Continental Chicago

now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year

Good Luck, Karen Lewis

CTU president Karen Lewis (screen shot of WTTW's Chicago Tonight in June 2012)

Like many Chicagoans, I have watched the Chicago Teachers Union strike with astonishment and incredulity.  And, may I add, with little sympathy for its grievances or aims.  Given the fiscal condition of the Chicago Public Schools and the city in general, the teachers’ decision to strike right now is quixotic and ill-timed.

On Sunday night, when the CTU announced its strike, its president Karen Lewis explained that the teachers could not be expected to teach until we solved the problem of poverty, addressed urban violence, and saw to it that more of the public schools had air-conditioning.  Until then, the teachers refused to be counted on to teach their students anything measurable!  It was amazing to hear their list of demands and to see the teachers behind their leader, earnestly nodding their heads.

Lewis pointed to the existence of an untoward environment to justify the union’s determination to protect ineffective teachers and to resist efforts to tie teachers’ pay to student performance.

A very special class of workers indeed

It’s been forever since I’ve seen signs of a collective “can-do” attitude among Chicago teachers.  That’s why I have so little sympathy for them.  They are unhappy with everything.  Does their behavior have any parallel in the for-profit world?  Where else would you find workers demanding ultimate authority over the nature of the product or service they’ve been hired to provide?  Where else would you find workers refusing to be held to any measurable standard?  This is not something you’d expect to hear—even from many other public sector workers—not from firefighters or policemen, certainly.  Yet the teachers seem never to have heard of accountability.  Their stance is borne of decades of political coddling—which they believe they can count on now, in a tough election season.  For the sake of better educational outcomes, I hope that’s not true.

Teacher incompetence costs taxpayers money

Meanwhile, the teachers seem not to grasp that harboring incompetence costs us money—money that’s needed urgently elsewhere in the city.  Would I rather see my tax dollars go to the income of one incompetent teacher, or to the income of a new beat cop so badly needed on our streets?  Why should any one—within the schools or without—tolerate even one mediocre teacher?  We need to be investing in the best for our neighborhoods and our kids.

Given the increasing competition that charter schools pose, it’s astonishing that the CTU has failed to respond to its predicament by promising higher teacher performance for the sake of our kids.  I want to support the public schools, and I don’t like charters—but charter schools are going to get another look, and benefit, from the obstreperous way public-school teachers are behaving now.

At a time when the CPS budget is already some $700 million in the red, the union’s demand that we improve the social environment in which teaching occurs is high-faluting indeed.  We would all like the environment and economy in which we work to be different.  The immediate challenge for the schools, however, is to operate within budget, and to provide the best education possible within the limits imposed.  The school board has already announced that this year it will spend on operations all the money it normally holds in reserve.  A reserve is an unaffordable luxury.  Meanwhile, taxpayers have been told that there will be a 3% property-tax increase to help fund the schools’ excessive spending.

Nonetheless, the teachers demand better treatment: try selling that to an unemployed homeowner, with an underwater mortgage, who must nonetheless pay a swollen property-tax bill to support a school system famous for mediocre results.

The Wisconsin Parallel?

CTU representatives have strained to compare what’s going on in Chicago with the assault on workers’ rights in Wisconsin under Scott Walker.  The conflict in Chicago is more comparable to what happened with the UAW in Detroit, when, in 2008, the auto industry nearly tanked.  In that case, the UAW leadership negotiated as best it could, then successfully urged members to accept a tough deal.  It was not what they wanted, nor what many onlookers would have wanted for them.  But it was good for the reputation of the UAW and essential to a restructuring that enabled all involved to live to fight another day.  If only Karen Lewis could see it that way.

Even as I write, thousands of striking teachers are loudly parading under my windows, telling anyone who will listen that ‘Rahm’s gotta go.’  I’d need a lot more education to see it that way.

Dennis Byrne, Collateral Damage: The Cost of Striking Teachers, Chicago Tribune.
John Kass, CPS kids would need vouchers to attend unreal schools, Chicago Tribune.
Nicholas Kristof, Students over Unions, New York Times.
In Search of Excellent Teaching, New York Times.

20 comments on “Good Luck, Karen Lewis

  1. Joe
    September 14, 2012

    Because principals “lack the will” is not the problem of teachers….they are poor leaders and many have fled the classroom……good riddance. I also pay taxes (a lot of them) to this system and my kids went to Catholic Elementary schhols. One went to a Catholic H.S. and the other a CPS magnet school……you are writing about a situation where you have no personal experience……..I can write about the Iraq War but I never was there……..sorry my opinion of your remarks is unchanged……(this is for SB re: Karen Lewis)

    • Susan Barsy
      September 14, 2012

      And my opinion is unchanged. Look around: have you noticed that editorialists all over the country are writing about this? Try making the same argument to them that you’re making here.

      This is a national issue. If there is anything that’s good about the strike, it’s that it IS fleshing out a lot of contradictory perspectives and getting the public thinking and talking about the very issues that shaped your whole working life. In short, it’s a teachable moment–why not make the best of it?

      Respectfully submitted,

      Readers please note: As a matter of policy, I will not print comments that are intemperate, include name-calling or ad hominem attacks, or question or assail my free-speech rights or those of others.

  2. Michael B. Calyn
    September 12, 2012

    Reblogged this on Ye Olde Soapbox.

  3. Pingback: A Tale of Two Teachers « The Trough

  4. Sam Dune
    September 12, 2012

    I have a hard time supporting the teachers too. The average salary is around $73,000 a year–and please don’t forget that their “year” is around ten months or less. I also watched Karen Lewis Sunday night at 10:00pm too-she was reading a whole laundry list of demands-it just went on and on and on. Even the Channel 7 anchor used the term “a grab bag.” I think the CPS should go to court and force the teachers to go back to work under labor law rules and all sides should continue to bargain in good faith and/or get an arbitrator.

    • Susan Barsy
      September 12, 2012

      Yes, the list she had was astonishing. Ms Lewis seems intent on using the strike as an occasion to use the union as a tool of broader social change–but the people she’s negotiating with don’t see it that way. The unfocused character of the union’s discontent was also on display in the chants and on the signs of the CTU protesters yesterday. Some of the issues reflected were hatred of the mayor and a determination to get rid of him, the use of TIF funding, class size, “it’s not our fault” signs, “a fair contract now” signs. there were actually very few signs about evaluations or layoffs, making me wonder how much these issues were on the minds of the protesters.

  5. Robert LaLonde
    September 12, 2012

    This is a quick reply to foolish boy: Teachers are rewarded with higher pay when they get more education. Master’s degree holders are paid more than BA holders. Also, they get to deduct this expense on their federal income taxes.

    I agree that urban school systems have been mismanaged forever. This has hurt children. What is amazing is that it took until the 1990s for people to start recognizing that this is a problem. Remember the really horrible superintendents that Chicago had before Paul V came along? Dr. Ruth Love! However you feel about him [Vallas], I think we can all agree that he was a huge upgrade over what we had here in the past.

    The situation is desperate. We have to try lots of new things; the status quo is not working. . . I do research on value-added methods and agree that there are problems with this approach to evaluation, but at this point it is certainly better than doing nothing, even if a FEW good teachers might be lost in process.

    It seems to me that Susan’s point remains: what evaluation! Not should we evaluate.

    • Susan Barsy
      September 12, 2012

      The Chicago Tonight panel I linked to above furnished a good perspective on some of the evaluation issues.

      One of the things about better evaluations of teachers in early grades is that it might result in better student outcomes, which might in turn actually lighten the load and improve the effectiveness of teachers in the later grades. That is: the outcomes from one teacher’s teachings are cumulative, and whether good or bad, they compound over time. This is why the teachers as a whole would actually benefit if a better evaluation system were put into place.

  6. Pingback: Chicago Teachers Strike, Day 3 | SNS Post

    • foolishboy
      September 12, 2012

      I’ll absolutely concede the issue of evaluation. I just get itchy when people make comments regarding teacher’s pay, as in the comment above (which really means I comment clumsily). 🙂

      One last comment regarding pay in education, and this likely applies to evaluations as well, is that the biggest issues are often not found on the “Front Line” but rather in the institution itself and the self-justifying positions held by at the higher levels of the education “business model.”

      And now I will gracefully step away. Thank you for the blog; it’s definitely interesting and well-written!

      • Susan Barsy
        September 12, 2012

        Foolishboy–I’m glad you wrote in, and supplied that link! Actually, I had thought of attaching it to my original posting–it always helps to get a group of people looking at some data. If there is one good thing about the strike, it’s this: people are exchanging ideas about a broad range of school issues. I hope that some model of evaluation emerges, because I believe that when in place it will boost the respect the teachers receive–and perhaps help the best teachers get more recognition and the compensation they deserve.

        Thank you again for reading and commenting. I hope to hear from you again.

  7. foolishboy
    September 11, 2012

    “Teachers in Illinois make about 91.2 cents for every dollar earned in comparable occupations, the report stated, which ranks teacher pay in the lower half of the country, as 32nd from the top.”

    Also, what teacher only works 9 months of the year? 7 of my friends are teachers and none of them only work 9 months of the year. Also, during those 9 months, they tend to work 10-12 hour days.

    This is from the comments on the news article above:
    “Reading through some of these comments, I found a few errors and many truths.First and foremost, this is not a monopoly.Parents do have a choice to send their children to other schools: the free charter schools, magnet schools and parochial schools. Teachers rarely work nine months per year. If you included extra professional development, coaching ( only the high school coaches of popular ones get paid), time at home correcting and planning and recording grades. There is also web page development ( our own time), research for materials, and parent emails and phone calls to return. Did I mention that teachers are required to take additional college credit at their own expense? Often they attend conferences, paid for on their own, using a sick day, because a school business day is not available. Are there poor teachers? Of course there are. There are certainly poor performers in every profession. Before bashing teachers, please come sit in a classroom of 40 eighth graders and try to teach English with no materials except what you found on your own.”

    • Susan Barsy
      September 12, 2012

      At this point, the principal issue of the strike is not higher pay, but whether Chicago teachers will comply with a state law mandating merit pay. Please see:

      A second major issue has to do with whether principals will be required to give priority to laid-off teachers when hiring for new positions. The city wants to leave principals free to hire the best candidate.

      I’m not questioning the dedication of teachers.

      Thank you for writing in.

    • Joe
      September 13, 2012

      Tying teacher evaluations to a high stakes test means nothing. Instead of being a good measure it is a horrible one……you seem to think principals do not have the tools needed to evaluate their teachers……you are wrong. There is accountability and always has been. Principals, like teachers, are human. Some are fair and some are not……in my 33 years I never had a problem with evaluations……..I always received the highest. Everyone in the building knew who the bad ones were….the Union does not “protect” them they just require due process. That is simple fairness… can read all you want but until you have been there you do not know what you are talking about…….

      One addition: When teachers are evaluated by such an absurd measure they will simply “teach to the test…..” I know that for a fact. It diminishes the curriculum and does not contribute a thing to learning…….

      • Susan Barsy
        September 13, 2012

        You know yourself that the evaluations model under discussion is substantially more nuanced than an impartial reader would gather from what you write here. I have no doubt that you were an outstanding teacher, and that the CPS is loaded with people like you. But let’s face it: the system would benefit from some sort of standard–including overall student improvement, peer evaluation, and principal evaluation–that is not so personalized and subjective as what we have now. As your comment suggests, the personnel in schools know “who the bad ones are”–but we both know those teachers often remain in place because principals lack the will to remove them, or simply don’t want the social unpleasantness that results.

        I find it doubtful, your charge that no one lacking public-school teaching experience is entitled to an opinion. I help pay for the schools; I am a learned person; and public schooling is a governmental project. My friends’ children are in south side schools and my sister-in-law is a life-long teacher and principal who has worked in many low-income minority-majority schools in the Chicago suburbs. Do teachers want to be regarded as professionals, entitled to social respect and prestige? Then they need to present themselves to the public in a way that is professional and civil.

        Thank you for writing in.

        Respectfully submitted,

  8. Joe
    September 11, 2012

    I was a teacher at CPS for 33 years. . . . I participated in 9 strikes, the last the epic of 1987. This is not a question of $$$$$. Rahm Emmanuel and his stooge Brizzard think they can walk over the CTU . . . they are mistaken. RE is an arrogant bully. The issues here are about tying teacher evaluations to student test performance. I taught on the South Side where H.S. kids told me they did not expect to live to grow up. This is the situation, and it has not changed. . . . I saw many different administrations with the “right” idea. . . . I need say no more. Yes, you do need a lot more education, as do all of the self-appointed experts who could not survive 1 day in a Chicago Public H.S. Your comments are both ignorant and shed zero light on the problem. . . . too bad.

    • Susan Barsy
      September 11, 2012

      I have been reading everything being published in the paper and watching everything shown on Chicago Tonight about this issue for many many months. I have listened to union representatives. I have spoken with parents who have kids in the schools. But I still think the union is way off base. Very few Americans can imagine having a job where they are not held to some performance standard: what do you think a teacher’s should be?

  9. Robert LaLonde
    September 11, 2012

    Susan, I definitely could not have summarized this better myself. The problem that public-sector unions have is that they are really negotiating with taxpayers. In the case of CPS I saw an interesting contrast made about families whose children are in the system and the teachers. 85% of kids are from low-income families, those with family incomes of less than $30,000 per year. The teachers apparently make about $75,000 per year for about nine months of work. Hard to imagine these parents feeling sorry for these teachers for long! You know that collective bargaining is in trouble when one of the parties says the key issue is “respect!” This whole affair is starting to remind me of the air traffic controller strike in 1982. I think the same will happen to CTU if it persists in its stance. Like Reagan, Rahm has no choice but to hold the line.

    Great statement!


    • Susan Barsy
      September 11, 2012

      Bob, Thank you for the kind words. I wish more could be done to improve the lives of poor children who go to our schools and to improve some of the features of the schools themselves. The teachers are being disingenuous, though, when they say their only interest is the children and the quality of their schooling; if this were the case they wouldn’t be protecting under-performing teachers who need to go.

      I would love to hear your opinion of Karen Lewis sometime. It’ll be interesting to see how the strike plays out.

      Hope you’ve had a good summer.

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