The ongoing teachers' strike in Chicago could lead some voters to rethink assumptions about Democrats as champions of teachers and organized labor.
Going toe-to-toe with the Chicago Teachers Union is Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who helped put Barack Obama in the White House. At stake, more than work hours or even money, are tougher teacher evaluations.
"What really matters is whether teachers are going to be active in October and early November knocking on doors, manning the phone banks," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
But the reality, appreciated by most educators, is that accountability has been a mantra of both political parties for decades.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raised the stakes of school performance as measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Today, the FCAT provides much of the data used to assess teachers.
Obama's Race To The Top initiative, which has the participation of 21 states including Florida, gives money to those that use data effectively and reward high-performing teachers.
Hillsborough County has been at the forefront of the reform movement in Florida and is in its third year of an evaluation and mentor program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Two years after Hillsborough launched Empowering Effective Teachers, or EET, the state enacted a law that calls for evaluations based at least 50 percent on data and students' learning gains. Insulated by the Gates grant, Hillsborough counts test data — adjusted for variables that affect performance — for 40 percent. The rest comes from principal and peer evaluations.
The Chicago proposal, like Hillsborough's plan, relies in part on an evaluation formula based on the work of education specialist Charlotte Danielson.
Unlike in Chicago, Florida law does not allow public employees to strike. And, also in contrast to Chicago, the Hillsborough union has been a full partner in EET.
Hillsborough administrators and union leaders say most teachers are getting used to the new system. But there has been some backlash, seen in this year's teachers' union and School Board elections.
Incoming School Board member Cindy Stuart, who defeated a longtime incumbent, was asked about EET on the campaign trail. "I see it from the point-of-view of a parent who is told the teacher was stressed out and in tears because that person was sitting in her class all day," she said.
Advocates of the reforms point out that under the traditional seniority system, it was easy for even mediocre teachers to keep their jobs. In Chicago, 99.7 percent of teachers were graded satisfactory to distinguished, according to a University of Chicago research center. In Hillsborough, that number was estimated at 99.5 percent.
But don't blame teachers, said Mike Weston, a high school math teacher who ran unsuccessfully for the Hillsborough School Board. "The old way was the principal not doing his job," he said. "They need to make that the focus rather than bringing all of this down on the teachers."
Critics also say the test data, or "value-added" portion of the teacher scores, has been compromised in Florida by problems with the FCAT. The tests became tougher this year, passing scores were changed, grading scales were recalibrated and hundreds of school grades were readjusted after the initial release.
The mood in Pinellas County is one of skepticism mixed with anger and frustration, said Kim Black, teachers' union president.
"I hear quite a bit, 'We should go on strike,' and I have to tell people that we can't," she said. "It's a feeling of being backed into a corner. They feel no one is listening to them."
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Scholars who have studied value-added generally acknowledge it is not precise.
A student might be tired the day of the test, making it impossible to know if the teacher is at fault for a low score. A child might have been helped by a parent or tutor, making it unfair to credit the teacher for his success.
Based on that kind of logic, Hillsborough postponed a plan this year to give bonuses to teachers who improved test scores among low-performing students.
The solution, some scholars say, is to use multiple years of data to decrease the error rate, and keep in mind the greater goal of better serving students.
"From the perspective of teachers and their unions, the collateral damage of even a single teacher losing tenure from an inaccurately low (value-added) score is unacceptable," wrote Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who was successful in using FCAT data to predict teachers' success over time.
However, "if student achievement is our most pressing concern, we need to consider the possible consequences of (value-added) policies on whole districts, even as we acknowledge the potential for error in the individual case."
But there is more at stake than teachers' jobs, argues Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the FairTest organization, which opposes excessive testing. Ultimately, he said, children's school experiences are diminished.
"Once you make teachers' livelihood dependent on student test scores, you have more attention paid to tests, more teaching to the test and more score manipulation."
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Last month, an administrative law judge in Florida struck down the new rule that outlines the use of test data in evaluations, citing procedural flaws in its design. The law still stands, as do the past year's evaluations. But the Florida Education Association, which challenged the rule, called the decision a victory.
FEA president Andy Ford said he hopes his organization can sit down with the Department of Education to work out a better system. The FEA also has a pending lawsuit that alleges the law is unconstitutional. "We're not done yet," he said.
He and Black are not too concerned about political fallout from the Chicago strike — at least not in Florida, where a Republican governor and Legislature have struggled to gain teachers' loyalty.
"Teachers have not liked Race To The Top," Ford said.
But they'll look at the big picture, he said. "And that is, which party is better able to lead this country?"
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]