Ellen Behrstock Sherratt and Allison Rizzolo

Chicago Public Schools teachers recently took to the streets for the first time in a quarter-century to protest the new teacher evaluation system alongside more traditional bread-and-butter issues. But amidst the polarizing debate as to whether striking was the right thing to do, we lost sight of the big picture. Now more than ever, it is important to take a step back from the chaos this controversy created and ask the more fundamental question of whether we are doing right for our city’s children in providing each and every one the best teachers who can help them succeed in school and beyond.

Strike or no strike, do we have enough excellent teachers? If the new teacher evaluation system that has fueled so much action and so much debate is used as planned to dismiss under-performing teachers, do we have the types of teachers that we want, and that so many Chicago students need, waiting in the wings?

Recent events have shown how questions about fairness—fairness for teachers, fairness for students, and fairness for parents—too often trump the raw economic question of supply and demand in teacher policies. That is, are the salaries and working conditions (inclusive of performance evaluations) in Chicago’s schools sufficiently attractive to talented professional people? Of course they are attractive for some, but are they attracting enough talented teachers to meet our city’s needs?

Do CPS teacher salaries and working conditions entice those excellent teachers already committed to the profession to stay in the classroom for the long-haul, and do they make teaching an attractive career option for talented men and women choosing between many career options available to them? Research conducted by McKinsey & Company on our younger generation of college students suggests that in fact, very few college students from the top-third of their class view teaching as offering them as appealing a career as their alternatives.

If teachers were behaving inappropriately by picketing and partying on Chicago’s streets, what would it take to recruit a more professional, and more highly effective, teacher workforce?

Taking a step back from the chaos of the strike to reconsider whether Chicago as a city is doing its part to secure enough of the kinds of teachers that can get all students reading, writing, and mathematically literate, while also developing their aspirational capacity, requires a comprehensive, systemic human capital approach that strategically addresses not only teacher evaluation but also teacher preparation, recruitment, hiring, induction and mentoring, professional development, working conditions, and compensation.

It’s time to take the bird’s-eye perspective—creating a world-class Chicago teaching force—rather than the worm’s-eye perspective of striking a deal and getting students back in the classroom. At a national convening of state departments of education, Arne Duncan’s teacher quality advisor, Brad Jupp, called for statewide conversations among citizens about what the teaching profession ought to look like and how teacher evaluation reforms can serve as a launching point to help schools and the public to realize that vision.

Chicago researchers at American Institutes for Research, with colleagues from Public Agenda, have created a model and free online resource to help teachers spark these conversations in their schools (see www.EveryoneAtTheTable.org). Let’s start this conversation in Chicago—book clubs, community groups, and most importantly educators, should use this historic strike to spark a renewed conversation to shape the future of our teaching force and the future of our city.

The national wave of teacher evaluation reforms are playing out differently across the country, with the New York Times publishing an article on New York City’s “worst teacher,” and a Los Angeles teachers’ suicide even attributed to the outing of his students poor test scores. What mark does Chicago want to have on the nation—the largest strike, or the largest, most collaborative conversation about how to advance this most important of professions? 

Ellen Behrstock Sherratt is a researcher and policy associate at the American Institutes for Research in Chicago. An expert in teacher quality, she is a coauthor of Improving Teacher Quality and the forthcoming Improving Teacher Evaluation—With Everyone at the Table.

Allison Rizzolo is the senior communications associate for Public Agenda, a national research and engagement organization. She is also a coauthor of Improving Teacher Evaluation—With Everyone at the Table.

Both of us work with Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers on Evaluation Reform, a nationwide initiative to encourage teacher voice in the teacher evaluation policy dialogue.

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