The Chicago Teachers Union Strike Has Been Building For Awhile

A crucial negotiating point between the CTU and CPS involves teacher rehiring and tenure. In the abstract, loosening restrictions might sound appealing, but a series of controversies over the firing of seemingly effective teachers has made negotiations much harder than they might look.

Chicago Teachers Union

 

Last week, the Tribune obtained some inside dirt on Jean-Claude Brizard’s job performance as evaluated by the board. Some of it was pretty harsh, particularly in the category of “plays well with others,” and it was accompanied by intimations that Brizard could take the bullet if the strike happens:

Brizard’s management style was criticized by the Chicago Board of Education in his annual evaluation, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune. The board gave Brizard low marks for the way he communicates and runs the district.

“The organizational effectiveness of CPS could be substantially improved with a more coherent and decisive management decision-making process,” board President David Vitale wrote in a June 11 letter to Brizard that accompanied the review.

Still, Vitale commended Brizard for a “challenging, but solid year” and wrote that he is “off to a good start in year one and there is significant potential to have year two and beyond be even better.”

This has led to no shortage of speculation of how the Trib got the document and why it was leaked. Ben Joravsky and John Kass don’t agree on much, but they had the same reaction: Rahm’s got it out for Brizard. Joravsky even suggests it’s led to some sympathy for Brizard among the CTU members:

Everyone agreed that it was a wretched way for the mayor to treat Brizard, who’s done a pretty good job as his genial front man. In fact, a lot of teachers almost felt sort of sorry for Brizard. At the very least, what’s happened to him shows why teachers need tenure as protection against backstabbing, politically motivated bosses.

It narrows down a point that’s been critical to Joravsky’s CPS reporting, and that of other reporters—a series of HR controversies that center on the issue of teacher tenure and rehiring. Opponents of the CTU, like the Tribune editorial board, argue against the CTU’s hard-line stance for reasons that might sound fine in the abstract:

CPS’ overarching goal must be an “irreplaceable” teacher in every classroom.

The only way to achieve that is to give principals maximum flexibility to hire the best of the best. Principals should be held accountable for doing that, and for retaining superstar teachers who make a huge difference in their students’ education and in their lives.

But that flexibility is only good if it’s used to make reasonable hiring and firing decisions, and a series of firings have perplexed teachers and the union. Most recently, it was at Social Justice High School in Little Village:

Chicago public school officials let two other teachers go for “economic reasons” last week.

The two helped open Social Justice High School seven years ago. One is Katie Hogan, a Golden Apple scholar, a National Board Certified Teacher who coached the academic decathlon team.

Last year it was layoffs at Austin Polytech, which Meribah Knight did an extensive investigation into:

In interviews with 17 Polytech teachers, nearly two-thirds of the teaching staff, each cited poor communication by the administration with staff members and students, a lack of access to professional development, inconsistent disciplinary measures and a feeling of having no voice in administrative decisions.

Joravsky talked to one of the Polytech teachers, whose rating went from “excellent” to unsatisfactory because “she had not followed [the principal’s] instructions to put printed-out copies of her lesson plans in the red folder that he instructed all teachers to leave in a box in their rooms.” Allison Bates wasn’t the only fired teacher Joravsky’s interviewed; there was Raquel Garcia, a bilingual Lane Tech grad who got lost in the bureaucratic muck of the “do not hire” list; in 2010, he talked with Sunny Neater-DuBow, the sole nationally-certified teacher at her high school, who was “redefined” out of her job and “honorably dismissed,” meaning that she would not get her job back nor receive her salary within the reassigned teacher pool:

It’s not clear exactly why Neater-DuBow was laid off. The message from her principal said she was let go for financial reasons. Her layoff letter said her position had been redefined. According to Winckler, “Redefinition occurs when sometimes a position has to be redefined to get in compliance with board policy or state rule.”

And what board policy or state rule was the reason for redefining Neater-DuBow’s position?”

“I don’t know the specifics of that case,” says Winckler.

Neater-DuBow taught at Multicultural Arts High School, which shares a campus with Social Justice as part of an old trend:

It is one of four high schools in the Little Village High School Campus. The small schools were a popular system of education reform in the early 2000s. At one point CPS got a $2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to split up large urban high schools into several small, academically focused schools.

In recent years, CPS and other districts have moved away from that model, citing in part high administrative costs and average results.

These layoffs span three years, and three CPS heads: Ron Huberman, interim chief Terry Mazany, and now Jean-Claude Brizard. In 2011, Mazany castigated Huberman’s leadership in a way that you rarely see from a high-profile public servant discussing his predecessor:

“The system was in free fall,” Mazany said of the district after Huberman’s departure in November. “There was plunging morale. Vacancies in key leadership positions. A balkanized organization structure where each unit was doing their own thing. And there was a loss in a unifying vision for education.”

Over the last three months, Mazany said he has worked to repair some of the strained relationships between the central office and its employees and to bring his own “culture of calm” to a district that had seen three top executives in two years.

[snip]

…Mazany is advocating for eliminating many of the policies Huberman put into place, a move he says will create a more level playing field across the city and better prepare students for global competition.

“There is this fractured focus of everybody pursuing their own definition of what quality schools look like, what instruction looks like, each department doing its own thing,” Mazany said. “There were a lot more challenges than I had anticipated.”

And Mazany was just there to transition into Brizard. Mazany replaced Huberman, who lasted a year after Arne Duncan departed for Washington, leaving CPS with four different superintendents in four years, one reason that it would be surprising if Brizard was fired. That’s a lot of transition for an organization with 675 schools and over 20,000 teachers.

Giving principals full reign over hiring and firing is predicated on the idea that it will be done seamlessly and thoughtfully; even Neater-DuBow told Joravsky that she doesn’t support tenure for ineffective teachers. But a number of the firings that have been reported on—going back before Brizard and Emanuel—have been opaque and confusing. “Satisfactory” teacher evaluations may be so frequent as to be meaningless, but that cuts both ways: that may have sheltered ineffective teachers, but it seems to have left effective ones vulnerable. The leak of Brizard’s evaulation, odd as it was, has been transparent by comparison.

 

Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)

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