While the Chicago school teachers' strike is a "local" issue, it is also a touchstone of a national intraparty battle in the Democratic party, with implications for the presidential election and the long-term alliance between teachers and the party. Fortunately for Democrats, there is also a way out that strengthens their bond with teachers without caving in to the status quo on teacher accountability.
Many of the issues in Chicago really are local -- school closings and salaries to name two. But one of the concerns among striking teachers is playing out in about half the districts in the nation. The issue is the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and hold them accountable for results in decisions about tenure, promotion, and compensation.
The use of these "value-added" measures arguably started with President Obama's decision early in his Administration to challenge teacher unions through his Race to the Top initiative. This competitive grant program attempted to expand the use of value-added measures, embracing the controversial reliance on standardized tests started under President Bush's No Child Left Behind. But the Obama initiative went much further by taking on two old traditions: (1) that teacher contracts are bargained locally without any interference from local and state governments; and (2) that personnel decisions are based on seniority, and therefore involve few consequences for poor performance.
President Obama and other Democrats are challenging teachers unions and urging them to recognize the need for deep reforms -- a bold political move that we see only rarely among political allies. So, it took gall for Governor Romney, Jeb Bush, and others at the Republican National Convention to say that teacher unions control the Democratic Party. If that were true, there wouldn't be a strike.
Despite its boldness, all might have turned out well for the Democrats if not for another seemingly small choice that the Obama Administration made in the design of its Race to the Top initiative. They smartly embraced the idea of multiple measures of teacher performance, but decided to lump all the various measures together into an index and use that as the mother of all measures -- to be used for all personnel decisions. The raging debate since then has been over what percentage of the index should be given to value-added versus the other measures.
To see the problem with this, consider the alternative. In medicine, it is common for doctors to "screen" for major diseases that identify all the people who do have the disease and some who do not. Those who fail the screening test are given another "gold standard" test that is more expensive but almost perfectly accurate. They do not average the screening test together with the gold standard test to create an index. Instead, the two pieces are considered in sequence, as a process.
Effective teachers could be identified the same way. Value-added measures could become the educational equivalent of screening tests. While some low-performing teachers are able to pass them, they are generally inexpensive and somewhat inaccurate. As in medicine, a value-added score, combined with some additional information, should lead us to trigger classroom observations to identify truly low-performing teachers and to provide feedback. If all else fails, within a reasonable amount of time, they could counsel the teacher out or pursue a formal dismissal procedure.
This approach solves a host of political and educational problems. First, it maintains the new and important focus on teacher evaluation and use of student test scores. The NEA and AFT themselves have been rightly critical of the existing evaluation system because it provides so little useful feedback to teachers.
Second, the medical approach ensures that value-added measures are mainly screening devices and never the primary determinants of high-stakes personnel decisions. The ultimate decision would be based on classroom observations by experts. These have much greater support among teachers and provide more useful feedback.
Third, the triage approach helps schools focus their evaluation resources where they count: on low-performing teachers. This is crucial in these tough economic and fiscal times when schools have little to work with.
Fourth, by ensuring that there is enough information, they will be able sleep at night knowing they are making the right personnel decisions and that their tough choices will not be over-turned by lawsuits alleging arbitrary and capricious firings.
The president was right to go down this path, but bold moves without careful attention to detail are sure to blow up. Value-added measures have played a valuable role in sparking this important debate, but they need not do all the heavy lifting for our reformed teacher evaluation systems. We need more than a number, but a process for identifying low-performing teachers and helping them get better.
Mayor Emanuel has a real opportunity to not only do President Obama a favor and keep teachers firmly within the Democratic camp, but more importantly take the lead on re-directing the national school reform movement down a productive path that helps students.