by Sameer Warraich
New leadership is set to take control over Chicago Public Schools, and parents and students are pondering whether these new policy makers will be successful in reforming Chicago's public school system. With a deficit that exceeds $720 million, CPS is in dire need of reformers who can simultaneously reduce costs while increasing the quality of education students receive in Chicago Public Schools.
Climbing pension costs and recent raises and bonuses for teachers have taken a toll on the city's education system. If this trend continues, CPS will be forced to find ways to cover its expenses that will exceed $170 million in 2011-2012.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tasked his leadership team with establishing a road map to improve CPS by lengthening school days and making it more difficult for unions to strike. These actions alone, unfortunately, are not enough. In a recent letter to the Chicago Tribune, a retired high school teacher solely blamed the leadership for the current state of schools in Chicago. She wrote:
The ineffective teacher is there because of an ineffective principal, and the ineffective principal is there because of the ineffective superintendent, and so on. Young and ambitious college graduates have been looking for teaching jobs in the Chicago area but have been largely unsuccessful due to ineffective veteran teachers claiming seniority rights.
Leadership in CPS and in other districts must realize that unless the administration has the power to fire teachers who deserve to be fired-whether it's for not showing up for work, committing a felony, for discrimination, or for failing their students in the classroom, the public education system cannot be reformed no matter how many tax payer dollars the government injects into the system.
Another letter in Chicago Tribune called for a reality check within the education system. Contrary to common belief, Illinois public school teachers receive bigger pension packages than the private school teachers. The average pension for a public school teacher is about $45,000 annually starting at age 55. Retired teachers also receive annual, compound, 3 percent raises throughout their retirement every year until they die. For private school teachers, the average Social Security benefit is just $14,400 annually, which is not available until age 65. Similarly, workers in the private sector work 12 months a year compared to 9 months for public school teachers. The Result?
CPS test scores still lag behind those of suburban districts and even large urban districts across the U.S. Barely 2 of every 10 schools in CPS are scoring high enough on state achievement tests to meet federal standards under No Child Left Behind. Only 5 out of more than 100 city high schools reached the 77.5 percent passing rate on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, according to the 2010 spring results. Thirty schools failed to post even a 10 percent passing rate.
When public school teachers have little fear of being fired and are promised annual step raises no matter their performance, they have no incentive to increase the quality of education they provide. To receive "performance bonuses," teachers can juke the stats and pass students who are performing at a level well below of their private school counterparts. Mayor Emanuel, therefore, must develop a stricter teacher-evaluation process that is distinct from the current method which seems to be too lenient. In an opinion piece written by the Institute's Senior Director of Government affairs, Collin Hitt, mentions:
The New Teacher Project reviewed 41,174 teacher evaluations from Chicago, Rockford and Elgin, given between the 2004 and 2008 school years. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of all teachers received an "Unsatisfactory" rating, despite the well documented shortcomings of the schools themselves. Moreover, teacher evaluations included little or no student testing data.
Thanks to some new policies passed earlier this year, evaluations will now include student data. But merely using student data is not sufficient. Teacher and principal evaluations must include input from parents and the public, as well. Once these evaluations are collected, they should be used to reward the district's best teachers and provide more skillful training for those who have not performed at the highest level.
Consequently, when Mayor Emmanuel sits at the bargaining table with the union leaders, school principals and administrators, he must streamline and simplify the process of firing a tenured but ineffective teacher. According to Peter Suderman of Reason Magazine, it takes between two and five years, and as many as 27 steps to fire a public school teacher. As a result, many school principals don't even bother to deal with the issue. This must be dealt with as soon as possible so as to let young and better qualified candidates to take teaching jobs once the ineffective veteran teachers are fired. This would not only provide the school system with a larger, more competitive pool of candidates to choose from, but also increase in competition and supply of teachers. Using the true and tested rule of supply and demand, this in turn would drive down the wages, which could then help CPS alleviate some of its operating costs.