Wednesday, September 12

Dueling Crisis: The Chicago Teachers' Strike

At first glance, most people would size up a teachers' strike as a crisis communication problem for city government. Not this time around. The decision to strike in Chicago created a quadruple crisis — for government, unions, teachers, and parents. Everybody is going to lose this time, especially the only people who are not part of the clash: the students.

The assessment of a quadruple crisis on the quick. 

Government. It's not exclusive to Chicago, and exists in many major cities. After years of giving into collective bargaining concessions (some smart and some not so smart), government has run out of fiscal room to continually reward lackluster results and downward trajectories. There is no money in the coffers for salary concessions. There is increasing pressure to save failing education systems.

In an effort to meet somewhere in the middle, Chicago seemed willing to approve a generous salary increase, but wanted to end undergraduate teacher tenure and add evaluation methods that would usher in a new era of educational accountability. You can see where they often place the blame — teachers (and sometimes unions).

Unions. The unions have done a tremendous job building an infrastructure to elect politicians who rubber stamp concessions and force out those who will not. The amount of money used for lobbying and political campaigning is mind boggling but not surprising.

Unions make their money based on how much money their members, voluntary or mandatory, contribute. They also need to win every year in order to justify their existence. So, it is in their best interest to protect teachers with more years in the system (tenure), protect the employment of every teacher (regardless of results), and always seek out more money, which in turn generates more cash for lobbying, political campaigns, and their payroll. You can see where they often place the blame — government.

Teachers. While each city is different, Chicago teachers have done better than most. The average salary is around $71,000 per year in a city where most household incomes is around $46,000 per year. But despite this salary discrepancy, it is no picnic to teach in a city with severe economic problems and a higher than normal percentage of at-risk children who attend school every day just to get a meal.

While not all teachers on are board with the union or the strike, those that are want to preserve job security, earn salary increases (because they have hit their caps), and avoid accountability for student performance. The latter isn't because of what most people think. By the time many meet new students, these students are already broken or behind. Most of them place the blame somewhere else — parents.

Parents. Other than teachers, there isn't a more diverse group in the mix. Most parents want their children to receive a better education than they received, but they see that school systems across the country are failing to engage students and instill a love for learning that is necessary for success — even  if their children are better suited to enter the trades (which I'll address another time).

Sure, there are a few who are dismissive, either believing that a failing education system cannot help their children at the onset, devaluing it because of their own occupations, or treating the system like free day care. But I don't think this describes most parents. More likely is that many parents are already stretched too thin to invest an hour on homework every night or, in some cases, they themselves don't understand the material their children bring home. And then there are those who struggle with everyday discipline, let alone education. As the most fractured group, they place blame wherever it is ideologically convenient for them — mostly government, somewhat teachers, occasionally unions.

There are no 'group' heroes in this mix. 

The educational system that was created in most struggling cities is broken because it was designed with the best intent until the best intent was sidelined for winning on issues (some fair and some not so fair). So as groups, there are no heroes because each of them contributed to the mess that exists today.

If you are looking for heroes, you can only look for individuals. Somewhere in the mix, there are politicians who are willing to do whatever it takes to build an educated work force. There are teachers who work longer unpaid hours, doing everything possible to fix the problems they inherited. And there are parents who even though they feel helpless, still instill the importance of education in their children.

But as groups, you will mostly find governments giving into union pressures and political clout with parents too readily taken in by campaign material. At the same time, union wins convinced enough teachers to go along for the ride (or be silenced out of fear). It wasn't always this way, but it is today.

The reality of teacher evaluations, overall. 

While the one takeaway today fits better into education than public relations (which I will be covering as a living case study), there is only one solution that fairly addresses the principal cause of the strike. Despite best intentions, I cannot see how a teacher evaluation system can be implemented across the board on an already broken system despite my own belief that every school system needs one.

So maybe it's time for the good people of Chicago to have a reality check — a hard and fast K-12 evaluation system on teachers, especially one that relies on test scores, isn't fair for one simple reason. But rather than focus in on the problem, I'd rather offer up the solution that addresses it.

Evaluation standards would have to be imposed in phases, starting with K-3. Then, whatever evaluation is put in place would follow the kids into future grades, middle school, and high school. Any other method causes problems because too many children have been passed up with a deficient education.

Ergo, it's not fair to expect a 10th grade teacher to produce 11th grade students when they are given an abundance of 10th grade students with a 6th grade education (or less). However, if the evaluation system was phased in, then there would be no excuses. A 10th grade teacher with 10th grade-ready students will be able to prepare them for 11th grade or even further.

Teachers in the lowest grades would be the first to be held accountable for the class but not every student. Students who are deficient can receive special help or be held back. The point here is simple enough. Fourth grade teachers would not inherit students who are not ready.

The pressure to perform would also be mostly erased, being more likely to look for students who are struggling as opposed to teachers who are struggling. However, school officials could take a closer look at any teacher whose entire class slips. Make sense? You can hold teachers accountable based on class performance, but not necessarily every individual student.

I have more insights on the teacher evaluation topic and some education pitfalls, but I'm looking at a public relations topic for Friday. You see, it seems to me that Chicago is mistaking politics and propaganda for public relations. But on the contrary, public relations is rarely so divisive.

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