Teacher strikes are horrendous. They are a challenge for families, who have to scramble for childcare. They can be a nightmare for families who cannot afford to pay for additional childcare. They can be disruptive to students, and life disruptions can seriously impair student learning. They cost teachers paychecks -- at least in the short term. And almost all teachers actually love children -- else they could not bear to work them with all day every day -- and striking is not nearly as psychically rewarding as teaching.
So, why do teachers strike? Why don't school boards do what they need to do to prevent strikes?
Well, it is quite complicated, and often needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis. But there are some big historical and/or ongoing issues that you need to understand in order to understand the individual context.
* Teacher union contracts are not imposed on school districts. They are negotiated between the two parties and agreed to by both parties.
* The compensation model and teacher tenure predate collective bargaining rights for teachers and union contracts by decades.
* An enormous amount of what is covered in union contracts is a product of neither the union nor the central office trusting principals. This has always been true. Today's decentralizing movement should not hide the fact that districts have historically pushed just as hard as unions to tie principals’ hands and deny them discretion over policy and procedure in their own schools.
* There has been a problem all across the country with principals failing to observe and evaluate their teachers according to the procedures laid out in the contracts -- even when it takes less than three hours and occurs less often than every year. This failure of evaluation and documentation is what makes it take so long to remove teachers. This does not simply fall on principals, as they are held responsible for so much, are so poorly trained and so poorly supported that it is no surprise that they can have trouble finding time to do this work. And when a new principal comes to a school, s/he may inherit a situation where his/her predecessor failed to observe and evaluate teachers for years.
(When I work with principals closely, I always ask them if they personally have ever been unable to remove a teacher they needed out of their building. They tell stories about their peers, but I've yet to speak to a principal who admits to being unable to do so him/herself. Not a single one, yet, in scores of conversations.)
* The recent "accountability" movement looks to place blame for student performance on teachers, schools and principals. However, it rarely -- never? -- gives them the discretion over how to accomplish those goals that was originally promised. It certainly fails to provide the capacity that makes those goals even possible -- thus violating Richard Elmore's Principle of Reciprocity. The centralizing tendencies of those who like the idea of "accountability" runs counter to requirements of accountability. For example, if Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the CPS system want to hold principals "accountable" for test scores, as they say, they need to give principals control over their budgets and over staffing. They claim that they that are fighting to give them control over staffing. However, they want to tie the principals' hands when it comes to evaluating their own teachers.
* Most individual teachers get raises above and beyond those highlighted in media coverage of teacher contract disputes. They get raises for advancing in their careers, as defined in the salary schedules in the contracts. Whether you agree or disagree with that approach, there are raises in there. The public disputes are about shifting that entire salary schedule -- to adjust for inflation, to make the profession more attractive, and to pay teachers closer to that a professional salary. If you believe that teachers are underpaid or that starting teacher salaries need to be higher -- as most do -- then you should be in favor of these overall shifts. On the other hand, teachers should not claim that their individual raises depend entirely upon these shifts.
* We all know that teaching is hard, hard work. Working in front of dozens of children everyday, being minutely observed by them and trying to act like a role model every minute is incredibly draining. After classes are over, teachers have papers to grade, lesson plans to write or revise, meetings to attend, phone calls to make (e.g. to parents), classrooms to clean and the next day's lessons/activities to set up. Teachers work long after the children leave school.
* Teachers do not have three months off every year. They generally have 10-month contracts, yes. Some teachers -- especially well-experienced teachers -- do not have to spend their summers planning curricula, learning more about their subjects, attending training and professional development. But many teachers do. Furthermore, many, many teachers (most?) try to get back to school before they are supposed to, to begin setting up their classrooms --which may have moved -- or prepare for their new classes and grade-levels. Most teachers need multiple weeks before the students arrive at the start of the year to get ready, and they are only paid for one.
* All professionals need insightful feedback to build on their strengths and to address their weakness. And yet, it is an entirely human reaction to resist criticism. Amid the traditional close your door and do your own thing culture of schooling, there can be even more resistance to evaluation. (To be honest, I was quite resistant to the obviously stupid criticism I received as a teacher.) But there are legitimate reasons to want to compare teacher performance, even across schools (e.g. targeting professional development, identifying model teachers, etc.).
* Student test scores do not measure school quality. However, there are efforts to use statistical techniques to combine test scores and other data to get closer to teachers and school quality. Yet these products -- called "value-added analysis" (VAA) -- are not even close to being ready for primetime. To take two disparate examples, VAA does not account for the presence of known disruptive students or for HVAC issues in a particular classroom -- both of which can significantly impact student learning. Until far more of the known relevant factors are accounted for, VAA systems simply do not achieve their goal. (Though, given valid tests that appropriately sample from the content domain, fuller models, and sufficient data, VAA can be an incredibly useful tool.)
* Despite the rhetoric, the United States has never led in the international comparisons of student performance. PISA and TIMMS studies have consistently shown that US to be in the middle of the pack of industrialized nations -- for their entire histories. More recent research has show that when you control poverty levels, however, the US is today first in the world on these tests. We have not declined, but we have social problems that impact student performance.
Many (most? all? nearly all? including myself) believe that our schools need to do better. Certainly, we want our students to come out of school better prepared for citizenship, their future careers and their lives as adults. Many parents need to learn how to better support their children's' education. Societally, we need to value education and scholarship more. We need better teachers and better teaching. We need better leadership of our schools. We need better leadership of our school districts. The visions have been lacking. The support for those in schools has been poor. The necessities of creating engines of continuous improvement have not been met -- either for students or for educators.
When reading or thinking about the Chicago Teachers Union strike, keep all of this in mind. The next time you hear about a teacher contract negotiation, keep all of this in mind. And if you care to know more any any of these points, there is a ton of good work out there to learn from.