The Real Problem with Rahm's School Reforms in Chicago

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing a school reform agenda backed by the Obama administration that is at the center of the strike that the Chicago Teachers Union is now waging in the third largest school district in the country.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been pushing a school reform agenda backed by the Obama administration that is at the center of the strike that the Chicago Teachers Union is now waging in the third largest school district in the country.

This is not about whether or not you think the union should have called a strike as it did on Monday, but rather about the central problemwith the reforms that Emanuel has been advocating: There's no real proof that they systemically work, and in some cases, there is strong evidence that they may be harmful.

The reforms championed by Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Obama, have been pushed by Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, and implemented in a number of states.

These include merit pay, an expansion of charter schools, teacher and principal assessment systems that are linked to student standardized test scores, a longer school day and job security for veteran teachers.

The union is also striking for financial reasons, but even the union president, Karen Lewis, said the two sides were very close on those. It's the other issues that are proving to be bigger problems.

Here are some things you should know about some of the major issues:

Test-based evaluation and merit pay

Reformers like Emanuel want to use as a key measure of principal and teacher evaluation the standardized test scores of students, but assessment experts across the country say these tests aren't designed for this purpose and that it is an invalid evaluation tool.

A number of states have passed laws requiring that test scores be used in evaluation in varying degrees, but Emanuel is at the upper edge with his plan to have the testing ultimately make up half of an educator's evaluation.

In fact, Emanuel received an open letter earlier this year from scores of professors and researchers from 16 universities throughout the Chicago metropolitan area saying this about test-based evaluation system for educators:

...The new evaluation system for teachers and principals centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education of Chicago's children. We believe it is our ethical obligation to raise awareness about how the proposed changes not only lack a sound research basis, but in some instances, have already proven to be harmful...

You can read the entire letter here

A major report by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, reported last year that:

The standardized test scores that have been trumpeted to show improvement in the schools provide limited information about the causes of improvements or variability in student performance.This would be true, presumably, for any school system that use standardized tests as a measure of achievement.

This hasn't stopped the fabulously wealthy Gates Foundation from spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pilot evaluation systems that include test scores. Gates is a brilliant man but on school reform he is no expert. Unfortunately, he has an outsized say in the direction of reform because he can fund whatever he wants to. (The same holds true for other billionaires with school reform agendas that don't stand up to the evidence.)

Some of the country's best school systems use multiple measures to evaluate teachers that don't include test scores, and they work just fine. Here's one great post on how to do evaluation the right way.

Merit pay, or performance pay, is just what it sounds like -- giving more money to educators for doing a great job. But the idea that offering more money will provide an incentive for teachers and principals to do a better job doesn't actually work in the real world.

In fact, it's been tried over and over since the 1920s, according to education historian Diane Ravitch, and failed every single time. The most comprehensive trial of teacher merit pay, conducted by economists at Vanderbilt University's National Center for Performance Incentives, discovered that merit pay made no difference.Why? Teachers would like to make more money but most still work as hard as they can whether they get a bonus for it or not.

Besides, teachers also know that competing for bonus money destroys cooperation that is critical to a good teaching environment in a school, and most important, how "merit" is determined is not simple if you want to be fair.

There have recently been some studies on "loss aversion" -- a psychological finding that losing something makes us feel worse than gaining the same thing makes us feel better -- works to help incentivize teachers to do their best works. The studies are nonsense, as you can see here.

You may have read about some recent studies that show merit pay does work. Be careful to check methodology when you look at study results and whether the people who did them had a vested interest in the outcome.

Here are some more posts you can read on the subject:

[The long unsuccessful history of merit pay; Why merit pay for teachers sounds good -- but isn't; Why merit pay doesn't work for teachers; Does merit pay really increase teacher retention?]

Charter schools

Emanuel wants to expand the number of public charter schools -- which don't have teachers unions -- in the city. But they are not a systemic fix to ailing urban education.

This Chicago Sun-Times story from late 2011 says:

Chicago charter school franchises produced wildly uneven results -- even among different campuses of the same chain -- on state achievement test data released Wednesday for the first time in more than a decade.

Since Emanuel believes in the validity of test scores as an assessment tool, he ought to take this into account. In fact, the same is true wherever charter schools exist, some are good, but most don't do better than traditional public schools.

There are also big questions about whether charter schools pick and choose their students, resulting in different populations of students than the traditional public school that may be down the street. And critics say that many are being run by for-profit companies that are more interested in making money than educating students.

Here are some posts you can read about this:

[The big business of charter schools; Are charter schools still public?; Why states should say no to charter schools; A charter network with ties to a Turkish Muslim preacher]

Longer school day

In July, the Chicago Teachers Union and Emanuel/Chicago Board of Education came to an interim agreement on extending the school day. Chicago's elementary school students had the shortest day of any urban district in the country. -- five hours and 45 minutes. (The national average is 6.7 hours in school.)

High school students were in school for seven hours. Under the agreement, elementary school students would see their day extended to nearly seven hours and high school students to 7 1/2 hours.

It seems like it may be intuitive that the longer a child is in school, the more they can learn, but of course, it's not necessarily so. It all depends on how schools actually use that time, and some ways are more productive than others. Merely extending each class by minutes doesn't do much, though that's what some districts that extend their school day have done.

Reformers often say that successful school systems in countries such as Finland, Japan and Korea spend more time in school than American students, but researchers say that is, on average, not true.

Here's a post you can read on this:

What new research says on longer school day

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 Washington Post