There are few arguments against the need to implement reforms in our current education system. Our school systems are challenged to produce students that are more innovative, have a greater base of knowledge,and possess the skills to keep learning from the cradle through their career. In addition, these students are not just measured against their peers sitting next to them, but against fellow students engaged in classrooms around the world. The true challenge in America, implementing change in a democratic system where all stakeholders have a say in the final solution.
Recently, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike after failed attempts to reach a workable contract with the Chicago Public Schools system, the third largest district in the United States with 350,000 students. The strike stemmed from the efforts of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to implement changes including longer school days, modify teacher evaluation criteria by basing it heavily on student academic performance and provide administrators more flexibility in hiring new teachers by not requiring them to hire back laid off educators first.
After extended negotiations, a contract was finally constructed and agreed upon. It provides teachers a 3 percent raise in the first year, a 2 percent increase in each year three and four, and if a one-year contract extension is agreed upon, there will be a 3 percent increase in the fourth year. These increases will provide teachers at the top of the salary scale with an annual income of between $95,000 and $103,000. It will cost the district an additional $295 million over the next four years, which is estimated to have an general fund deficit of $1 billion in 2014.
The new contract will implement numerous school reforms. No more than 30 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on student performance. Tenure teachers who are rated as "proficient" or better will be evaluated every two years. Teachers rated as "unsatisfactory" can appeal their scores. Laid-off teachers will receive up to five months pay while waiting in the "reassignment pool" with an additional five months at a lower compensation rate if not reassigned.
School days will be extended by one hour and 15 minutes for elementary students and 30 minutes for high school students. Ten school days per year will be added for a total of 175 full school days and six half days. Class sizes will be limited to a maximum of 28 to 31 students.
A variety of studies have shown that the school improvement efforts have garnered the most success when: strong school leadership is in place, decisions in and supporting classroom efforts are based on current data, there is strategic teacher recruitment and management policies being implemented and consistent intensive professional development programs are being conducted for school leadership and staff. Schools with the highest achievement focused on implementing fewer pedagogical innovations in greater detail while experiencing more accountability in executing these initiatives.
Successfully improving our schools to meet the needs of our students today will require a team effort. Each community will need to find its own solution to their individual challenges. The hard fact is all the stakeholders will be required to "give a little" to achieve the desired goal, preparing each student to be successful life-long learners able to compete with their global peers.
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.