Epicenter of the battle over public education

September 26, 2012

New York City teacher Peter Lamphere looks at the myths and realities surrounding a key issue in the Chicago teachers' strike--evaluations based on student testing.

WHAT WAS the core issue that sent 26,000 Chicago teachers to the picket lines? Wages? Health care benefits?

Actually, the answer is: teacher evaluations.

While the news media and traditional labor analysts may have been thrown for a loop, teachers around the country weren't surprised to find out that the planned evaluation system based on test scores was a key issue in the strike.

And while Chicago teachers did not return to work with a perfect evaluation system, their example has changed the national conversation about what is important in our schools. By challenging the standardized testing regime, they have united the interests of parents, students and teachers.

The shift in teacher evaluations towards the use of high-stakes tests is the single major change in K-12 educational working conditions in the past 30 years. This forms the single largest section--138 of the possible 500 points on the application--of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, which holds out the promise of additional federal money for education, but on the condition that state governments impose school "reforms."

High-stakes standardized tests are becoming more and more prominent in U.S. schools
High-stakes standardized tests are becoming more and more prominent in U.S. schools

Cash-strapped state legislatures desperate for extra dollars for schools--and in the grip of the corporate education deform lobby--are pushing test-based evaluations in public schools.

AT THE core of this drive towards high-stakes testing is a myth that hides a profit machine. The myth is that something called "teacher quality" is the key to changing educational outcomes for students.

We've heard it repeated ad nauseum by politicians and pundits, from the president on down, that the most important factor in a child's education is the "quality" of the classroom teacher. Hence, goes the logic, the most important thing we can do to help schools is identify, through evaluations, who the worst teachers are, and replace them with better ones.

The most recent example was provided in a recent anti-strike article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who argued that "even in the context of poverty, teachers consistently had a huge positive or negative impact." Kristof uses this claim to argue that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was "protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system...in effect turning a blind eye to a 'separate but equal' education system."

But is it actually true that the main factor in education is teacher quality? Take, for example, the evidence offered by Daniel Goldhaber, one of the most cited academic advocates of "teacher quality." He found that just "8.5 percent of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics," while "the vast majority (about 60 percent) of the differences in student test scores are explained by individual and family background characteristics."

Goldhaber explains away this other 60 percent by saying that teacher quality was "among the various influences that schools and policymakers can control." The unstated assumption here is that there is nothing that can be done about economic or racial inequality, and we must only focus on the things that "we can control"--even if their effect on educational outcomes is comparatively miniscule.

The CTU has flipped this script by showing that economic and racial inequality are things that can be controlled--by conscious policies providing wraparound services in high-needs schools, as well as struggles (like strikes!) to raise wages and living conditions for working-class people.

But teachers are battling a highly profitable industry that stands to gain from the new emphasis on teacher quality. The Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, which first accelerated the standardized testing frenzy in the early 2000s, only mandated reading and math tests in grades 3-8. Race to the Top (along with the new Common Core tests) has encouraged the spread of standardized tests to all grades and subject areas, even Kindergarten and Pre-K, as well as art and music, in order to be able to evaluate all teachers.

None of this helps students, who lose more instructional time to testing and test prep and face the distortion of their educations as a result. But it is music to the ears of companies like the testing behemoth Pearson, which netted $4 billion in North American sales and close to $800 million in profits last year--a hefty 20 percent profit margin in an era where its core market for textbooks is shrinking.

Furthermore, the emphasis on evaluation through standardized testing is a wedge to attack teachers' job protections, a critical component of the assault on one of the few remaining heavily unionized sectors of the workforce. As a general attack against unions, the evaluation frenzy therefore also serves the interests of the rest of the corporate sector, not just the testing companies that profit directly.

Even using the strike weapon, the CTU was not able to eliminate standardized testing from the evaluation system. In the final year of a three-year contract, test scores will comprise 30 percent of teachers' evaluations. That's a minimum level mandated by state law and far below what the district was demanding--but those evaluations will still have an impact on layoffs.

However, the CTU was able to win the right to appeal adverse ratings to a neutral arbitrator, something that few other new evaluation systems retain. In New York City, for example, the impending evaluation scheme allows appeals in a narrow 13 percent of adverse ratings.

Most importantly, Chicago teachers have the confidence and raised consciousness that comes from nine days of a united struggle by teachers, parents and students. This solidarity will be our best weapon in the struggle to come to replace the myth of "teacher quality" with the idea that we need educational equality for all of our students.

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