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Chicago Tribune Op-ed: High Hopes and a High Bar for Chicago's Teachers


3/23/2013

The following op-ed was published by the Chicago Tribune on March 24, 2013. 

We Chicagoans respect and admire the city's schoolteachers and, like teachers, we want to be sure every child receives the education he or she needs to succeed in college, career and life. That's the critical finding in a new poll conducted by the Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Tribune in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization. NORC surveyed 1,010 Chicagoans, including 520 parents with children in Chicago public schools. The results show Chicagoans support efforts to improve teacher quality and ensure that every child is learning in every class.

Why do this survey now? Though school closings are dominating the news right now, a new, robust teacher evaluation system is being rolled out, which we believe will have a significant impact on teachers and students. It uses a combination of in-class observation and student performance to help principals identify teachers who are the very best and help us all learn from their success. The system will also help principals identify teachers who need extra support — and make sure they get it. Teachers are doing incredibly hard work and they need an evaluation system that gives them honest feedback, is fair, and provides the support they need to do their very best in the classroom. If well-implemented, this new system could be our best chance in decades to strengthen excellent teaching.

We wanted to hear directly from Chicago residents about their perspectives on public education, expectations for our children, and teacher quality. The survey findings tell us a lot about views regarding teacher quality and teacher evaluations; school quality; parental responsibility; and the role of the teachers union.

First of all, parents really like their children's teachers. Nearly 90 percent of CPS parents are "satisfied" or "very satisfied." Most, 53 percent of respondents, also support the right of teachers to strike in order to have their voices heard by policymakers.

At the same time, by large majorities, most of those surveyed believe CPS has historically rated far too many teachers as "excellent" or "superior." The survey revealed broad support for a robust system of evaluation based, in part, on objective measures of student achievement. Specifically, 63 percent of people think the recently adopted CPS evaluation system — under which 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student academic growth — does not go far enough. Most think student learning should be an even bigger factor in assessing a teacher's effectiveness. And when asked what would be the most important factor in choosing a teacher for one's child, the top choice was "evidence of student learning" — not "years of experience" (38 percent vs. 8.5 percent).

How long should a struggling teacher have to improve? More than 60 percent think one year is enough time and agree that any more than a year is "unfair to children." There was also strong support for reforming tenure to allow for removal of consistently underperforming teachers and support for rewarding high-performing teachers with more money. Finally, by a whopping margin of 72 percent to 20 percent, people agreed that if layoffs are needed to balance the district's budget, they should be based on teacher effectiveness rather than years of experience.

Parents recognize their own responsibility as well. More than 80 percent agreed they were "partners" with teachers in educating their child and that it is not fair to blame teachers when students fall behind — "if parents do not do their part." Similarly, when asked how they would react if their child's teacher was struggling, 61 percent said they would work harder as parents to support the teacher and the child, compared with 39 percent who said they would try to transfer their child to another teacher or pressure the principal to replace the teacher.

With school closings on the horizon and the first teacher strike in 25 years fresh in our collective memory, it is worth noting that Chicagoans strongly want management and labor to come together to improve the system. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed want the Chicago Teachers Union to "partner with the district in improving schools and helping teachers get better." Eighty-nine percent think the union should work with the district to agree on budget cuts, and 4 of 5 think they should work together on school closings. Just 30 percent think the district should solve these problems alone without input from the union.

The key to improving public education in Chicago is to support the men and women in the front of the classroom doing the hard work to help children learn. As national studies show, the single most important in-school factor impacting student achievement is the quality of the teachers in the classroom. That's why the Joyce Foundation has funded numerous efforts to elevate and strengthen teaching and to evaluate what is working (and not) in public education.

That is why we and others worked so hard to put in place this new evaluation system. Now, teachers, principals and administrators will have better information to help struggling teachers improve. Poor implementation, if it is perceived to be unfair or does not include the promised supports, could leave teachers disheartened and dismissive. We cannot go back to the old, meaningless evaluation system. We must bandtogether to not let politics or scare tactics impede progress.

So today, based on what this poll tells us, we see three unique opportunities.

• We see a new opportunity for CPS to thoughtfully and collaboratively implement teacher evaluation in a way that helps teachers develop and drive instruction. Teachers are justifiably anxious about evaluation and frustrated by the tone of the dialogue around accountability, which too often sounds like the goal is about firing a few bad teachers instead of helping the vast majority get better. The needs of students and teachers need to be at the center of this work. The school district must make sure resources are available to help teachers improve. Principals must be equipped to help to coach and support teachers (46.1 percent of those surveyed believe principals should be primarily responsible for helping teachers improve).

• We see an opportunity for the CTU and its members to work in partnership with the district to help teacher evaluation succeed. We all know change is hard, but meaningful teacher evaluation is fundamentally giving teachers the dignity and stature they deserve and, most important, helping them realize their goal of student success.

• Finally, because we all have a stake in public education, we see an opportunity for the larger Chicago community — parents, school activists, reformers, elected officials, foundations, business groups and concerned citizens — to embrace the core values, the aspirations and the spirit of mutual respect that is clearly reflected in this survey. Let's drop the harsh and divisive rhetoric and focus on finding common ground. The ultimate winners will not only be our schoolchildren and teachers, but the city itself, whose future is tied directly to the quality of our schools.

Ellen Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation.

Read the full article here

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