Government employees

Chicago Teachers' Strike Illustrates the Need for Choice

Collective bargaining agreements are often an impediment to innovation, efficiencies, and the elevation of standards.


On Monday, Sept. 10, the first day the Chicago Teachers Union was out on strike, 350,000 public-school students—and their parents—were left high and dry. But for 52,000 other youngsters enrolled in public schools, it was just another day of learning. They attend charter schools, of which the city has 119.

During the strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel did himself considerable damage by provoking a mass walkout. The teachers didn't fare much better, because they looked more concerned about guaranteed employment than the fate of their students. But charter schools lost nothing and may have gained much.

The strikers went to the mat over issues such as job security and the latitude granted to principals on hiring. The dispute was largely irrelevant to charters, where teachers are obliged to protect their jobs the old-fashioned way: by doing them well.

At many, principals are free to make their own hiring and firing decisions. Other networks have formalized evaluation systems. But the same fundamental policy applies to all: Educators are held responsible for student performance. This is a pronounced difference from the regular schools, where dropouts are epidemic even though 93 percent of teachers are rated "superior" or "excellent."

Some of those teachers are truly first-rate, but the conventional public-school model often wraps the bad, as well as the good, in a cocoon of tenure and automatic raises. And the crucial thing is not getting outstanding teachers into the classroom but getting bad ones out.

Stanford University scholar Eric Hanushek says research indicates that if the worst five to 10 percent of teachers were replaced with merely average ones, "the achievement of U.S. students would rise from below the developed country average to near the top if not at the top." Good enough teachers, it turns out, are good enough.

Charter schools are just one way to enhance competition among different educational models for the benefit of kids and parents. Voucher programs, which let them use public funds to pay for private schooling, are another. Both have gained a place in our educational system, over the bitter resistance of teachers unions.

Teachers unions are not necessarily the chief problem with traditional public schools. The Southern states where they are weak or absent do poorly in student test scores. But collective bargaining agreements are often an impediment to innovation, efficiencies, and the elevation of standards—areas in which charter schools have a built-in edge.

Unions are prone to asking why a teacher's job should depend purely on satisfying a boss who may be capricious and arbitrary. Never mind that most jobs in the private sector operate exactly that way, with results that consistently outpace the public sector.

Expanding school choice has much to recommend it in theory. After all, we rely on open markets and incessant competition to deliver the vast majority of goods and services, which are endlessly adapted to consumer demands and needs. A federal Department of Telecommunications could not have invented the iPhone.

A sector with artificial advantages is apt to serve the interests of the producers more than the interests of their customers. By contrast, America leads the world in higher education, where students have broad choices and meaningful control.

Charter schools are free of many of the usual restrictions and union contract requirements. That doesn't automatically make them good; in fact, plenty are mediocre or lousy. But growing evidence confirms the wisdom of offering the option.

Last year, an assessment published by the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington Bothell gave a mixed but encouraging picture. "Elementary school math and reading, middle school math and…middle school reading all exhibit this pattern of students performing better at charter schools than at traditional public schools," wrote Julian R. Betts and Y. Emily Tang, economists at the University of California, San Diego.

University of Arkansas scholar Patrick Wolf says charter schools tend to deliver subpar results when they are new or operating in rural areas. "Those in urban areas tend to outperform traditional public schools, and particularly when they're serving disadvantaged kids," he says. The gains are not huge, but they're enough to make a significant difference over time.

Do charter schools provide all the answers to our many educational challenges? Not at all. But promoting choice and empowering individuals is rarely a bad thing. The parents of 52,000 Chicago kids can attest to that, even when teachers are not on strike.

NEXT: Parking Crackdown

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  1. Nice photo. “One of us, one of us…”

    1. Took me a minute. At first I thought it was a screencap from Wall-E.

      1. Ouch! Hehehehe!

      2. Heh, I was jsut thinking – why, in all the pictures I see of union personnel and unionized workers, are they all a good 50lbs on the far side of obese? These people always claim they don’t make enough money but they’re definitely not starving.

        Maybe its because I usually only read about unions at sites like Reason and they deliberately choose the most unflattering pictures to go with the stories.

        1. Oddly, not in the story about union hacks trying to buddy up with Republicans. The hacks in the picture that ran along that story were not only not overweight, but pretty.

          Draw your own conclusion. But do note that Reason editorial staff surely did not get to pick Karen Lewis as the head union representative.

    2. Mr. Burns: [leading the employee calisthenics program] Raise your left hock! Aerate! Raise your right hock! Aerate! Let’s go! I want to see more Teddy Roosevelts, and less Franklin Roosevelts!

    3. They’re actually screaming, “Ditka! Sausage! Bears!”

    4. Judging from the picture, I’m thinking the teachers are in desperate need of a federally-mandated, Michelle Obama-approved diet plan.

  2. Sweden has some sort of voucher system from my understanding-that’s working fairly well. Its biggest weakness seems to be that the schools are forced to take students on a first-come-first-serve basis, so while schools compete on quality, the students don’t.

    1. doesn’t seem to have hurt them much when it comes to educational outcomes – this claims they’re still way ahead of the public system

      1. Yes, interesting they do have better outcomes (I’ve heard different things depending on the bias), but I think the voucher system would work better if it was an open bidding system on both sides.

        Also I gather that a fair number of the private schools are religious Muslim schools that probably skew down the overall average on standardized tests, in math and science at least, since they may concentrate on memorizing the Koran.

        Voucher funded schools have more satisfied teachers and parents and students. They cost less for taxpayers. They don’t appear to hurt public schools. In addition, they have been improving their test-scores in a period where public schools scores are declining.

        That pretty much sums up their selling point right there.

    2. They’re also (relatively) tiny, (relatively) racially homogenous, and still have a huge focus on trade-schools, instead of the “everyone’s a super-special flower” approach the US has.

      I also don’t know this for sure, but I’d bet that they actually focus on actual education more, rather than semester long classes on ‘self-esteem’ and ‘cultural studies’.

      1. Are you talking about Sweden in general? Because they aren’t racially homogeneous at all, at least not in the south where I’ve been. Try spending a few days in Malmo.

        I would say the “everyone’s a super-special flower” approach is even more common in Sweden, and Scandanavia in general, than America.

        1. Granted, I don’t have much experience with Sweden. I’ve never been anywhere in Scandanavia. I work with about 30 Norwegians and Finns who almost to a man (unfortunately they are all male) went to what I’d consider a ‘technical’ school instead of a high school. Their formal education in history, literature, general science and anythign not related to their skill (mechanics, electricians, etc.) ended when they were 14. Of course many of them continued self-educating. Most of these guys are younger than 30, so I assume it hasn’t changed much in the past decade.

          But as far as I know virtually EVERY program like that in the US ended in the early ’80s. I know by 1990, Florida had something like 5 technical schools left in the entire state. So telling a 14 year old that maybe they’re not cut out for college is something that we can’t even consider in the US. (NB I don’t have kids in school or live in the US, so maybe it’s changed since I left).

          1. Voc-Tech education is far from dead in the U.S., and it is making a comeback, from what I’ve seen. However, among many in the Federal Educracy, the attitude of ‘college for all’ is still prevalent.

          2. Voc-Tech education is far from dead in the U.S., and it is making a comeback, from what I’ve seen. However, among many in the Federal Educracy, the attitude of ‘college for all’ is still prevalent.

            1. H ampersand R needs some vo-tech to learn how to deal with the server squirrels. 😉

          3. The two-tiered system is pretty common in Northern Europe in general, and works pretty well, so I see what you mean. But I have the impression that the “everyone is a special flower” and should go to university is now pretty common in Scandinavia. The two-tiered system is still pretty strong here in the Czech Republic.

      2. Homogenous, heterogenous – can we just keep the Swedes’ collective sexual proclivities out of this, OK? For teh children?


        1. You don’t want to discuss their sexual proclivities? That would be a first around here

          Here’s a link. Just because


      3. I also don’t know this for sure, but I’d bet that they actually focus on actual education more, rather than semester long classes on ‘self-esteem’ and ‘cultural studies’.

        That’s not the Europe I know.

    3. I wouldn’t mind being forced to take students on a first-come-first-served basis in exchange for my daughters’ having vouchers to attend my private school

    4. NOLA’s charter school program works on a lottery but is far better than the public system at large. When parents are given options, they will use them.

  3. Differing views bring better education:

    I got a nice surprise last week. After having to “double teach” my child about nutrition (IOW telling her to learn the school material, but know what’s wrong with it), she comes home with an article from the history teacher. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” by Jared Diamond tells all about the transition from the meat-heavy, high-fat, green, leafy vegetable paleolithic diet, to the starchy, low-fat neolithic diet. Health crashed by every measure archaeology can bring to bear.

    Interesting the history teacher knows so much more about the effects of diet than the health teacher does.

    1. Well, let’s just say that traditionally health teachers aren’t exactly the cream of the crop of teachers. Or human beings.

      1. My seventh grade health teacher’s other job was as a mall ninja.

        1. He was a CCW walking around with his gun concealed, looking for a reason to use it? That, at least, is the only definition I’ve ever heard for that phrase.

    2. Differing views bring better education

      Lies and calumny! Education should be a centrally planned, one-size-fits-all situation that produces good worker cogs for the socio-political machine.

    3. Was there anything about gamboling?

    4. So, could White Indian have been Jared Diamond’s sock puppet?

  4. You know who else limited educational choice to push a political agenda…

    1. Richard Daley? (Both of ’em).

    2. Teacher’s Unions?

    3. Dean Wormer?

  5. I taught in a Turkish-run charter school in one of NJ’s worst urban areas for two years. Charter schools can be a mender of ills, but mostly the parents who send their kids to one are the ones who have a vested interest in furthering their children’s educations in the first place. Better-than-average/good students are almost automatically selected for enrollment in charter schools because their parents are involved.

    I champion merit pay and I do think good/good enough teachers have an impact, but basing a teacher’s pay on student outcomes is a difficult metric to use because factors outside of a teacher’s control are in play: nutrition (which failing and inadequate school lunch programs attempt to mitigate), discipline at home (I don’t mean punishment, I mean discipline as in a daily routine and an expected manner in which daily tasks including basic hygiene, eating, and homework, will be done), the variables of intelligence in any given population and the metrics we choose to use as a gauge, and general social interactions which influence the manner in which children choose to interact with each other.

    Teaching is not always easy but it is not as difficult as many teacher’s unions would make it appear. I am emphatically NOT pro-union and disagree with their positions. Put the pressure on the teachers to perform more efficiently and they will rise to the challenge or fall away – as they should, as their students do when they are incapable of meeting the job expectations.

    1. I taught in a Turkish-run charter school in one of NJ’s worst urban areas for two years.

      So was it more like a Turkish prison or a Turkish bathhouse?

      I keed. I keed.

      1. “I have been in Dar’ah for three years now. I couldn’t be more isolated if they posted me to the dark side of the Moon. You have no idea what I am talking about, have you?”

        “No, effendi”

        “Have you? Hmmm, no, that would be too…lucky.”

      2. Sodomy and the lash are great motivators.

        1. you forgot rum

          1. The Turks are Islamic, so they don’t do that part.

            1. who’s drinking all that raki then?

    2. Sure the charter schools only help the kids whose parents are interested. But those are probably the only kids who can be helped.

      1. This, if you think about it, is why the ‘experimental’ schools from the 1920’s on, always did so well. Since they were almost always private, EVERYBODY concerned was doing their damnedest to make the little buggers learn. They were, in effect, self selecting samples.

        I do have one idea to make this work better for charter schools and voucher systems; make the process of applying to a voucher or charter school simple enough that a motivated child can navigate it, if he/she can get his/her parents to sign the papers.

    3. Midnight Express Charter School?

  6. Once anything becomes “universal” it becomes universally shit. Socialism spreads misery equally. You can play all the games in the world, until you end publicly funded universal school that is all that you will produce, shit.

  7. Are all teacher’s now fat middle aged sows, or just the ones in Chicago’s public school teacher’s union?

    1. No, the good looking ones all go to jail for having sex with their students before they can get tenure.

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  10. I think every treacher that went on strike should be fired. Period.

    1. As long as we are wishing, why stop halfway?

      I think that the teachers of each of the Chicago public schools should be lined up along one side of the gym, and the administrators along the opposite side. Then I would stick a gladius in the guts of every third administrator, walk to the door, turn around and say “You-all have one year to bring verifiable student test scores up. I don’t care how you do it, other than cheating. But if you don’t, I’m coming back.”

  11. Aren’t we already near the top if you disaggregate by race?

  12. This strike really illustrated the problems with public education when it is dominated by union politics. We continue to pour money into public schools, but the results never seem to get much better, so it’s really hardly a shock when the entire country begins to lose confidence in the ability of public schools (

  13. Stanford University scholar Eric Hanushek says research indicates that if the worst five to 10 percent of teachers were replaced with merely average ones, “the achievement of U.S. students would rise from below the developed country average to near the top if not at the top.”

    I’m going to call bullshit on that. It’s oddly specific (five to 10 percent? Not as little as one percent, or as much as 20 percent) while placing blame on a tangential issue, and failing to acknowledge that we are often comparing apples to oranges.

    While I don’t dispute that there are bad teachers, bad teachers are not the public schools’ biggest problems. The larger problems are terrible curricula, resource-intensive administrations that add little or no value, unrealistic and anti-educational mandates forced on schools and classroom teachers, and terrible parents.

    1. First of all, you can rid of all the bad teachers you want, and the basic crap that is being peddled as education is still going to be peddled. The founding documents as racist, sexist instruments of oppression; every other word problem in math texts pushing global warming, wage inequality, etc; crap nutrition; the sort of feel-good self-esteem bullcrap; etc., etc.

      Secondly, layers and layers of administration are added each year to deal with the latest round of The Latest And Greatest in education. Multicultural/gender-fair curriculum specialists and the admins to implement it; rigor and relevance and the admins to implement it; 21-century skills and the admins to implement it; core curriculum standards and benchmarks and the admins to implement it; and on and on. Get rid of all the bad teachers you want and you are still going to have this crap, which sucks not only financial resources into a black hole, but also absorbs hours and hours of time that teachers could be using designing lesson plans, working individually with students, or following up at home.

    2. Thirdly, schools in general (and teachers in particular) are increasingly being asked to do much more than educate students. When I was in high school, you acted like you wanted to be there and followed the rules, or you got your ass kicked out. Laws have changed since then and it is all but impossible to get rid of the students who don’t want to be there and might as well not be. Teachers have to spend time and attention on these individuals in the role of parent/psychologist/social worker/parole officer/whatever–all time that ought to be spent teaching the students that want to be there (or at least act like it). I won’t even bring up the students that once upon a time used to be in special education environments but now are mainstreamed into regular classes. No matter if they cannot possibly benefit from being in the class–it makes the parents feel better about their special little flowers, or the special little flowers like it better, or whatever. Let’s ignore the fact that such students won’t learn what they need to do make it worthwhile–but they will suck time and attention away from the classroom teacher, and lower the benefit for the rest of the students. Good teachers have better classroom management skills than bad teachers and can handle this imposition better–but it doesn’t matter how many bad teachers you get rid, this sort of social engineering debases everyone’s educational experience.

    3. Finally, in my experience, the best predictor of student outcomes is parental involvement. I was a public high school teacher for five years. The only parents I saw at conferences were the ones whose students were doing pretty well to outstanding. I had to track down and call the parents of the students that needed help. The ones that were beyond help? Try as I might, I couldn’t get in touch with a parent for the life of me. It’s been noted up-thread that private schools are rather self-selecting samples; if a parent is going to go to the trouble (and often expense) of enrolling a student in a private school, they already have the involvement that is going to be the biggest determinant of the student’s success from the start. If parents send kids to school without enough sleep, enough good food for breakfast, enough supervision during the evening to ensure homework is getting done, or enough of an understanding that education matters, those kids are not going to learn, whether the teachers are good or bad.

    4. Sorry, that was long.

      There are bad teachers. I know, I saw them. I could tell who they were, even as a novice teacher. It was the English teacher that dressed like a hippy every day and hit on his cute female students. It was the Spanish teacher that never spoke a complete sentence in Spanish. It was the four or five teachers that sat at their desks the whole hour and read the textbook chapter to the students, and called that a lesson plan. They shouldn’t have tenure, and they shouldn’t have union job protection, and they should be fired.

      I was given the choice and never joined the teacher union (this was in IA, not IL). It was as obvious then as it is now that unions have nothing to do with education and everything to do with job security. Some of those sorry asses shouldn’t have jobs at all, let alone job security.

      But getting rid of bad teachers is not going to be enough to fix education. I personally think that nothing short of real school choice will do that. And I’m not sure that real school choice is possible without completely getting rid of the public school system.

  14. The teachers didn’t fare much better, because they looked more concerned about guaranteed employment than the fate of their students.

    The problem isn’t that they care about themselves more than their customers. That’s true of just about anyone in any job. The problem is that their employers (the taxpayers, and those that supposedly represent their interests) only reward one behavior: not getting fired. It’s just simple incentives.

    Now there are valid points to be made about the difficulty of accurately measuring comparative performance, but even a horrible system that attempts to is often (though not always – see the predictable outcome of NCLB) better than one that doesn’t at all.

    The best metric for just about anything is to let people vote with their feet. The rest can be figured out from there.

    1. How is this different from any other job? Does your employer reward you for doing what you were paid to do in the first place?

      1. That was the point. Nothing gets by you.

  15. Sadly many liberals have the misconception that teacher unions are there for the students. They’re completely wrong they’re there for the teachers.

  16. I am an award-winning public school teacher in Chicago. I formerly taught at a charter school where I was fired for breaking up a fight. The co-director refused to investigate the matter beyond what another adult had told her, second-hand. I was told I “should consider a profession other than teaching.” Since leaving that school only a few years ago, the entire staff has been turned around, and the students are doing no better than they were when I was there. This is also one of the “premier” charter schools in the city, but readers wouldn’t know that students aren’t doing well, because charters are not required to disclose their scores, their drop-out rates, their monetary spending as public schools are required to do.

    Unionized teachers have the capability to stand up for good teaching and learning in the classroom. The aim of charter schools is to hire cheap labor which won’t challenge a principal’s poor decision-making. A principal who is neither in a classroom, nor has developed relationship with students.

    I am very proud of my colleagues, my Union, and the more than 2/3rds of Chicago parents and students who stood with us last week for better teaching and learning conditions. Readers should know that we do not vote for our school board, rather they are appointed by our mayor, so we had, and still have no recourse.

    More than 1 million people recognize the value of what we have done in this city and nation. Please ask yourself why this author does not.

    1. I am very proud of my colleagues, my Union, and the more than 2/3rds of Chicago parents and students who stood with us last week for better teaching and learning conditions.


    2. Maybe they weren’t finding you so award-winning there, eh?

      You don’t fire good people–they’re too hard to find. If this story is true, it says more about the lack of value in your award than the mismanagement of the charter school that got rid of you.

  17. These comments are so hateful, disgusting. Instead of imagining how bad you think Chicago teachers might be, how much violence you think we deserve, I want you to imagine saying some of this stuff to your FAVORITE teacher’s face. What would s/he say?

    1. Funny, there are plenty of good points made in this thread for you to debate, yet you choose to respond to the ones that hurt your feelings? Methinks you be a troll!

      You won an award in a district where 93% of all teachers are rated superior or excellent? Was it for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence?

      Your little anonymous anecdote about one charter school does little to change the facts that your precious union oversees a massive failure and can only blame others and ask for ever more money.

      You can spout your union spoon fed lines to us about how great you guys are, but who will we believe; you, or our lying eyes?
      You clowns make nearly double the national median wage and provide a near worthless service. Please try to explain that away with a straight face.

    2. My high school history teacher was a hardcore libertarian.

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  19. better, because they looked more concerned about guaranteed e

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