Before Others Replicate Chicago’s Teacher Contract, Let’s See the Impact on Kids

Chicago’s recent teacher contract negotiations drew national attention. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were eager to “kiss the ring” of the Chicago Teachers Union. Celebrities like John Cusack and Chance the Rapper also hastened to throw their support behind the union. The politics of the negotiations were much more complicated than these endorsements might suggest, given the politically-left leanings of the elected woman of color whose team bargained with the CTU. Nonetheless, states and school districts throughout the nation will undoubtedly consider the policies found in CTU’s newly-ratified contract.

So, the answer to the most burning question still lingers: Beyond missing 11 days of instruction, how does the new contract impact Chicago’s children? Well, I decided to do a deeper dive into the contract, and this is what I found.

Some Good News, But Trouble, Too

In all, the contract includes some provisions with the potential to strengthen Chicago Public Schools, but also some policies with more troubling implications for students.

Chicago’s students should now be able to see an increase in the number of support staff, like nurses and counselors, and a replacement of harmful discipline practices with restorative approaches. The contract engages special education teachers in the curriculum-building process and attempts to provide some continuity for students who need special education services. The contract also supports early learning teachers by giving them preparation time and invests in promoting classroom assistants to teachers—many of whom are parents and people of color who are passionate about educating children but lack the qualifications to teach. 

Unfortunately, there are other areas where the wins are more dubious. From scaling back teacher evaluation to addressing class size by restricting school options, the contract includes provisions that center the wants of adults and systems over what kids and families need. 

Smaller Classes, but at What Cost?

A key talking point offered by striking teachers was that this fight was for smaller class sizes. My preferred left-wing news outlets would often carry these soundbites—though to learn how we could get there, I had to do the homework myself. So, did teachers get the smaller class sizes they wanted? In short, the answer is yes, but at a cost. 

The contract allocates over $35 million a year to a committee that will dole out funds to solve for oversized classrooms. Some of the highlighted remedies in the contract include: more teachers (Yay!), more assistants (Yay!), and developing a plan to end open enrollment for parents (Wait, what?).

Certain schools attract more students, many from affluent families, which does have the potential of increasing class sizes. That’s a fair problem for the district to address, but one that still requires some caution and intentional effort to center the needs of historically underserved students. When low-income families don’t have the luxury to move into neighborhoods with better schools, they depend on having the freedom to choose a school that might not be the one closest to their homes. Any policy change that restricts school choice simply has to make sure our underserved students are not harmed in the process. 

The contract also extends a cap on charter schools, which further blocks students from being able to attend charter schools authorized by Chicago Public Schools. This is a move that’s truly about systems over kids. Calling for accountability and outcomes in the charter sector is one thing; setting arbitrary caps without looking into how that might impact students is another. 

This Teacher Contract Takes A Great Leap Backward on Teacher Evaluation

Should educators be evaluated based on their students’ learning and growth? Over the last decade, laws have been implemented to ensure districts evaluate their teachers thoroughly, with some level of consistency, and give their teachers the tools they need to thrive in the spaces where they’re killing it and improve where they are falling short. The contract takes a giant leap backward on evaluating and improving teachers’ effectiveness. 

First, state law requires teacher evaluations to include student proficiency and growth, but if the laws ever happen to change, the contract guarantees that Chicago’s teachers will no longer be evaluated based on their students’ learning. The contract also allows teachers to collaborate with observers to schedule their formal observations, which might sound reasonable, but ultimately means observers miss the chance to get an authentic understanding of what the average day looks like. And where the contract requires the termination of consistently low-performing substitute teachers, it allows ineffective teachers to more easily leave an improvement plan with very little follow up. In all, Chicago Public Schools will have less leverage to evaluate and improve teaching than they had last year.

How Can We Increase Pay and Improve Outcomes for Students?

Workers everywhere deserve adequate pay, benefits, and due process. The contract makes amazing progress to protect teachers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, among other should-be protected classes. It gives teachers more preparation time and increases teacher salaries. 

But across-the-board salary increases are a very blunt, indirect tool for stabilizing, much less improving the student experience in a district. In fact, a majority of educators want to see pay increases based on something other than just years on the job. So how can we increase salaries and benefits and also improve outcomes for students?

Chicago could have increased salaries based on licensure shortage areas or increased pay where more and more effective teachers are needed. Increasing salaries across the board for all educators without working to attract teachers in hard-to-staff schools or attracting more science and math educators has no equitable impact on the students that need the most. 

The pay structures for CTU teachers contrast sharply with those for substitute teachers, where the contract allows for pay bumps for substitutes if they work at high-needs schools or if they teach special education. Divvying pay increases based on addressing the historic oppression of students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students makes more sense than paying all educators on a rigid schedule. It’s also more equitable.

As Chicago’s Teacher Contract Goes, So Goes the Nation?

You might be thinking, “Why are you writing this? You’re not even from Chicago!” Many of these policies are not confined to the Windy City, and are in fact being discussed in school board meetings and legislative hearing rooms throughout the nation and in my own backyard.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers and the statewide teachers union are currently calling for a moratorium on charter schools—not based on how well each school serves our most underserved kids, but purely based on anti-charter politics. Calls to increase teacher pay are often coupled with a refusal to differentiate pay based on student needs while student learning is decoupled from teacher and school evaluations.

Chicago’s contract highlights proposals permeating our nation’s public-school systems. Before we replicate them, parents, students, and community stakeholders deserve a fair assessment of the impact on kids first, then educators.

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Josh Crosson

From local neighborhoods to the State Capitol, Josh advocates to ensure that all Minnesota students, especially those most underserved, have access to a great education. He previously worked in D.C., where he transformed his passion for public policy into a fulfilling vocation, or, as his friends put it, made a living out of doing something “activisty”—first at the Human Rights Campaign and later on Capitol Hill. Josh holds a bachelor’s in Political Science and Religion from Santa Clara University. When he’s not working for Minnesota’s kids or spending time with his partner, Jon, in their North Minneapolis home, Josh operates an adult LGBT kickball league that benefits local homeless youth.