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Published: Saturday, 9/15/2012

EDITORIAL

Strike one in Chicago

Pay attention to the Chicago teachers' strike. The power struggle there likely will be repeated in school districts in Ohio and across the United States.

Toledo's teachers union and school officials are working together, for now, to address Toledo Public Schools' financial and student-performance problems. That often has not been the case in the past, and may not be the case in the future.

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Other than size, the nation's third-largest school district and TPS share many characteristics. Both are urban districts with a high percentage of minority students. Most students in each district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which means they live at or near poverty level.

Both districts have disappointing graduation rates and, often, low standardized test scores. Both have been hit hard by reduced funding and face the prospect of large budget deficits. Both have powerful teacher unions.

And similar to many other districts across the nation, union and school officials in Chicago and Toledo are struggling to redefine the relationship between teachers and schools on such issues as performance evaluation, merit pay, and firing ineffective teachers.

Chicago's 26,000 teachers say that textbooks that are slow to arrive, higher class sizes, too-few social workers, and lack of air-conditioning in some buildings are among the student-centered reasons they struck this week. Opponents claim that unions care less about children than about protecting jobs, pay, and benefits.

But the most important issue is how to evaluate teachers. It is the reason that Chicago teachers left a 16 percent pay hike over four years on the table.

Many state education departments and local school leaders favor a data-driven approach that grades teachers on how much improvement their students show on standardized tests, supplemented by peers' and administrators' observations and student and parent comments. In Ohio, districts have until the 2013-2014 school year to develop such evaluation systems.

Education officials say this framework is quantifiable and objective. Add up the scores: Teachers who score well get raises and promotions. Those who don't do well get extra help; if they don't improve, they can be fired.

Teachers say such systems are fraught with problems. Standardized tests -- even "value-added" ones -- don't take into account the effects of poverty, hunger, violence, neglect, and drug and alcohol abuse in the homes and neighborhoods of poor and minority students. Observations can be awkward, staged, and subjective. Student and parent comments may reflect personal grudges.

Unlike their colleagues in Chicago, Toledo teachers have decided not to fight the pay-for-performance battle now. Instead, they made wage and benefit concessions to help the school district balance its books. They are working with TPS officials to promote a tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Jim Gault, TPS' chief academic officer, called union cooperation to carry out the district's transformational plan and pass the levy "historic." It also is unprecedented, at least in recent years. The real test will come next year, when district and union officials begin contract talks.

How the battle over teacher evaluations plays out in Chicago and other cities will affect the course of discussions here. For now, Toledo should be grateful that it is not Chicago.



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