An Interview with Jacob Vigdor: What are they REALLY striking about in Chicago?

Sep 10, 2012 by

Jacob Vigdor Duke University professor

In this interview, Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor, who researches teacher labor markets and merit pay, responds to questions about the recent Chicago teacher’s strike.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)      Professor Vigdor, no one likes the word “ strike  “ but often sides do not see eye-to-eye on one or two points, or maybe several points. What is your assessment of the Chicago Teachers Strike?

Negotiations work best when both sides have something to bring to the table, or at least when the side asking for something has something extra to offer as well.  In this case, the school district came into the negotiation with its hands tied.  By state law, they are required to implement an evaluation system that uses student test scores to assess teachers.  In an ordinary negotiation, if you had to subject your employees to more stringent conditions like that, you’d offer them a raise, extra benefits, or something else to sweeten the deal.  But in this case, the poor economy has left Chicago with few resources to do things like that.

2)      When one side cannot get the concessions they want, they begin to ask for more money- True or False?

Sometimes, but not always.  People say that “there’s a price for everything” and that is true, but labor negotiations can be about a whole lot more than money.

3)      I am going to use two words that may get to the heart of the matter—Teacher Evaluations—am I off on this?

That’s the heart of the matter.  My read on Chicago’s salary offer is that it isn’t all that bad, certainly not a deal-breaker.  The evaluations are a sticking point, and as I mentioned before the city’s hands are tied.

4)      No teacher wants to be penalized for having to do extensive remediation of students who may already be unmotivated. What seem to be the issues in Chicago?

If you look at test scores the right way — using year-over-year improvement rather than straight proficiency — you can address some of these issues.  But in Chicago and many other school districts, we’ve moved in recent years from a personnel evaluation system that was a mere formality to one where jobs can actually be on the line.

5)      Offering more medical or dental cafeteria services may seem a big concession- but what about teachers who want discipline problems removed from their classes?

Studies show that many teachers are willing to take pay cuts to work in schools with lower suspension rates and discipline problems, so it’s reasonable to think that an offer to deal with those problems would make a big difference to teachers.  But Chicago has to take the children they’ve got; they can’t tell the union that they’ll ship the problem students off to Peoria.

6)      Professor, I have never taken a course in labor relations, so I am going to plead ignorance here- but are there “ hidden agendas “ in these negotiations that no one wants to talk about ?

Some politically-minded people might think that this is a case of Rahm Emanuel trying to bolster his tough credentials, but really I think this just comes down to a negotiation where one party has its hands tied and the other can’t stomach the offer.

7)      “Better working conditions “ – is this a relevant term to use when discussing teacher’s unions?  I mean they work indoors, sometimes there is air conditioning…

Absolutely.  As I mentioned before, many teachers will take a pay cut for the privilege of working in a nicer environment.  And when thinking about what makes for a nicer environment one should remember Jean-Paul Sartre’s lesson from No Exit.

8)      I have been to Chicago and I know that it is a pretty expensive city. How relevant is money however, when talking about educational issues?

Clearly, nobody is going to teach for free and to attract good people into the profession we need to offer competitive salaries.  Among those who have already dedicated their careers to teaching, money certainly matters, but it isn’t the only thing.

9)      Many teachers beg, borrow and go into debt to finish college and/or graduate school. Should they not get something back for their years of study?

That’s a more complicated question than it seems, at first.  Clearly, if teacher salaries aren’t sufficient to allow repayment of student loans, the profession is in trouble in the long run.  There have been countless studies, however, showing that automatic pay increases for master’s degrees can’t be justified with the data — that the typical master’s program is a cash cow where the business model involves charging money for a low-quality curriculum, with enrollment boosted by the fact that teachers can get a raise for completing a degree.

10)   On the other hand, promises seem to have been made by politicians in the past- should they not stick to their promises? What have the teachers been promised?

There are promises and there’s reality.  Public pension plans reflect a promise, but if they are underfunded there’s really no way to follow through on the promise.  The same thing has happened all across the economy.  It’s a tough economic climate.

11)   Is there some formula on the table regarding teacher evaluation? Standardized test scores? Number of students with special needs in one’s class?

So far as I know, the specifics are negotiable, but the requirement to use test scores is written into state law, so if Chicago’s teachers want that changed they need to take their picket lines down to Springfield.

12)   I may be branded a heretic, but I do think there should be some gosh darn differential—a math or science teacher SHOULD be paid more than a kindergarten or first grade teacher- agree or disagree?

Middle school math and science is a high-turnover subject area — the highest turnover rates, in the data I’ve seen.  So clearly, given what we pay those teachers we aren’t making it worth their while to stick around.  And we end up losing a lot of kids, academically, in the middle grade years as a consequence.

13)   Perhaps it is irrelevant to the discussion, but in terms of education- don’t the parents have SOME duty, obligation and responsibility to assist teachers, check homework etc?

In a perfect world, every parent would do that.  I’m sure that if the parents of Chicago would step up and promise to do their part the negotiation would be easier.

14)   What have I neglected to ask?

How about “when will it end?”  And to be quite frank, this one could go on for a while, unless there is some sort of court order put into play.

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