Karen Lewis, Street Fighter

Obstreperous, loud, and unscripted, the Chicago Teachers Union president led the city’s public school teachers to strike against Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—and became a national figure overnight. Who is this person?

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As the strike dragged on in September, a resolution hinged on a tricky question: How do you measure a teacher’s quality?

Teachers play an important role in determining students’ success, which is why current reformers focus on weeding out the bad ones and keeping the good. They believe that student performance on standardized tests is a fair metric by which to judge a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. Hence the push to link test scores to teacher evaluations. Merit pay—teachers are rewarded for improving scores in lieu of automatic annual raises—is the carrot. The stick is that teachers who fail to deliver may be fired, and schools that stagnate can be closed.

This data-driven approach is rolling through a growing number of school districts across the country, including those in Washington, D.C., Denver, and Los Angeles. A bipartisan cause (witness the huzzahs Emanuel received from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan during the strike), it is also backed by some of the country’s wealthiest philanthropists.

However, Lewis and the union argue that test scores are a crude tool for gauging teacher quality. So-called value-added scores—a metric used to evaluate teachers based on student gains on standardized tests—adjust for socioeconomic disadvantages. But Lewis says value-added scores don’t go far enough and effectively hold teachers in poor neighborhoods accountable for factors beyond their control, such as homelessness and violence. “If I’m teaching kids who have more need than my value-added scores [account for], their test scores aren’t going to be as high as those of kids at a different level,” Lewis says. “Yet there’s no consideration made for that.”

She has an ally on this front in Mazany, who calls the reliance on metrics the “tyranny of testing.” “Research study after research study shows you can’t crosswalk from testing what a student knows to the inference for teacher quality,” he says. “And that creates further tension between the district and the teachers, because teachers know this research and know that it’s fundamentally unfair to evaluate teachers based on these test data.”


Reform Before the Storm »
A timeline of the Chicago Public Schools

Q&A with Lewis: Part I | Part II

(A recent study that tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years was not as conclusive as some reformers made it out to be: It found that teachers with high value-added scores on standardized tests indeed produced students with better outcomes as adults. However, the study’s authors, economists at Harvard and Columbia, cautioned that other methods of judging teacher quality, such as classroom observation, were not tested and “might be even better predictors of teachers’ long-term impacts than value-added scores.”)

Lewis also objects to the insinuation by some in the reform movement that teachers don’t want to be evaluated at all: “We crave real evaluation so we can get better.”

On the last day of the strike, Lewis told Chicago that she would like to see teachers rated by their peers. But she said that presenting an alternative evaluation model to CPS and the board goes beyond the scope of her role as chief negotiator for the union, especially since she could only argue for the terms under which the new state mandate would be carried out. (In the tentative contract between the city and the union, student test scores will count for up to 30 percent of a teacher’s overall performance rating, down from a maximum of 40 percent in an earlier version.)

But Lewis’s concerns are much broader than teacher evaluations. She is “really scared about what’s happening to public education,” says Jeff Wright, who was the principal at King College Prep when Lewis worked there (he is now a district administrator for the Sauk Prairie Schools in Wisconsin). Specifically, he says, she fears the threat posed by charter schools, which are not required to serve children who don’t speak English or who have behavioral problems. Says Wright, “I think Karen believes she has to speak on behalf of a public education that teaches everyone, regardless of who you are, [and is] accessible to all.”

CPS currently has 119 charter schools, whose faculty are not allowed to join the CTU. The district plans to create 60 more over the next five years, according to a grant application filed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has threatened to close more than 100 failing or undersubscribed traditional public schools in 2013. This despite the fact that Renaissance 2010 did not create the radical improvement hoped for by its supporters. A 2009 analysis by the Chicago Tribune showed that standardized test scores at Renaissance 2010 elementary schools were nearly identical to the overall CPS average, and scores at the high schools were below average.

* * *

After the union’s house of delegates finally voted to call off the strike on September 18, Lewis met the crush of media gathered at a West Side union hall for the occasion. With a big smile and weary eyes, she said she felt “great” about the strike, even if the resulting deal didn’t satisfy all of her members, because it made the point that “the people that are actually working in the schools need to be heard.”

Asked by a reporter if she felt pressure had been lifted from her shoulders, Lewis let out a small laugh. “You know I haven’t had a chance to have any pressure taken off me since I started this job,” she said, noting that she expects to clash again soon with CPS over school closures.

She has found some solace, if not much rest, in her faith. Lewis got back in the habit of attending weekly services at her synagogue a few years ago, and she says her religious study has been especially important during the last tumultous year. “I look forward to Saturday morning; I just can’t wait. My Hebrew reading is getting better,” she says. “It has been very helpful during these times of tribulations and trials to be focused on something not yourself.”

Her bat mitzvah is scheduled for next June, and Lewis can’t help but see the portion of the Torah she’s studying—Shelach—through the lens of her fight for teachers. “It’s a perfect portion for me,” she says. “It’s about people being told they can’t do something, and they were able to.”


Photograph: Tom Maday; Makeup: Denise Malloy Inc.



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