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The Chicago schools deal: The Missile's modest achievement, the union's self-deception

A major compromise was reached Tuesday in rancorous, ongoing talks on a still-to-be-finalized new deal for Chicago teachers. Here's what may be most salient:

1) There will be a somewhat longer instructional day for students. 2) Existing elementary teachers will not work any longer and, in theory, can walk into a building when students arrive and exit as students depart. 3) Under hiring provisions for new positions, principals cannot simply go out and find the very best person to teach their kids---a fact underscored in an online briefing for principals Wednesday morning.

For sure, the Chicago Teachers Union and Karen Lewis, it's Ivy League-educated leader whose tenure has been bumpy, is crowing; in large part over most of her members maintaining the status quo in a woefully underperforming system. Hers is a Pyrrhic victory for kids and parents.

In an awful economy and with a shrinking and deficit-ridden system, the union has for now preserved the jobs of current teachers and kept their work day the same, though the deal is no protection against virtually-assured, future downsizing of the system. And it claims that 477 teachers who previously lost their jobs will be hired back to justify the slightly longer day and not get an ounce more of work out of existing elementary school teachers (a few minutes for high school teachers). The contention is problematic.

By most calculations, the teachers have the shortest work day of those in any major system and are well-compensated by comparison to others. Should great teachers earn a ton more than they do now? Yes. The pay levels for the very best is a little-appreciated national scandal. But existing salary scales and resulting apples-to-apples comparison natiownwide are such that a deal which preserves the Chicago status quo as far as hours verges on the shocking.

A lot of workers in various industries, who are working a lot harder for the same, even less, compensation than years ago, would be envious. Just ask the journalists who cover, say, Ms. Lewis and our public schools.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the heat-seeking Missile of mayors, did procure something like 46 minutes more of daily instructional time for my soon-to-be Chicago Public Schools third grader. That's good and it's progress. But he probably overplayed his hand with an unbridled quest for a far longer day and in the end, displayed what was known to anybody who's followed his career: he knows how to count votes.

Whether it was cutting the so-called budget reconciliation deal as President Obama's chief of staff---that was the historic agreement that brought us the president's health care legislation---or other bigtime accords as an aide to President Clinton and as a congressman, he knows when he's got leverage and when not.

And just as he unavoidably had to throw some folks under the bus on the health care deal, here he realized that the public reflexively associated working longer hours with better pay. So he cut a deal on the longer day, knowing the public won't understand most of the details, and thus can claim victory. One bargaining benefit for him now arises from the union's self-inflicted wound of keeping the instructional status quo for current teachers: it can't now make a convincing case for anything beyond a token pay hike.

Emanuel, the expert voter counter, didn't have the de facto votes to do what he wanted to do and, arguably, what should be done as a matter of good public policy even at a time of economic austerity. He spent a lot of political capital on a fight over an alluring, even if not empirically-proven notion---the link between performance and a longer day. He's left with a seemingly uninspiring CPS hierarchy forced to deal with the messiness of quickly implementing thorny specifics before many schools open in mid-August.

  A stack of unresolved questions were thrown the way of various CPS apparatchiks during the morning Webinar for principals, which I did listen to. As principals sent in questions and comments, even the uninitiated like myself could perceive the implementation's difficulty and the principals' mid-summer frustrations. They're like baseball managers, down by three runs with one out in the ninth inning and not many guys left on the bench.

"Many teachers have been given art approvals but they are not the most qualified art teacher," wrote one, the point being there may be mediocre art teachers on the list he's got to choose from. There were lots of other queries and declarations underscoring how the devil will be in the details of implementation. Especially if you had vacation plans, you don't want to be a Chicago principal this August.

 They must revise previously-submitted battleplans for what they assumed was a longer day of instruction taught by existing staff. They have until Monday to identify a new position they want; in theory to be used only on teaching topics "ancillary" to the core curriculum the mayor has argued for, meaning not math or reading, but the likes of art, music, physical education and foreign languages.

Between Aug. 4 and Aug. 6, CPS will identify ("validate") which of the "displaced" union teachers can apply for new positions. On the same Aug. 6, the identities of approved applicants will be disclosed to principals. The principals then have a very compressed period ("a very finite period," said one CPS Webinar participant) to interview candidates.

The gamesmanship will then begin, especially given the reality that there may be many on the displaced list who are not inspiring job candidates. Several principals with whom I spoke said that it will surely not be a terribly strong pool, even when they acknowledged both that some excellent younger (low-tenured) teachers have been previously let go and that the they had benefited from hiring some displaced teachers.

 Suburban systems have already completed hiring for the new year. Some really good teachers, let go by CPS for reasons including budget necessities, have found work elsewhere. One North Side elementary principal, who conceded that he's previously had luck with one or two displaced teachers, voiced the suspicion that, "The pickings will be really slim" on the new list.

Some principals may either put in for a position for which they don't think there are many qualified applicants or wait as long as they can before making a decision. That's because their hands are tied if they seek a position and three or more displaced teachers, approved for the list by CPS, seek it. They have to pick one of them.

If they picked a mediocrity, and that person doesn't work out, they essentially have to can them after the year's first semester. Even if that happens, they are confronted with the tricky challenge of hiring a replacement in the middle of the year and further disrupting students' lives.

Waiting as long as possible to now hire from the roster of displaced teachers might mean an individual principal's list of applicants shrinks to two or less as some initial job seekers find work at another school. The principal can then go out and look for the best person he or she can find elsewhere, then cross their fingers.

Cross your fingers for a simple reason: This deal isn't about finding ways to markedly improve actual classroom instruction. It's about fiddling, albeit with the best of intentions, with structure. When it comes to the union victory with the 477 displaced teachers, it's not seemingly dealing with a crying need to sharply improve teacher quality and, thus, student performance. Therein lies much of the union's own self-deception.

The only bigger tragedy may be how, once again, few really good teachers will wind up at the worst and most-needy schools, where the talented really should be paid steep premiums.

The union contention that all those 477 displaced teachers will now be guaranteed work is probably not accurate, given some likely mismatch between applicants' talent and principals' needs. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how shrewd principals potentially game the system to avoid hiring teachers to only teach those "ancillary," non-core areas, and to focus focus more on pressing, in some cases core, needs.

Then, of course, there's the matter of where in the world the system finds as much as $50 million to pay for the new positions.

The same North Side elementary principal offered me his own cost-cutting gambit, in the process underscoring the cultural tensions found in a sprawling government bureaucracy, even if they are ancillary to the mayor's serious-minded confrontation with a profound and vexing education challenge:

"Get rid of much of the middle management and the 'networks' [of supervisors] we have to deal with. They mostly just forward us emails from the central office and have only inspired a climate of mistrust. It would be great to know many of them were no longer around."

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