Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 17, 2015.
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Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test.

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

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