Teaching Profession

Chicago Strike Puts Spotlight on Teacher-Evaluation Reform

By Liana Loewus — September 12, 2012 4 min read
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While wages and benefits played an important role in the dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city’s school district that led this week to a teachers’ strike, the most divisive issue was teacher evaluation. In that respect, the flare-up in Chicago reflects broader tensions about changes to evaluation policies being rolled out across the country.

Illinois’ Performance Evaluation Reform Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in January 2010, required districts to make student-achievement data a “significant factor” in teacher evaluations. The driving force behind the law was the federal Race to the Top grant competition, which gave states incentives to incorporate student performance into their accountability systems.

Consequently, the 403,000-student Chicago school district developed a new evaluation system that was to be implemented in the 2012-13 school year. The system, called reach (for Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students), includes an observational component based on the teaching framework crafted by Charlotte Danielson, an educational consultant and teacher-quality expert. In addition, under the system, student growth, as determined partly by value-added measures, would eventually account for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score. The rules implementing the state law require a minimum of only 25 percent to 30 percent, depending on the year of implementation.

In a statement on the eve of the strike, CTU President Karen Lewis said that Chicago’s percentage was “too much” and argued there were “too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests, such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger, and other social issues.” In addition, she contended that the system could result in the firing of 6,000 teachers—or 30 percent of the CTU’s members.

“This is unacceptable,” she said.

Proponents of reach, however, point to Chicago’s previous checklist-based evaluation system as being too subjective, not offering clear expectations for teachers, and emphasizing surface-level details, such as teachers’ clothing and bulletin boards.

District officials, according to the Associated Press, have also questioned Ms. Lewis’ estimate of the number of teachers who could be let go as a result of the evaluation system. And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the new evaluations would not count in the first year of implementation, to provide time for needed adjustments.

As of Sept. 14, the district had not released details on how or whether the evaluation system would be modified under the reported agreement with the union.

A National Issue

In attempting to reorient its evaluation system around measurable student progress, Chicago is by no means alone.

According to Emily Workman, an associate policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver, 18 states and the District of Columbia now have laws that require the use of objective student data to “significantly” inform teacher evaluation. A total of 24 states require the use of student data to some extent, she said—double the number of states with such mandates just three years ago. And 10 states require that student academic growth make up at least half of the evaluation.

Teaching groups nationwide have voiced concern that test scores—even under value-added analysis, which seeks to determine an individual teacher’s impact on student achievement over a school year—fail to account for many aspects of student learning and are not proven to be accurate indicators of teacher effectiveness.

“Unless you completely believe that value-added takes into account at-risk students and all the things that affect student achievement,” Ms. Workman said, “it’s going to be really hard for teachers and teachers’ unions to sign on to evaluation systems where the predominant thing is student performance.”

Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, said that teachers have “legitimate concerns about tests, and these concerns shouldn’t be dismissed.” At the same time, she suggested that student test results are critical to improvement of teacher evaluation.

“I don’t think they should count for 100 percent, I don’t think they should count for 50 percent, but I do think tests have value and tell us a lot,” she said.

While the use of value-added scores in evaluation is becoming a national issue, Ms. Walsh believes that the Chicago reaction is not likely to be replicated.

Chicago is “the perfect storm,” she said. “You have a colorful, hard-charging mayor” and “a lot of bad blood” stemming from a fight between Mr. Emanuel and the union over his push to increase the length of the school day.

Ms. Workman of the Education Commission of the States added that strikes elsewhere are unlikely simply because “the majority of states don’t permit teachers to strike anymore.”

As for the outcome on evaluations in Chicago, Ms. Workman said the district could expand the definition of student data to include measures such as student portfolios, internships, and teacher-created assessments. For instance, perhaps 30 percent of an evaluation might consist of student standardized-test scores and 20 percent of other student data. Eight states have done something similar this year already, she said.

Ms. Walsh said that “the union is going to have to allow student achievement to be a factor. It will come down to percentage. ... It’s like a bargaining chip.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week

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