Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Chicago’s Unionized Teacher Evaluations, Terminations Deserve a Failing Grade

The New Teacher Project (a teacher training and education reform non-profit whose founder just became Chancellor of D.C.’s nightmarishly bad school system) came out with an important new report yesterday on how Chicago Public Schools evaluates and transfers its teachers. The verdict for the Chicago Teachers Union (whose contract with the district is of course key to how schools are staffed) is mixed.

The good news first: the “dance of the lemons” has more or less ceased in Chicago. Contrary to common practice in union agreements, Chicago’s unionized teachers cannot transfer schools with impunity, “bumping” out less senior teachers, but instead both principals and teachers must agree on transfers. The result? “Teachers and principals across levels of school poverty agree that the current transfer and reassignment processes are effective” (from page 3 of TNTP’s study).

The district’s union-negotiated process for evaluating teachers, however, is a completely different story. As the Chicago Tribune put it, between 2003 and 2006 “[o]nly three of every 1,000 teachers in the school system received an “unsatisfactory” rating.” Fifty-six percent of veteran Chicago principals admitted to TNTP that they inflated teacher ratings, but the reasons why (page 48) are striking:

  • 30% said the teacher’s tenure would prevent dismissal regardless of the rating;
  • 34% said it wasn’t worth enduring the lengthy union grievance proceedings;
  • 51% said that the union contract makes it difficult to lower the rating of a teacher that has previously received high ratings;
  • and 73% said that the performance evaluation doesn’t actually evaluate performance.

It gets worse. TNTP found that “between 2003 and 2006, only nine teachers received two or more “unsatisfactory” ratings and none was dismissed.” Deeper in the report, TNTP’s survey of 464 Chicago principals determined that a staggering 83% of bad teachers with tenure are “rarely or never terminated” (page 49). The union contract looms large in principals’ decisions not to pursue a bad tenured teacher’s termination, with 55% of principals agreeing that “[t]he documentation required [to pursue a termination] is too time-consuming” (the top reason) and 34% agreeing that “[t]he risk of a cumbersome grievance process is too great.”