Fit to Teach? Chicago Union Files Charges Over Standardized Test for Teachers

Kari Lydersen

Chicago school teachers demonstrate June 22, 2011 outside the offices of the Chicago Board of Education to protest the board's decision to rescind a 4 percent annual raise promised to the teachers in their contracts.

At first the statements might sound innocuous, or even admirable declarations of a renegade and independent spirit:

I help people when they need it, even when that means risking a confrontation.

I love being a champion for my ideas, even against others’ opposition.

I love to challenge the status quo.

But the Chicago Teachers Union, locked in a bitter battle with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Board of Education over various issues, alleges that administrators want to get would-be teachers’ responses to these statements as a way of testing their feelings about the union and collective bargaining.

Since spring, teaching applicants have been required to fill out a 31-question questionnaire called TeacherFit, which was specially developed for the Chicago Public Schools.

For several months, teachers who failed” the test were not allowed to teach in the system for 18 months, even if they had already been offered a job. Following outcry and revelations that almost a third of applicants failed, in July the school system started using the results to recommend or caution against hiring applicants. Even with that switch, the test is still a violation of labor law and a disservice to teachers and students, union leaders say.

Carol Caref, a nationally certified teacher and coordinator of the Quest Center run by the Chicago Teachers Union Local 1, told me:

With the pressure CPS is putting on principals — they are busy, under pressure to bring up test scores — the assumption would be even the most confident principals would not take a chance on someone who hasn’t done well on this test.

In a complaint filed October 27 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the union alleges that five questions, including the above on the questionnaire relate to collective bargaining rights and constitute illegal intimidation and interference. It demands the board of education stop asking those questions, and place teachers in jobs they would have been hired for if not for their answers, including back pay and benefits.

Caref noted that even with years of teaching and a Ph. D in math education, she had no idea what the right answers were” on many of the questions. Like the worst multiple choice standardized tests that students are often subjected too, the answers depend on context and can’t be summed up to multiple choices, she noted. For example, the choices offered for a question about how to deal with problem students who are transferred into the class include asking the principal for help, transferring them to another class or dealing with them but refusing to take transfers in the future. Caref said that in the real world, it would depend on the principal, the resources of other teachers and the specifics of the students’ issues.

She said:

This attack is broader than just trying to get teachers who won’t follow union procedures, who are willing to break the contract…It’s this whole idea that if you just get the right kind of standardized inventory that you can figure out who will be a great teacher. That’s so wrong on so many levels. It kind of goes along with idea that teachers are born but not made – either you’ve got what it takes to be a teacher or you don’t, which is not true. We’re like any other human beings – we can grow in our profession and we do.

Many of the questions seem geared toward finding teachers who are willing to work long hours including evenings and lunch. The teachers union has resisted Mayor Emanuel’s demands that the school day be lengthened, without corresponding increases in pay and benefits for teachers. (Last week the union and school system reached an agreement wherein city officials will stop pushing for a longer day at additional schools and study its impacts in the 13 schools that have agreed to implement it.)

One of the questions inquires how teachers would respond to being assigned work that takes away from class preparation and requires working over lunch breaks, evenings and weekends.” In the complaint, the union argues that this scenario represents a violation of contract protections setting the school day length and guaranteeing a work-free lunch.

The test also asks teachers to rate whether they would be likely to help parents organize fundraisers to buy textbooks, or seek corporate donations for textbooks and supplies. The very suggestion that already over-worked teachers — and parents — should take on more responsibility providing basic resources for schools, and involving corporations that could raise ethical issues, is highly offensive to many teachers.

Essentially the union is arguing it is unfair for aspiring teachers to be judged on their willingness to do things that they are not legally required or even allowed to do under the bargaining contract, and that by asking these questions, the board is trying to hire teachers who are less supportive of collective bargaining rights.

The complaint sites the case of Jen Kraakevik, who in June 2011 was offered a job teaching 6th and 7th grade language arts at an elementary school where she had done her student teaching. She accepted, but weeks later learned that the school was forced to withdraw the application because the board of education said she failed the TeacherFit questionnaire and could not be hired for 18 months.

The complaint notes that the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that job applicants are protected against violations of collective bargaining rights even before they have been hired. It says:

It is well-established that interrogating applicants about protected activity is unlawful intimidation and coercion, and it is clear that TeacherFit does just that, by asking about the applicant’s willingness to engage in actions that are likely to include protected concerted activity, and by asking how the applicant would respond to violations of the collective bargaining agreement.

The complaint cites a 2001 NLRB case, Mainline Contracting Corp., in which the company did not hire applicants who disclosed anything about union affiliation in their application.

In the bigger picture, Caref told me that the Teacherfit questionnaire is just one more sign of a disturbing trend in the Chicago Public Schools and nationwide.

They’re not emphasizing teachers ability to connect with the students, they’re not emphasizing teachers being able to be creative and inspiring in the classroom. The emphasis is almost as if they’re turning teaching into a factory job. Work more, produce more, that kind of mentality – your production is the students’ standardized test scores.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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