceded approval, the board and the union may have taken a big step backward in their budding collaboration on school improvement.
Deborah Lynch, the reform-minded CTU president, got knocked for a loop when union members roundly rejected the first tentative settlement. Forced to fight for still more, she put on a game face that left many wondering what kind of leader she would be as she prepares for a re-election bid next spring. An opposition slate has already formed and signaled that it doesn’t like her brand of unionism.
Many issues are at stake, and one of them is teacher evaluation, a process that educators interviewed for this month’s issue of Catalyst think is meaningless. Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, calls the existing evaluation forms “generic,” and Principal Donald Feinstein of the Chicago Academy says the process is “vague, a little archaic.” Teachers gain no insight into their practice, says Allen Bearden of the CTU’s Quest Center.
Yet teachers are afraid about what might replace it. Teachers fear equipping principals with a weapon that could be used against them unfairly. Under the current evaluation system, most teachers receive superior or excellent ratings. “It’s safe,” says teacher Bella Rudnick of Lozano Elementary.
The new teacher contract revives a board-union committee on teacher evaluation that first appeared in the 1993 contract but was excised in 1999. Clearly, it will take both political skill and backbone for Lynch to move forward on this important but politically volatile issue. It will also take thoughtful and sensitive participation by the board and others who want to bring teacher evaluation into the reform process.
Last spring, Leadership for Quality Education, a business-based school reform group, jump-started the effort when it convened a working group of union and board representatives to learn about other evaluation models. Now, a round of teacher focus groups is in the works, and the group is looking to make some tentative recommendations by July 1.
It would do well to take it one step at a time, dealing first with changes in the evaluation process and giving them a tryout before taking up consequences, such as tying performance to pay. A certain next step should be devising a plan to keep teachers and the public fully informed about deliberations. As the recent round of contract negotiations showed, you can’t make significant change without teacher buy-in.
ABOUT US As this issue goes to press, I am heading out for maternity leave and temporarily returning the editorial reins of this magazine to the sturdy hands of founder and publisher Linda Lenz. While I’m away, she will oversee day-to-day operations with the able assistance of consulting editor Lorraine Forte, a familiar face whom long time readers may remember as a former Catalyst managing editor. Since then, Forte has covered courts for the Chicago Sun-Times, and currently serves as a news writer and producer for local television and a journalism instructor at Columbia College.