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Chicago Teachers Strike Could Offer a Lesson on Performance Evaluations

As the strike of 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union nears the end of its first week—and possibly its end entirely as word filtered out that a deal might come shortly—the contentious debate may appear to be solely a local matter. But there are certain elements of the largest U.S. labor strike this year that extend far beyond the borders of the Windy City, particularly the argument over performance evaluation.

Performance evaluation “is a nationwide issue—and it’s an issue that is not going away,” said Norm Solomon, a professor of management at the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “I don’t think anybody should be surprised that this issue is coming to the fore. The key thing to any evaluation system, particularly in a collective bargaining situation, is to have some buy-in by the union, a sense that this is fair.

“Right next door in Wisconsin, look what happened with the evisceration of public sector bargaining,” he said, referring to sweeping reforms the state made last year after a contentious battle. Teachers are sensitive to that fact and people are nervous.”

Indeed, it is a perceived lack of fairness that caused Michael Rusin, a teacher at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School, to label the evaluation system as “rigged” in a commentary for HuffPost Chicago. Rusin argued that the 1-to-4 rating system for evaluations made it nearly impossible for teachers to reach a four, the highest rating, but all too easy for them to drop to a one.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has acknowledged that teacher evaluations and rehiring issues are the two main stumbling blocks to a deal, but he told the Chicago Sun-Times that both matters are “not strikeable.”

On Sept. 12, district negotiators made public a proposal to revamp their original evaluation system that the union said could have put nearly one-third of all Chicago Public School teachers in line for dismissals.

CPS did not respond to a request for comment.

A science teacher at one of Chicago’s magnet high schools, who asked that his name not be used, compared the difficulty of evaluating teachers to judging the ability of a pediatric dentist who teaches kids how to take good care of their teeth.

“Lo and behold, six months later they come back with 30 percent more cavities because [they didn’t brush] at home,” he said. “So is he a bad dentist with no control over what the kids do out of his office?

“Teachers have kids in their schools for only part of the day. There are so many things we can’t control outside of the class.”

The teacher noted that the economy probably played a large role in the first Chicago teachers strike in a quarter-century.

“When we had a pretty good economy, businesses may have been able to afford to give workers good pay and benefits,” he said. “In a bad economy there are cutbacks, and workers can only do so much.”

And it’s not only urban school districts such as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., that have faced labor unrest. In the Lake Forest High School district north of Chicago, where medium family income is close to $200,000 and the average teacher makes $106,000 annually, teachers there staged their first strike over pay, a proposed two-tiered wage system and a school board request for teachers to begin paying part of their own insurance coverage.

“Given the economic constraints on all levels of government, unfortunately there are indeed signs of troubled days ahead for public sector labor relations,” Solomon said.

Richard Rothschild is a writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.