CHICAGO | While the nation watched the Chicago Teachers Union, Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel clash over new teacher contracts this year, many teachers in Houston watched in awe.
One sticking point in the three-party negotiations rested in the way Chicago teachers are evaluated: the district wanted larger portions of the evaluations based on student performance — meaning more tests — the teachers wanted less.
A similar battle just played out in Houston, but unlike their Chicago counterparts, Houston teachers do not have collective bargaining rights, or the ability to strike or enter contract negotiations with the district.
These are two very different systems, but the different approaches could be case studies in the larger debate about education reform. Standardized testing and its uses is often a touchy subject because many people are passionate about it.
There is a real chance Chicago's public school students might fare better than Houston's public school students, but they also could be on the losing end.
The Chicago Teachers Union flexes their muscle
With their collective bargaining rights, the Chicago Teachers Union negotiated an evaluation system that relies less on standardized testing, which takes some stress off teachers and students, said Jackson Potter, a spokesman for the union.
The union succeeded in limiting the percentage of which student test scores are factored into teacher evaluations. For the first two years, it will be 25 percent. This is the baseline set by Illinois state law, said Diane Schanzenbach, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.
The share of test scores used in the evaluation increases by 5 percent in the third and fourth years of the contract, and potentially in a fifth year.
The Houston teachers did not have the same luck in limiting the role standardized testing will play in the new evaluations.
Of the three new categories on this evaluation, one is student performance. Four criteria in this category involve rigorous comparisons on district-wide exams and pre-approved tests.
A victory for Chicago teachers
Potter said Chicago teachers now have more freedom to innovate and create less conventional methods of teaching.
"Teachers will be given the space to really hone their skills and have professional autonomy and determine dynamic lessons that aren't strictly governed by what's on a bubble test," he said.
District officials are also optimistic about the new plan and believe it will help both teachers and students.
"The teacher evaluation system establishes a clear definition of good teaching across the district," officials said in a statement. "The goal of the system is teachers' professional growth and improved student performance. We are pleased we were able to put this system in place through the recent contract."
The struggle for a political voice
The Houston Federation of Teachers is not allowed to collectively bargain, and it is illegal for teachers or the teachers union to even push for more rights.
"We're prohibited by law from even instigating or (moving) towards asking for collective bargaining," said Joanna Pasternak, a representative for the union.
Whitney Sandin, a former English teacher in the Houston public school system, said this lack of ability to get the district's ear leaves teachers between a rock and a hard place.
"When you have no way to even force compromise, the administration and district can do whatever they want and there's nothing you can do about it, except quit," she said.
New teacher evaluations
Over the past few years, a toxic atmosphere developed in Houston's public schools, said both Pasternak and Lydia Smith, who taught English there until last year. The new evaluations may not help thaw the ice.
Teachers say the increased reliance upon test scores will have profound effects on the students.
"The kids who have been through that level of testing, where the schools are held accountable, I could just tell they had no creativity," Smith said. "They just checked out of school. The ninth-graders and 10th-graders were almost jaded about school, and yet they took those tests very seriously."
As this lack of enthusiasm developed, Smith said she grew frustrated with the process because there was no continuity between the goals and the exams.
"There was a lack of alignment between the objective and the testing instrument," she said.
Pasternak, the union representative, said this high-stakes atmosphere puts undue pressure on the teachers, forcing them to ultimately bear the consequences of students' achievement, regardless of other factors, such as poverty, attendance and safety.
"The issue is the board has these blinders on that nothing affects a student's learning except the teacher," she said. "So if the students are failing, it's automatically the teacher's fault."
District officials stood by its new evaluation model, saying in a statement that since they started taking student performance into account, almost all the highest-rated teachers are retained yearly.
"Nothing has more impact on student achievement than putting a quality teacher in every classroom," Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the district, said in an email. "In Houston, we designed one of the nation's most rigorous teacher appraisal and development systems in the country, and we did it with input from thousands of our teachers."
He also noted that the hubbub over the evaluation could be much ado about nothing.
"In fact, the number of teachers speaking in favor of the new system outnumbered the handful of union representatives who spoke against it," he said.
Does it even matter?
For all the debate over teachers unions and collective bargaining, little is known about its impact on students, Schanzenbach, the Northwestern University professor said.
There is very little research, and the analysis that does exist is dated. One of the major studies conducted by a Stanford economics professor is from 1996. Most of what experts know is based on observation and anecdotes.
"The fears of some folks are collective bargaining rights keep people who are less good teachers in the jobs, they keep them from being fired," Schanzenbach said.
"One of the things they bargain for, often, is smaller class sizes and other things that make the jobs of teachers more enjoyable, more pleasant and more productive and to the extent that those are beneficial for the kids," she said.
Furthermore, this debate raises the question of which party the union is protecting, Schanzenbach said.
"From a theoretical perspective, it's much more important to help children and protect them from harm than protect adults from being fired unnecessarily," she said.
Critics say that teachers unions are not looking out for the best interest of the students.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is an organization that takes a "dim view," said spokesman Will Collins, of all public-sector unions, including teachers unions.
"The problem with teachers unions is that union officials are interested, understandably so, in representing their members," he said.
"And if that means their members' interests or the interests of the union are threatened by some reform program aimed at helping students, then we often see the teacher union officials are opposed to those reform efforts."
When this happens, it comes at the detriment of students. Teachers unions are "not there to fight for or advocate the interest of students. They are there to advocate for the interests of the union," Collins said.