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In my seven years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I have been “displaced,” or reassigned, five times as a result of the district’s seniority policy.

Chicago teachers
Susan Volbrecht

Take last year, for example: It was my sixth year teaching in CPS. In the first few weeks of school, my students were already making progress toward academic goals. I had received excellent evaluations every year, been active in after-school programs, and worked seasonally to certify new teachers.

But I was still dreading the 20th day of school, when enrollment is recalculated and teachers can be let go without consultation from principals because of enrollment numbers. On that day, when a morning meeting was announced, I knew someone was losing his or her job. It wasn’t a mystery—I also knew that that someone would be me.

For the entirety of my teaching career, seniority has been the de facto determinant of job security because Chicago’s broken evaluation system has failed to differentiate effective teachers from ineffective teachers. It’s time to change this, and the new REACH evaluation system presents an opportunity to do so. But in order to roll out the new system successfully, more work is needed. The weight of (sometimes flawed) standardized test scores and the quality of observers need to be regulated by both the union and the district.

In the wake of the strike, Chicago teachers have a lot to think about. As ambitious professionals, my colleagues and I want job security, transparency from the district, and the resources to do our jobs well. We also want to be evaluated fairly for how well we’re doing what we love: teaching. If the district truly values teachers as professionals, as leaders, and as life-changers for children, it should use the evaluation tool to ensure that effective teachers remain in the classroom.

To ensure progress as we move forward, the union and district need to work together to identify and develop excellent teachers by implementing a holistic evaluation system, and they need to put that system to use in staffing decisions.

Quality-blind layoffs have driven many highly effective teachers from our district and even from the classroom entirely. Senate Bill 7 has promised to change this, giving teacher evaluations greater weight in layoff decisions, in addition to seniority. But for SB 7 to have its intended impact, changes are needed to maximize the evaluations’ authenticity, and the system has to be rolled out with teacher input and buy-in.

The bottom line is that performance, including evidence of student growth, must have a direct impact on a teacher’s job security. Great teachers, especially those who work in challenging environments, should be given evaluations that accurately reflect their contributions to school cultures and to students’ academic and personal growth—and those evaluations should matter.

REACH will measure professionalism, student participation and outcomes, classroom environment, and other factors that characterize excellent teachers. It’s not a perfect system: Currently, many teachers have concerns about the value of computer-based examinations in schools with sub-par computers and no technology classes. Another issue, among several, is that teachers in the primary grades, special education, physical education, the arts and other non-tested subjects won’t have standardized test data from the students in their own classrooms, so these teachers’ evaluations will incorporate data for the school’s students in grades 3-8.

Clearly, we need changes to the way we evaluate teachers in non-tested grades and subjects. This is a complex challenge, but it could be remedied in part by measuring student growth in all grade-levels, supporting teachers adequately with the rollout of the Common Core State Standards and using the new Common Core assessments, mandating reading examinations that gauge fluency and comprehension, and creating additional performance tasks using district guidelines.

With a better evaluation system in place, Chicago has the opportunity to identify great teachers and encourage them to stay in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong: Excellent teachers should be rewarded with seniority protections. But other factors, such as a drive for ongoing professional development, high expectations for students, outstanding attendance, the ability to implement feedback, and collaboration—in addition to evidence of student growth—should all play major parts in hiring, layoff and rehiring decisions.

Here in Chicago, the combination of a personnel system that takes into account measures of performance and a new evaluation system that better identifies strong teachers will encourage promising early-career teachers to stick it out, and more effective experienced teachers to stay put.

With the strike behind us, let’s move forward together for the sake of teachers and students. Changes to the evaluation system and ongoing dialogue that includes current teachers will allow us to build a Chicago Public School system that serves all children well.

Susan Volbrecht, a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow, teaches at John W. Cook Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago.

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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. So basically, we take your word that youre a good teacher, that we should make sure you get to keep a job in CPS?

    Remember, toots, it could turn out that all the teachers bumping you are actually better. So stop telling us what the world should do to give you a job.

  2. This commentary is spot on, and very clearly stated. The state of Education in the post “No Child Left Behind” era is one of confusion and non-direction. Our leadership is often not qualified to evaluate and we have yet to devise an evaluation tool which can quantify and qualify what makes a good teacher. You are correct that the current systems of seniority simply ensure that poor teachers keep teaching, and that they can be rewarded for their attendance in the classroom rather than their excellence. I hope that you continue to speak so eloquently on behalf of education. We need excellent minds such as yours to step up. I am so impressed with your leadership Susan, and I am so happy to see your success since your days at Burris.

  3. Dr. CD: “You are correct that the current systems of seniority simply ensure that poor teachers keep teaching,…”
    Please cite any collective bargaining agreement(s) that defines “systems of seniority” as keeping the “poor” versus “good” teacher.
    What is clear and spot on is the rush to put in place evaluation systems that crunch numbers along with careers and spirits.

    Why shouldn’t layoffs be quality-blind? Layoffs are generally the result of budget conditions not a mechanism to fire poor performing teachers. Dismissing a teacher for cause is,and always has been, the principal’s responsibility. It may require observations, paperwork, working with the teacher and time but that is part of the job.The equating of layoffs, seniority, tenure, and evaluations is simply a way to misdirect debate and mislead the public. The ability to dismiss a poor performing teacher has always been possible it isn’t and shouldn’t be easy/automatic.

  4. Both Ms. Volbrecht and Dr. Dougherty are correct in the general tone of their remarks; however, no one should underestimate the significance of the caveats in this contribution’s ninth paragraph, especially the inadequacy of American public schools’ current assessment programmes and our unreadiness for the new ones based on the Common Core. Until these problems are cleared up, there will be no valuable teacher appraisal systems in place, so resolving these issues should be a top priority at the present time. My proposed school, One World Secondary, has already done valuable research on what is currently working in leading systems outside of this country, available to anyone interested.

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