Chicago teachers raised topic that needs discussion

More than 350,000 students missed class in Chicago's first teachers' strike in a quarter-century. (SCOTT OLSON / Getty Images)

Perhaps Chicago’s teachers felt they were doing the rest of the country a favor by trying to force a debate on student tests with their strike.

But with so many other distractions, including the murder of a U.S. ambassador in Libya and a presidential election campaign that has largely ignored public education, not enough people outside Chicago really focused on that part of the labor dispute.

Salary and benefits are typically the areas of contention leading to strikes in any profession. But while Chicago’s teachers wanted more than what they were being offered — a 7 percent raise over three years, with another 3 percent possible in a fourth year — that never seemed to be the primary reason that they struck.

The teachers seemed more agitated by a proposed evaluation process that would base up to 35 percent of their ratings on standardized test scores. They said other critical factors affecting student performance, in particular poverty and violence, weren’t being given enough consideration.

President Obama’s education initiative, Race to the Top, also relies on student test scores to evaluate teachers, so it’s fitting that his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, wants that to be part of his city’s education reforms. Implementing Obama’s strategy is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who formerly led Chicago public schools.

Obama, apparently not wanting to further anger the national teachers’ unions, a traditional ally of Democratic candidates, has stayed out of the strike. The teachers’ unions also oppose the Obama plan’s support for charter schools. Meanwhile, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized Chicago’s teachers for turning their backs on schoolchildren.


Are Chicago teachers right in opposing teacher evalulations based on students' test results?

It’s time for all teachers to be realistic in considering how their teaching can be evaluated. It has been demonstrated that overly relying on student test scores leads to educators’ teaching to the test and, even worse, manipulating scores or otherwise cheating to get the results they want.

But although safeguards must be implemented at every level to keep such abuses from occurring, test scores should have some bearing in determining which teachers are doing a good job and which ones need help.

Pennsylvania passed a law last year that includes test scores in the evaluation of teachers. But that measure is in a category that also includes graduation rates, attendance, and Advanced Placement course participation, which together account for only 15 percent of a teacher’s rating.

That plan, supported by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, bases 50 percent of a teacher’s rating on classroom observation. Principals will be evaluated in part on how well their teachers do in their assessments.

Standardized tests, when properly administered, can provide a useful indicator of how well a specific teacher is doing in the classroom. But as Chicago teachers tried to make clear, other factors that also affect how a child learns must be part of a teacher’s evaluations, too. Getting the right mix may vary from district to district.