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A Superintendent’s Look at the Chicago Teacher Strike

Longtime school superintendent Randall Collins, Executive Director of the District Administration Leadership Institute shares professional insights on the Chicago teacher strike with Odvard Egil Dyrli, District Administration’s executive editor.

The facts are well-known: Karen Lewis, president of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed reform-minded Jean-Claude Brizard chief of the school system, are locked in a toe-to-toe stalemate resulting in a district-wide strike that stranded 350,000 students in the nation’s third-largest city.

Dyrli: What is the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike really about?

Collins: On the surface, the strike is a labor dispute over job security, so laid-off teachers are hired back by seniority, merit pay, and about tying teacher evaluation to student achievement as measured by test scores. But ultimately the strike is part of a debate taking place across the county between teacher unions and education reformers pushing for teacher evaluation and tenure reform. This is therefore a bottom-line struggle on who controls schools and classrooms, and that affects every district.

Dyrli: What can superintendents in other districts learn from the strike in Chicago?

Collins: I see two major messages: 1) negotiations must never be personal or based on personalities, which backs people into corners, and 2) how reform is implemented is of paramount importance. In Chicago, the Mayor tried to impose reform unilaterally, which absolutely did not work, and the union president resisted, perhaps influenced by what she thought happened in Rochester (where the teacher’s union gave Brizard a vote of no confidence, before he came to Chicago). I know and have worked with Jean-Claude on the AASA Executive Committee, and I always found him to be reasonable. Frankly, the initial proposal to lengthen the relatively short school day should have passed without difficulty, but instead it set the stage for heated conflict.

Dyrli: How would you have handled the Chicago negotiations differently?

Collins: Brizard is surprisingly absent from the current debate, which is a mistake because I believe he would present a voice of reason. And Lewis predicted failure by proclaiming “This is going to be a hot buttery mess,” when Brizard was appointed by the mayor to be the CEO. I was a superintendent for thirty years, and had to close several schools in my career, but my position was always to make sure everyone was represented at the bargaining table, and everyone was kept talking. And with the inevitable push-back on particular items, I worked hard to remain confident, composed and calm, because you will have to say the same thing hundreds of times. In contrast, the negotiations in Chicago remind me of wrestling matches where contestants retire periodically to separate corners.

Dyrli: Why does the Chicago union resist tying teacher evaluation and merit pay to student achievement?

Collins: This is a direct result of our nationwide concern with public accountability, which has to involve schools too, but again it matters how such proposals are introduced and implemented. Many districts are willing to pay to get reform, but while teachers are of course willing to take the money, they may be unwilling to deliver the reform. Taking it a step farther, I support linking administrator bonuses to student achievement. There is also a growing national resistance to high-stakes testing, that superintendents will have to address.

Dyrli: Why does the Chicago union seem opposed to charter schools?

Collins: I can certainly understand that. While charter and magnet schools can be good or bad, they are usually a drain on state and district resources, so the tensions are clear. Still, such programs were borne out of parental demands for choice, and district administrators need to be responsive to those needs.

Dyrli: I once wrote an editorial titled “Re-, Re-, Re-, Reform,” because calls for education reform seem to come each and every year. The union in Chicago finally said, “We’re done with reform!” so what are your thoughts about that?

Collins: I agree with you to some extent, but current calls for reform have much more substance. This is partially due to immediate access to online information and websites where taxpayers can discuss issues and students can evaluate their teachers. Years ago, we hoped we could get two or three quotes into newspapers that might be published a week later, but now countless messages can be posted in minutes.

Dyrli: A colleague said that if district administrators acted responsibly and ethically, teacher unions would not be necessary.

Collins: I would say that is somewhat accurate. But unions do much to improve schools, though I have found that the AFT is generally more open to change than the NEA. However, if the AFT is unsuccessful in stopping Chicago’s reform efforts, the results will ripple across districts throughout the nation.

Dyrli: Are there concluding thoughts about the strike you would like to share?

Collins: I believe it was not a good idea for the Chicago union to take on these issues at a time when they are receiving a healthy raise in an urban district where poverty and unemployment are common; it is not a hill that I would choose to die on. I also realize that my comments will not be entirely popular with colleagues, but that’s the way I feel, and I trust that the thoughts will initiate thinking. I look forward to talking with fellow administrators at the next DA Leadership Institute, and staying in touch.

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