PI Original Matthew Blake Tuesday September 11th, 2012, 7:20pm

Obama, Race To The Top And The Chicago Teachers Strike

The CTU strike is more than a political thicket for the president. It also tests the ramifications of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s most impactful education policy and one crafted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago Public Schools.

President Barack Obama is in a delicate situation with the Chicago Teachers Union strike. He has the re-election endorsement of CTU parent union the American of Federation of Teachers, but has also made Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the president’s former chief of staff, his go-to Democratic Party Super PAC Fundraiser. CTU has targeted Emanuel throughout the strike, including chants at yesterday’s massive downtown rally of “Hey ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!”

But the strike is more than a political thicket for the president. It also tests the ramifications of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s biggest education policy and one crafted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago Public Schools.

Race to the Top set in motion policies that rankle CTU including a new teacher evaluation policy tied to student test scores.

A Race To Teacher Evaluations

The federal grant program was part of the 2009 stimulus bill, inviting state governments to apply for money if they demonstrated a solid plan in four interrelated areas: standards and assessments for student success, data systems that measured student success, recruitment and retention of effective principals and teachers, and the turnaround of failing schools.

Race to the Top effectively got states to rewrite their education laws so as to get a slice of the $4.35 billion in available grant money. In 2010, the program’s first year of implementation, 41 states including Illinois applied with just two, Delaware and Tennessee, getting money.

A New York Times August 2010 editorial declared that, “The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative has shown that competitive grant programs can be a powerful tool to spur innovation in education.”

Evaluating teachers on what they add to student test scores was not the only “innovation.” For example, CPS is one of many school districts with “turnaround” programs where teachers and staff are replaced at so-called failing schools.

But Illinois saw teacher evaluations as a ticket to federal cash.

In January 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, or PERA, into law. The law said that by September 2012 each Illinois school district must establish a new method of performance evaluation for teachers and principals. PERA borrowed liberally from Race to the Top’s language including that student test score “growth” must be a “significant factor” in teacher evaluations. “PERA was passed purely to get Race to the Top dollars,” says Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst at the disability rights group Access Living.

This gambit failed as Illinois missed out on major Race to the Top money in subsequent rounds. Last December, the Obama administration finally awarded the Land of Lincoln $42.8 million. The Chicago News Cooperative reported at the time that state officials found the delay and relatively small grant “baffling” and “mystifying.”

But a key reason for Illinois not being a major grant receipient was that state teacher unions, including CTU, would not support Race to the Top. “The unions would not sign on to the deal,” Estvan says. “It was embarrassing to Duncan.”

The Current Stand Off

Hammering out a teacher evaluation plan, which CPS developed its own framework for in March, is seen as a fundamental cause of the strike by the district and, to a lesser extent, the union.

As PI reported today, CTU wants a performance evaluation policy that minimizes how “significant” a factor to make student test scores. The union has agreed to 25 percent of teacher evaluation being based on test scores, which is lower than what the district intially wanted. Part of the union's reluctance to tie major parts to teacher evaluation to student performance stems from their argument that teachers cannot neatly show their value by adding to a student’s test scores because the lives of so many CPS students are in flux. Eighty-seven percent of CPS students meet the federal definition of low-income.

Also, there is no conclusive evidence that value-added tests measure teacher performance.

Nonetheless, federal and state education policies have put CPS and CTU into a situation where they must come to some agreement on a teacher evaluation plan.

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