Chicago Teachers Strike: Could it Happen in New Jersey?

September 12, 2012

Teachers are walking picket lines in Chicago over job security, compensation and evaluations, the very issues that have been in the forefront of efforts to improve New Jersey schools.

At the heart of the walkout this week by 26,000 Chicago teachers are issues tied to broader efforts to bolster education across the country and make sure children get quality teachers. Indeed, New Jersey’s new tenure law, signed by Governor Christie in August, reflected long, complex negotiations with the state’s largest teachers union over how a teacher’s job performance should be judged and how those ratings should affect job protections.

Why are the Chicago teachers striking?

The main issue involves the new teacher evaluation system. The Chicago Teachers Union is protesting the use of ratings based partly on student growth on various tests. A 2010 Illinois law, about to be implemented, said at least 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must stem from such test data, and eventually that share would increase to 40 percent.

Unions and other educators nationwide say computer models that link teachers to student scores are highly unreliable — and unfair to teachers with particularly challenging students. Teachers in Chicago worry they will be unjustly fired based on these ratings.

What does that have to do with New Jersey?

The Christie administration is developing new evaluations that, for the first time, would be based half on student learning and half on observations of the teacher. Its goal is to have more objective, rigorous ratings for teachers than in the current system, where nearly all get good reviews. A handful of districts are trying the new evaluation system this year, and all districts are supposed to use it in the 2013-14 school year.

While the new tenure law says test scores should not be the “predominant” factor in a teacher’s evaluation and there must be “multiple measures” of student growth, critics argue test scores will play too big a role, increasing pressure to cheat.

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said that in subjects where there are state tests — meaning math and language arts in Grades 3-8 — he wants student growth data to account for 35 percent to 45 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation. That may evolve, however, and “there is nothing cast in stone about those numbers,” he said this week.

The New Jersey Education Association said that percentage is too high, in part because many factors outside the classroom, such as poverty, influence student success. “Test scores are no more predictable than the weather when it comes to reflecting teacher quality,” says NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer.

For educators who don’t teach subjects that are covered by state standardized tests, districts are struggling to figure out how they will measure student progress. Portfolios of student work, commercially available tests or home-grown assessments may be considered. The administration is pushing regulations with broad guidelines that allow for some district choices.

The regulations for new evaluations do call for teacher input.

“We are honestly trying to step into this with a great deal of humility about the complexity of the task and with a great deal of engagement with teachers,” Cerf said.

Under the new tenure law, a teacher gets an initial “mentorship” year, then needs two good annual ratings within three years to get tenure. A teacher can face tenure charges after two poor ratings in a row.

When will teacher ratings, based on student growth, be available?

The New Jersey Department of Education says districts now have preliminary data showing how each student grew since 2010, compared with peers with similar test histories. A spokeswoman said that in “coming months,” districts will get data linking student scores to teachers. These computer models aim to isolate each teacher’s contribution to student learning, and help diagnose ways to improve.

By law, those teacher ratings are confidential.

What do the Chicago teachers want when it comes to seniority?

City school officials have closed schools and are rumored to plan many more closings. The Chicago Teachers Union wants a process that would fill vacancies by rehiring teachers who lose their jobs due to closings. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said principals should have the authority to hire personnel based on talent and effectiveness.

How does that relate to New Jersey?

The Christie administration has been calling forcefully for an end to seniority protections during staff reductions. The NJEA has pushed hard to keep them, saying that districts would otherwise try to save money by firing more expensive veterans. Some Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would end the policy of last-in-first-out to give principals more autonomy in staffing decisions.

What’s the conflict over compensation in Chicago?

The Chicago Tribune reported that the Chicago school district improved its initial offer and has offered teachers a series of base salary increases over four years, beginning with 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next three years. It said the average teacher in the system has 13.7 years of experience and is paid about $71,200.

The New Jersey Education Association says public school teachers here make an average of $68,121, though some districts’ averages are higher.

Who represents the Chicago teachers?

They are represented by an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which has a presence in New Jersey, but is much smaller here than the National Education Association.

The sheer size of the Chicago district, the third largest in the country, with 350,000 children, makes this walkout particularly dramatic. It has almost 10 times as many students as New Jersey’s largest district, Newark.

Can teachers strike in New Jersey?

It’s illegal here, but there have been teacher strikes.

In a particularly bitter dispute in Middletown in 2001, 228 striking teachers were jailed after they refused a judge’s order to head back to class.

In 1987, 132 teachers and school staffers in Lyndhurst staged a six-day strike and were arrested and sentenced to community service.

Paterson teachers have been working without a new contract for two years, and Paterson Education Association President Pete Tirri said some staffers have asked him why they’re not striking. He said he was “not optimistic” about finding a resolution with the school board, and had “no idea” what would happen next.