Brief Note on the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

by Reihan Salam

I think this passage from a recent article by Stephanie Banchero and Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal gets to the heart of the issue:


Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has refused to give up raises for years of service and advanced degrees. She sought an agreement that guaranteed laid-off teachers the right to new job openings. Chicago is one of the few large districts where laid-off teachers aren’t first in line.

Ms. Lewis has said the evaluation system could result in the dismissal of as many as 6,000 teachers within two years. “This is unacceptable,” she said, adding that students’ standardized test scores are “no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator.”

City officials said evaluations would make it easier to fire poor teachers but didn’t know where Ms. Lewis got her estimate.

We’ve discussed raises for years of service and advanced degrees in the context of what an evidence-based salary schedule would look like. Essentially, (a) we’d offer somewhat higher starting salaries; (b) we’d stop granting raises for years of service after the first few years, during which effectiveness increases dramatically before reaching a plateau; and (c) we wouldn’t grant raises for advanced degrees. Individual teacher contracts negotiated between teachers and managers of schools might make for an even better approach, but an evidence-based salary schedule would certainly represent an improvement. 

And assuming school districts are able to jettison “last in, first out” in favor of a system in which the most ineffective teachers are dismissed first, guaranteeing these teachers future employment over other applicants with stronger skill sets, e.g., experienced teachers from other jurisdictions, new teachers who show great promise, etc., seems like a mistake.

But President Lewis’s position makes perfect sense if we assume that her negotiating stance is motivated primarily by a desire to protect the interests of the union members who elect her rather than a desire to improve the quality of instruction in the Chicago public schools. And of course the interests of management are not perfectly aligned with the interests of students either.