Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside the Jose De Diego… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
It wasn't about money. It was about respect.
That's what Chicago teachers union president Karen Lewis kept reminding the public during the seven-day teachers strike that had parents scrambling and kept 350,000 children out of class.
But there was way more than respect at stake in the dispute. It was a clash between an impatient mayor and a demoralized teaching corps over competing visions of public schools — one side focused on job protection, the other on accountability.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the longer school day he wanted and a new process to evaluate teachers, tied to students' test scores. The union got a better benefits package and more protection for laid-off teachers.
And we got a look at the fallout from a philosophical divide that is roiling school districts nationwide.
"There's a reason teachers all over the country were following this," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents 135 union locals. "If you're a teacher in the classroom, you feel the pressure of these 'market reforms' coming down."
Technology has made it easier to divine effective teaching by tracking student performance over time on standardized exams. But teachers bristle at the notion that the alchemy of instruction can be reduced to a score — particularly one that might get them fired.
"Teachers in Chicago were willing to draw a line in the sand," Pechthalt said. "That points the way for the rest of us."
Market reforms. In public school lingo, that's shorthand for the sort of accountability metrics that tie teachers' salaries and jobs to how well their students perform.
Supporters say that's a way to reward successful teachers and raise the fortunes of failing schools. Detractors say it scapegoats teachers and fails to accommodate societal ills that classroom lessons can't transcend.
And both sides hew to their perspective with missionary zeal.
In Los Angeles Unified, Supt. John Deasy contends the school system has the right to design a performance review system that relies on student scores without union approval.
The union has pledged to resist. "Any evaluation system that purports to reduce the complexity of teaching to a score (as if our work could be rated the way the Health Department rates restaurant cleanliness) is a step toward deprofessionalization," union president Warren Fletcher wrote in a letter to members last month.
But the market forces pushing schools to change are getting stronger. And teachers can't outrun them.
They are cascading down from the top, through the federal "Race to the Top" initiative, which is dangling billions of dollars in grants before states that use the academic growth of students to help gauge the effectiveness of teachers.
And they are bubbling up from the bottom, as families unhappy with inflexible, struggling district-run schools vote with their feet and move to public non-union charters.
State funding follows the child. Mass defections can lead to budget cuts, which lead to teacher layoffs, which give the district and union even more to fight about:
If market forces trim teaching staffs, is seniority really the best way to decide who winds up in the unemployment line?
The Chicago strike has upped the ante. Now it ought to spark a dialogue:
How do we find a way to measure good teaching, reward it, spread it through the ranks?
Teachers I spoke with this week say that is their goal, as well. But the insistence on test-score-driven assessments feels like a witch hunt to them.
"It's a move to marginalize the teacher in the whole education process," said Wayne Johnson, who was president of United Teachers Los Angeles when the union won big raises and clout on campus with a nine-day strike in 1989.
A lot has changed since then. "Now teachers unions seem to be in the cross hairs," he said.
I understand why teachers feel threatened by the prospect of number-crunchers weighing in on what they do in classrooms.
Too often, for too long, in Los Angeles, we've haven't given teachers enough opportunities or credit. Successful schools are considered the handiwork of strong principals, not teachers. Failing campuses are punished by wholesale transfers or handed off to charter programs.
So it's no wonder that teachers aren't buying the line, "We're only here to help you."
But when we can't even agree to explore what makes a teacher effective, all that union talk about "differentiated support for teachers at varying points in their careers" sounds like so much prattle to the public.
It's time for district leaders to listen — and for teachers to talk about something more than how hard it is to teach urban kids, with their academic shortcomings and chaotic lives.