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Teachers Unions into the Twenty-First Century: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

by Charles Tocci & Melissa Barton - November 25, 2012

The Chicago Teachers Union strike has been alternately characterized as a long awaited stand by organized labor and a self-serving choice to place teachersí needs above studentsí. As educators deeply invested in the success of Chicagoís schools, we view both of these takes as simplistic and biased. Because teachers mediate among individual studentsí needs, educational policies, and the realities of schools, their knowledge and interests are central to education generally. As they have in the past and still do in the present, teachers unions must continue evolving to remain indispensible to the pursuit of excellent, equitable schooling for all children.

Teachers unions have long served as a counter-weight to politicians who seek to control schools.  Mayoral control may be a popular, politically efficient set-up, but it has proven to be troubling for schools, students, and families, particularly in our city, Chicago.  Mayors have used the public schools to dole out patronage (Bill Thompson in the teens and twenties, Edward Kelly in the thirties), to reinforce racial segregation (Richard J. Daley), and to cater to middle class families with magnet schools at the expense of the poor (Richard M. Daley).1  At each of these points, teachers unions offered alternative visions that formed the foundation for successful public schools: professional standards for teaching, due process protections against arbitrary firing, and advocacy for equitable conditions across schools. Today, Chicago’s schools showcase the legacy of this contentious history.

The Chicago Teachers Union has followed in this tradition of positioning teachers against mayoral policy initiatives. The spread of charter schools, on which Mayor Rahm Emanuel has staked his school improvement plans, has had the same mixed results in Chicago as elsewhere. Presently, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) plans to close up to 120 public schools and welcome 60 charters, some of which will directly take over existing neighborhood schools (Ahmed-Ullah, 2012).  This is despite the study of Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2009), which showed that 83% of charters perform the same as or worse than comparable neighborhood schools. And, as analysis from Rutgers professor Bruce D. Baker (2012, August 23 & 24) suggests, this comparable performance is in spite of lower proportions of “hard-to-teach” populations: low-income students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency. Further, the UCLA Civil Rights Project’s report “Choice without Equity” (2010) shows that charters increase segregation along racial and class lines.  These new charters will sit in a district already among the most segregated in the country (Orfield, Kucsera, & Seigel-Hawley, 2012).

Another central point of contention between the CTU and CPS—and in the larger education reform debates—is the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Numerous studies2 assert that current attempts at value-added modeling (VAM) are deeply flawed and unreliable due to large margins of error and numerous uncontrolled factors. Moreover, VAM has already had negative unintended consequences, such as narrowing of the curriculum and unproductive, undue stress on students and teachers. The push to incorporate test scores through policy schemes such as “Race to the Top,” despite significant flaws, has been compared to early 20th century IQ testing and the minimum-competency exams of the seventies, both of which are now recognized by historians as having been racially discriminatory (Schneider & Hutt, 2012).

Behind these issues, a new patronage has emerged: corporations, foundations like the Gates Foundation, and wealthy elites like venture capitalist Bruce Rauner (advisor to Mayor Emmanuel) and Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker (a CPS Board member) have financed charter school networks, reform organizations, and for-profit programs. Given these stakeholders’ role in funding recent campaigns—like the Gates and Broad Foundations’ “Strong American Schools” agenda, which poured $24 million into the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns–- educators must investigate thoroughly the relationships among benefactors, for-profit education companies, and politicians.  The convergence of these power brokers shapes policy and practice at all levels and should be critiqued as the workings of power.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike had countless costs for the city of Chicago, not least its $25 million expenditure on contingency programming (and untold losses in productivity for the many parents who took time away from work to care for their children). But the strike has benefited the city as well, with the national attention it has brought to these issues, and the time it has given teachers, clinicians, and other school personnel to enter the conversations that have gone on around and about them, but not with them.

Organized teachers provide a vision of public schooling grounded in the daily realities of children, communities, and schools. The experience of teachers can provide a counterbalance to the unequal distribution of power that has become so common in American public schooling. Teachers are and have been professionals with great expertise in child development, classroom best practices, and school organization. By contrast, only one of the seven appointed members of the Chicago Public School Board of Education has ever been an educator, and none of the other six has any real experience in the schools where we work. The career development priorities of unions, as reflected in recent contracts, support continued education and professional learning; teachers also innovate in their classrooms by reading and generating research. Indeed, it is alarming but not surprising that the only research-based proposal to come out of this recent contract fight came from the Chicago Teachers’ Union, which used its recommendations as a basis to argue against more charters and the hasty implementation of value-added evaluations.

Teachers unions of the 21st century can evolve to become as dynamic, diverse, and widespread as learning.  This will be necessary as the forms of schooling will differentially change for various populations: online schooling for some, New Orleans “recovery district” replications for some, traditional “prep schools” for some, and so on.  Whatever forms schools take, organized teachers can assert their influence by focusing on central facets of their work: cooperation, professional expertise, and advocacy for students.  This is possible because teachers themselves are situated in schooling as creative mediators between policy and individual children.  This unique positioning does not essentially change when moving from the classroom to the internet or elsewhere because the work of designing educational experiences and engaging individual children are what mark out teaching as practice.  That is, where educational judgment is applied, teaching occurs.

In the near- and long-terms, unions will still need to fulfill their traditional role of guaranteeing better compensation and protecting jobs through the due process guarantees of tenure, regardless of the forms schooling takes. Backed by due process, teachers are partners in school improvement and strong advocates for good working conditions that are conducive to learning.  This necessarily entails increasing the amount of cooperation among teachers, especially since, as Hatch (2009) has pointed out, competition at all levels of schooling is increasing while resources are becoming scarcer.  We have seen, and Goodard & Goodard (2007) have demonstrated, how high levels of teacher cooperation within a school generate academic benefits for students.  The strike helped to promote cooperation and strengthen social bonds among teachers (Lutton 2012). The next wave of collective bargaining agreements between unions and districts must find ways to carve out time for and incentivize cooperation and collaboration among teachers as well as between teachers and other school staff.

Unions should collaborate with districts to put new tools of education, such as mobile computing and fabrication laboratories, in the hands of all students. But then districts and unions should both step back and allow teachers to find the best ways to facilitate children’s learning.  The best practices of the future will only emerge from the work of teaching with such tools; they can be refined and shared most readily by union-cultivated networks of expertise. This collaborative power will be enhanced by broadening the traditional district-specific locals to bring charter, “virtual school” teachers, graduate student teachers, and higher education adjuncts (freelance educators) into unions.  Further, 21st-century models of teaching will require teachers unions to carve out new career ladders: mentor for aspiring and new teachers, master teacher to coach colleagues, online educator, curriculum developer, and so on. Proficiency in these various skillsets can be peer-certified, meaning that unions can tap the expertise of their membership to define and validate the nature of the work.

To these ends, union locals and national organizations should use their scope and resources to devise and test new ideas in practice.  In order to begin this work, local unions will need to pool resources and collaborate with external experts to craft innovative proposals for teacher evaluation, peer-certification, and so on.  Teachers unions can then coordinate to pilot, study, refine, and disseminate these policies in strategically chosen districts.  Deliberately field-testing innovations in this way provides an empirical basis for informed decision-making about school improvement.

All of this takes time, and we have heard over and over again that our most disadvantaged students don’t have it. But we also need to stop treating education as if it is in crisis. The patient is not bleeding out; she has a chronic illness. There is a big difference between doing something—whether to please those demanding something be done, or out of desperation for a solution—and finding the right thing.  It’s time to allow and help teachers to do the right thing for their students.


 For a discussion of the politics and impacts of mayoral control in Chicago, see Carl (2009).

2 For instance, Amrein-Beardsely & Collin (2012) and Newton, Darling-Hammond, Haertel, & Thomas (2010).


Ahmed-Ullah, N. S. (2012, October 11). Charter networks being urged to take over troubled city schools. Chicago Tribune.  Retrieved from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-11/news/ct-met-cps-charter-expansion-20121011_1_charter-networks-charter-schools-school-closings.

Amrein-Beardsley, A. & Collins, C. (2012). The SAS education value-added assessment system (EVAAS): Its intended and unintended effects in a major urban school system. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Baker, B. (2012, August 23). Parsing charter school disability enrollments. Retrieved from: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/parsing-charter-school-disability-enrollments-in-pa-and-nj.

Baker, B. (2012, August 24). Parsing poverty: Charter market segmentation across & within U.S. cities. Retrieved from: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/parsing-poverty-charter-market-segmentation-across-within-u-s-cities/

Carl, J. (2009). “Good politics is good government”: The troubling history of mayoral control of the public schools in Twentieth Century Chicago. American Journal of Education, 115, 305-336.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in sixteen states. Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

Frankenburg, E., Seigel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. (2010). Choice without equity: Charter school segregation and the need for civil rights standards. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project.

Goddard, Y. & Goddard, R.D. (2007). A theoretical and empirical investigation of teacher collaboration for school improvement and student achievement in public elementary schools. Teachers College Record, 109 (4), 877-896.

Hatch, T. (2009, December 7). Facing the flawed assumptions of education reform. Retrieved from: http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news.htm?articleID=7283

Lutton, L. (2012, October 4). For teachers, new closeness is strike’s silver lining. In Chicago, IL: Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ).

Newton, X., Darling-Hammond, L., Haertel, E., & Thomas, E. (2010). Value-added modeling of teacher effectiveness: An exploration of stability across models and contexts. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 18 (23).

Orfield, G., Kucsera, J., & Seigel-Hawley, G. (2012). E pluribus…separation: Deepening double segregation for more children. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project.

Pearson, R. (2012, September 19). Emmanuel advisor Bruce Rauner blasts Chicago Teachers Union leadership. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-19/news/ct-met-bush-institute-event-20120919_1_chicago-teachers-union-lazy-teachers-jean-claude-brizard.

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2012, September 14). Chicago teachers’ strike, performance evaluation, an school reform. [Web log entry]. Retrieved from: http://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/chicago-teachers-strike-performance-evaluation-and-school-reform-jack-schneider-and-ethan-hutt

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 25, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16946, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:58:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Charles Tocci
    Loyola University Chicago
    E-mail Author
    CHARLES TOCCI is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago.
  • Melissa Barton
    University of Chicago
    E-mail Author
    MELISSA BARTON is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago as well as a teacher and union delegate in the Chicago Public Schools.
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