Ten Miles Square


September 13, 2012 6:50 AM Evidence and the Chicago Teacher Strike

By Daniel Luzer

We are now in day 4 of the teacher strike in Chicago, which pits the Chicago Teachers Union against education reformers led by President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

It’s a decisive, complicated battle, made more complicated because Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he’s opposed to the unions and their demands (or, rather, “ We stand with the children and we stand with the families and the parents of Chicago”). Emanuel’s former boss, president Obama, is keeping mostly quiet on this issue, because, of course, the teacher unions and their support is pretty essential for the Democratic Party.

Romney’s point seems valid, of course. Teachers’ strikes are bad for students. But the trouble is there’s not much evidence that the reforms Emanuel pushes are any good for students.

Recently Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post’s WonkBlog wrote about the evidence on strikes:

Two of the best recent studies on the effects of teacher work stoppages and strikes concern labor disputes in Ontario schools in the late ’90s and early 2000s. One, by the University of Toronto’s Michael Baker, compared how standardized test scores rose between grade 3 and grade 6 for students who lost instructional time because of the Ontario strikes, and for students who were unaffected.
And it’s not just Ontario. Michèle Belot and Dinand Webbink, now of the Universities of Edinburgh and Rotterdam, respectively, found that work stoppages hurt student achievement, increased the number of students repeating grades and reduced higher education attainment in Belgium. What’s more, studies dealing with teacher absences for reasons other than strikes bolster these findings.

This post became oddly controversial. Blogger Doug Henwood complained about some parts of the studies Matthews cited (particularly their failure to address the “larger context”) and wrote that:

The CTU’s strike, led by a vigorous reform leadership, is quite explicitly about lots more than the wages and working conditions of teachers. It’s about fighting the privatization and union-busting agenda of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—which he shares with other big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg, as well as his comrade Barack Obama. By circulating bogus stories about the damage the union is doing to the children of Chicago, Matthews is offering cover to this odious agenda.

This is ridiculous. Obviously strikes hurt student learning. Factory strikes reduce the production of goods. Nursing strikes hurt health care. Sanitation workers’ strikes make the cities dirtier and more prone to disease. That’s sort of the point.

But as long as we’re on this whole “let’s cite some evidence” thing, it’s worth pointing out why the Chicago teachers are striking.

There’s some dispute about pay and health care benefits, but these issues are ultimately secondary to the major concern, which is that in March Chicago introduced a new evaluation system where 40 percent of teacher evaluations are based on standardized tests. The teachers union resists this, arguing that it’s too punitive and that standardized tests are designed to measure student progress, not teacher quality. Teachers also want to limit class size to 28 students.

This isn’t just about specific changes for Chicago school policy in 2012, however. The strike has a lot to do with the future of public education in the city. As Valerie Strauss pointed out over in another part of the Washington Post:

The reforms championed by Emanuel… include merit pay, an expansion of charter schools, teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores, a longer school day and job security for veteran teachers.

The problem, as Stauss explains, is that as far as Emanuel’s reforms go “there’s no real proof that they systemically work, and in some cases, there is strong evidence that they may be harmful.”

Those who oppose the teachers union do well to point out that their striking has been proven to hurt student learning. The teachers union, however, arguably has a much better point: we don’t know the things the city demands that we do will improve student learning either.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • david on September 12, 2012 9:09 PM:

    with respect, if the strike lasts for a month, yes, learning will be affected. If it lasts four days, do you honestly think there is a measurable impact? I want them to settle, I appreciate you writing that the Rahm's theories don't have evidence of success. But Henwood's piece talks about a lack of context, which I demonstrated.

    If this is a long strike, then what you're saying about the effects of strikes on learning is true. But if it's not a long one....

  • Gussie on September 12, 2012 9:30 PM:

    The bullshit part isn't if striking hurts students: of course striking hurts students.

    Abused spouses leaving perpetrators can hurt children, too. But we don't--well, I don't--blame the abused spouse.

  • toowearyforoutrage on September 13, 2012 11:29 AM:

    No evidence that linking pay to student achievement may improve student achievement?

    It might be easier to find such evidence if we let these reforms pass once in a while so we can collect some data.

    Unions to the last oppose these efforts because it threatens some of their membership that howl in protest.
    Some teachers just plain suck at their jobs and should be moved to administrative duties.

    Complaints that bad results punish goo dteachers is garbage. If the average child in a teacher's class is 35th percentile entering in the fall and 50th percentile coming out in spring, I dare say that teacher needs to be encouraged to stay in the field.

    By the same token, if 35th percentile kids leave a teachers' care at the 15th percentile, that is worrisome and kids may benefit by encouraging that teacher to find a line of work involving a desk that doesn't face 25-30 smaller ones.

    Id' be more sympathetic to their complaints about standardized tests if they came up with an alternative that wasn't basically the same thing we're doing now that lets crummy teachers slide and their students decline. To paraphrase Churchill:

    "Many forms of teacher evaluation have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that standardized testing is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that standardized testing is the worst form of teacher evaluation except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

  • hornblower on September 13, 2012 9:39 PM:

    All the commentors on this site should thank teachers for their wisdom.