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U.S. Teachers Pay Close Attention To Chicago


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Apple is expected to release its latest iPhone this week, but we have a guest to tell you why you want to take a close look at that - or any other new contract, for that matter - before you sign on the dotted line. That's coming up.

But, first, we turn to Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of students are out of class. That's because the nation's third-largest school district has been shut down by a teachers' strike.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Rahm Emanuel's got to go! Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Rahm Emanuel's got to go.

MARTIN: That's Chicago teachers on the picket line. Obviously, they're aiming their ire at Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Well, we understand that other teachers, and mayors, around the country are paying close attention to the strike, so we've asked Chicago Public Radio's education reporter Linda Lutton to tell us more about what is going on and why. Linda Lutton, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: You know, obviously, we understand that a couple of issues at the core of the dispute, are also part of debates around education policies in other places. So could you start by telling us about those.

LUTTON: Sure, yeah. And I'll say - I want to draw one distinction. When you go out and talk to teachers who are in the march - like that march that we just heard - you hear them talk about issues that have everything to do with what their schools look like. So when you ask them, why are you out here, why are you on strike? They'll talk about class sizes; they talk about conditions in their schools - you know, the need for more social workers and counselors, to deal with some of the hard issues that their kids are coming to school with; they talk about the need to enroll - to sort of restore enrichment classes that have been slowly, over the years, you know, just cut out; air-conditioning - you actually heard chants of air-conditioning on strike lines yesterday.

So I want to draw a distinction between that, which I think is actually motivating, you know, hundreds - well, tens of thousands of teachers, to be out on the streets; and what is being talked about at the table. And those two big remaining issues, they do have a very strong tie to national issues - as you mentioned. And those are teacher evaluations, number one; and number two, job security, especially in the face of a district that's closing schools.

MARTIN: That's - now, that's very interesting. I mean, I want to hear more about the distinction that you drew there. But first of all, just flesh that out a little bit, if you would. Now, the evaluation is something that - the evaluation issue is something that people around the country may have heard about because this may be an issue in their school districts as well; the idea of tying pay to performance on test scores. That's one?

LUTTON: Right. It's an overall look that the country's taking at teacher effectiveness. And you're right - districts all over the country are seeing this. There's a very good chance that wherever you're listening to this, this is happening in your state or in your local district, even. It's being pushed by the federal government through Race to the Top; the idea being that, you know, some of the evaluation systems - for instance, Chicago's is 40 years old. It was a checklist that had things like - it even included the attire of the teacher. Very outdated checklist - you know, bulletin boards, are they up? You know. (LAUGHTER)


LUTTON: So it's not - people and - many critics' fundamental problem with these, the way that teachers were being evaluated, is that everybody got great grades. In Chicago, I think it was something like 96 percent of teachers, Chicago public school teachers have been rated either superior or excellent. And critics have said that's just not probably what's really true and...

MARTIN: And then the other issue is ensuring that laid-off teachers get first crack at job openings. Is that - that's also...

LUTTON: Exactly. Well, that's what the union is pushing on the other side. The other big reform strategy you have going on right now, is closing down chronically failing schools. And yes, the union want - is saying hey, you have some great teachers that are - through no fault of their own, you know, lose their jobs in complete restaffings, or closings, that the school district does. Those teachers should have some crack at being rehired. In fact, they think - the union believes they should have first crack and in some cases, only - the only crack; that the district should only look at those teachers.

MARTIN: We're talking with Chicago education reporter Linda Lutton, about the teachers' strike that is going on now. Linda, I understand that this is very new, but do you have a sense of how the public views this? I mean, Rahm Emanuel, well-known to - you know - the Washington reporting crowd from his time as chief of staff at the White House, known for being a tough negotiator, tough on everybody; and the union leadership - no slouches, either. Do you have any sense of how people in Chicago are viewing this? Do they seem to think one side or the other is more at fault, or is it too soon to say?

LUTTON: It might be a little too soon to say. I think it is becoming clear that at the top of both of these organizations, you know, our city's mayor has some very sharp elbows, a sharp tongue. And our union chief is no slouch, right? She can be right in there with him. And she - you know, she's called him - in public, in giant rallies - a liar and a bully. And she has said to teachers, the only way to beat a bully is to stand up to a bully. That's the way she's framed this. So - and how does the public see it? I think it is a little bit too early, and I think it probably depends, too, on your perspective, you know? I mean, this is a city with 26,000 CTU members. It's a big union town. Lots of people are married or know schoolteachers, so you've got a lot of people who are tied into the school system somehow.

MARTIN: I want to go back to something that you said earlier - which is that if you talk to the teachers who are out there picketing, a lot of what they're talking about are conditions in their classroom, or in their school. It goes back to this...


MARTIN: ...local versus national conversation that we're having here. We've seen a lot of these evaluation systems, some of these policy changes, accepted in other school systems by the teachers' unions; for example, in - you know, Washington, D.C., for example. And you have to assume that if the evaluation system is as outdated as you say it is, a lot of the teachers probably aren't that happy with it. So why is it that things are boiling over, as they are in Chicago? The first teachers' strike, as I understand it, in some two decades - is it the personalities involved; or is it those local issues that a lot of people aren't paying attention to, at least outside of Chicago?

LUTTON: No. I think it does have some things to do with the personalities. I think it has to do with this particular union leadership's belief that they - I mean, they see their fight as sort of a fight for social justice. They believe that they're standing up for what's right for kids. They - you know, I don't believe they're talking about class sizes or air-conditioning in those negotiations. We have no reason to believe they are. But that is the union leader's rhetoric to her teachers. So that's why the masses of teachers you see on the streets, think that they're protesting over that. And it's something they clearly, can talk about.

And you're right. And even in Chicago, teachers helped create the evaluation plan that the district now wants to implement. They didn't sign off on it in the end, in its final form, but they clearly shaped what it looks like. And there are, I think, teachers who would be OK with that evaluation system. It really, actually - I mean, the teachers union's fundamental problem is tying student test scores to their evaluations. That's where the real rub comes in.

And actually, if you look at Chicago's model, it does not call for a large part of a teacher's evaluation to be determined by student test scores. It's really a - quite a small percentage; I think in some cases, it's 15 percent, 25 percent. That's not an overwhelming - their classroom observation, and even classroom work that they determine, would be the bulk of the teacher evaluation. They're posing this because they have - there's - in the past, at least, there's been no way for a teacher to appeal a bad evaluation. That's one of their big beefs.

And then they are drawing a line in the sand and they're saying, actually, we don't believe standardized test scores should ever be used to determine whether a teacher is effective or not. We just don't believe they're valid.

MARTIN: More to come on this. Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Linda Lutton, I hope you'll keep us posted. Thanks so much.

LUTTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.