Rich Portrays Chicago Teachers As Acting on Principle, Skips $75,000 Average Salary

In Wednesday's "National Schools Debate Is on Display in Chicago," New York Times education reporter Motoko Rich went to the left of even the liberal editorial page in her sympathetic coverage of the massive teacher strike in Chicago, portraying the walkout as a matter of scholastic principle and skipping less high-minded details, including the union's rejection of a 16 percent raise from an already healthy average salary of $75,000 a year.

What started here as a traditional labor fight over pay, benefits and working conditions has exploded into a dramatic illustration of the national debate over how public school districts should rate teachers.

At stake are profound policy questions about how teachers should be granted tenure, promoted or fired, as well as the place standardized tests will have in the lives of elementary and high school students.

One of the main sticking points in the negotiations here between the teachers union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a new teacher evaluation system that gives significant and increasing weight to student performance on standardized tests. Personnel decisions would be based on those evaluations.

Rich offered suspiciously sharp-sounding liberal talking points.

Proponents say these measures are needed to improve teaching in a country where 33 percent of fourth graders are not reading at grade level and about one-quarter of public high school students do not graduate on time, if at all. They say the new rating systems will help districts identify the best and worst teachers.

These efforts are stirring skepticism and anger among teachers, some of whom express a sense that those behind the new evaluations know little about what it is like to be in a classroom. Others fear that heavy reliance on scores will turn schools into test-taking factories.

That sentiment certainly permeated the picket lines and rallies in Chicago this week.


Across the country, critics have seized on the Chicago fight to blast the use of a teacher’s ability to raise scores as an unreliable measure. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing put out a statement from its public education director, Robert Schaeffer, saying, “ ‘Enough is enough’ to so-called reforms based on standardized exam misuse.”

Several studies have shown that teachers who receive high value-added scores -- the term for the effect that teachers have on student test performance -- in one year can score poorly a year later. “There are big swings from year to year,” said Jesse Rothstein, associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. But other studies have shown that students taught by teachers who achieve high value-added scores go on to have lower teenage pregnancy rates, are more likely to go to college and earn higher incomes as adults.

Surprisingly, the Times' lead editorial Wednesday was critical of the strike: "Chicago Teachers' Folly – The strike hurts students and damages the union's credibility." It even mentioned the healthy average salary of Chicago teachers: $75,000 a year.

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea. The strike that has roiled the civic climate in Chicago -- and left 350,000 children without classes --seems particularly senseless because it is partly a product of a personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis. Beyond that, the strike is based on union discontent with sensible policy changes -- including the teacher evaluation system required by Illinois law -- that are increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Mr. Emanuel attracted the union’s anger when the city, citing budget deficits, rescinded a 4 percent raise that was supposed to go into effect last year. He further angered the union by bypassing the collective-bargaining process with a new policy that lengthened one of the shortest school days in the nation. Comparatively speaking, however, Chicago’s teachers are well paid, with an average salary of about $75,000 a year (roughly the same as in New York City). Before the strike, the city agreed to increase the size of the teacher corps to handle the longer school day. And despite its dismal fiscal condition, the city says it has offered the union a 16 percent raise over the next four years.