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The Real Lessons of Chicago

A handbook on what not to do.

After seven long days of missed classes, the labor strike in Chicago ended halfway through September.

The strike was cathartic for teachers and troubling for everyone else. The teachers got salary increases and staved off reforms favored by the mayor; the mayor got a longer school day and year—his top priority. But the city's empty-reserve budget woes remain, as does its schools' relatively low performance compared with other big cities. Given the size of the "what's next" items, neither side has really won all that much. 

From a national perspective, there were enough obvious missteps on both sides to make it difficult to claim that either side "won" in any decisive way. Chicago teachers gained attention and admiration from some, and stood up to a powerful mayor. But they turned down a generous prestrike deal, and the strike went on long enough that it appeared out of control.

If there was no obvious winner, there were some obvious lessons.

Firebrands at the Negotiating Table:
The strike was as much a function of two firebrand rookies (Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and teachers union president Karen Lewis) facing off as it was of the issues being debated. Having calmer, more experienced folks in the negotiating seats might have helped the district get more of what it wanted.

Democratic Tightrope:
The relationships between the Democrats and organized labor are changing. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama urged a timely resolution of the strike but that was about it. AFT head Randi Weingarten flew in to show support early on, but then withdrew and was said to have been urging teachers to end the strike.

Student Achievement Measures:
In less than five years, reformers have gone from asking for achievement growth to be part of school ratings and teacher tenure decisions to pushing for the data to be used for ever more purposes: teacher evaluations (hiring and firing), annual public reports on teacher performance, and so on. The Chicago strike may show that reformers have been moving too fast on this front.

The Battle for Parent Support:
Most of the major daily newspapers sided with the mayor on the need for change, including the populist-leaning Chicago Sun-Times. But polls showed that parents—especially low-income and minority parents with kids in the public schools—tended to support the teachers' position. (Teachers and reform critics dominated on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms.) The board of ed, city hall, and local reform groups couldn't match the teachers' ability to get their message out.

Hiring Under Mayoral Control: In Jean-Claude Brizard, the Emanuel team picked a qualified, unflappable education chief. But they didn't let him pick his own senior staff, which has gone through several changes in just 18 months, and they didn't make good use of him before or during the strike, resulting in union leader Lewis getting the lion's share of camera and radio time and necessitating Brizard's replacement.

Aggressive but Not Heedless: It is traditional for incoming leaders to push for change as quickly as possible, but Mayor Emanuel's decision to demand a longer school day immediately, and to push back against the 4 percent salary increase teachers had been promised, ended up backfiring.

Looking ahead, it's not clear whether the strike really mattered to the Chicago public schools—or to the national education debate. It will be on everyone's minds for the next few months, but it won't really matter unless there is some sort of measurable impact—another big city goes out on strike, say, or the course of school reform efforts goes in a very different direction. For now, the strike is best seen as an illustration of some of the dynamics and emotions building up in the highly politicized education environment, and a handbook on what not to do.

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