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Chicago strike: A wiser teacher evaluation policy benefits the kids

COMMENTARYThe strike by teachers in Chicago follows an impasse on several issues, but the public might be surprised to learn that compensation issues are a rela
Kevin G. Welner
by Kevin G. Welner


The strike by teachers in Chicago follows an impasse on several issues, but the public might be surprised to learn that compensation issues are a relatively minor stumbling block. In a city where 42 kindergarteners are packed into a single room, teachers are demanding air-conditioned classrooms and smaller class sizes. And the most intractable and heated element of the dispute concerns how teachers are evaluated—a reflection of similar debates across the nation.

 The U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan—the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools—has used the Race to the Top program and other policies to coerce states to approve evaluation policies that largely score teachers and principals on “student growth.” Illinois is one of many states that dutifully obeyed, adopting a law requiring that student growth account for at least 25% of a teacher’s evaluation. In turn, the district leadership in Chicago wants to start there and increase it annually until it reaches 40%.

In theory, “student growth” can take many forms. In practice, it means that students are given standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests. How well students do from one test to the next—their “growth”—is attributed to individual teachers by using statistical models designed to tease out the teacher contribution to student learning.

There are substantial problems with using these statistical models in this way, and those problems will undoubtedly result in many unfair evaluations. But an even bigger issue is the immediate impact of these evaluation approaches on how and what children are taught.


Since 2002, public schools have operated under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). This placed schools under a test-score-based incentive system. Functioning on the premise that what gets measured gets done, NCLB imposed a series of escalating sanctions on schools with inadequate improvement in test scores. Schools responded to those incentives by squeezing out non-tested and less-tested subjects and by restructuring lessons to focus on how to answer test questions correctly. Broader understandings and deeper knowledge are sacrificed to the testing goal.

By pushing for policies that evaluate teachers based in large part on students’ test scores, the Obama administration has intensified these problems. The teacher push-back in Chicago is part of the growing resistance to these policies among parents, students, principals and teachers.

Testing is not teaching; you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. What parents want for their children are learning opportunities that are engaging, challenging, and supported. Few parents send their children to school hoping for daily exam-prep.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As long as the state law remains in effect, student growth will be used for at least 25% of Chicago teachers’ evaluation. But the district has discretion over how it will measure student growth and whether or not that 25% moves up to 40%.

Wise and beneficial evaluative systems should pursue five goals: (1) identify excellence; (2) identify those who are unable or unwilling to improve; (3) improve the effectiveness of all teachers; (4) provide incentives for good practices (and avoid incentives for poor practices); and (5) enhance school environment and student learning.

District leadership in Chicago seems fixated on the first two, although its test-based evaluation system won’t even do those well. Further, the unintended consequences of a test-based evaluation system undercut the remaining three goals.

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama said: “Good teachers with the tools to do their jobs should not have to teach to the test. They should be able to teach a rich curriculum.” As the union and the district continue their negotiations, they would be wise to keep in mind the incentives they’re creating and whether the resulting system will lead to this ideal Obama initially envisioned.

Kevin G. Welner is a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at CU-Boulder.