Tough scrutiny of teachers under former CEO Huberman

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The Chicago Teachers Union has long wanted to scrap the residency
requirement for teachers, arguing that the rule is a hiring deterrent.
But under former CEO Ron Huberman, the district stepped up its policing
of teachers for violating that rule, along with other board policies. The Chicago Teachers Union has long wanted to scrap the residency requirement for teachers, arguing that the rule is a hiring deterrent. But under former CEO Ron Huberman, the district stepped up its policing of teachers for violating that rule, along with other board policies.

During the 23 months that Huberman was CEO, from January 2009 to November 2010, twice as many warning resolutions were handed out to teachers, and three times as many firings occurred as in the prior two years, a Catalyst Chicago analysis of board reports shows. In all, 155 teachers were issued warning resolutions and 39 were dismissed.

The CTU says that the uptick in warnings was part of Huberman’s “attack” on teachers, a trend they hope will reverse under the new leadership.  So far, since Terry Mazany became interim CEO, the number of warning resolutions has ebbed and is averaging three per month—about the same number as under Huberman’s predecessor, Arne Duncan.

Warning resolutions are formal notices that include specific directives about what a teacher or principal is doing wrong and what they need to do to improve.  Resolutions must be passed by the Board of Education and are published as board reports. Teachers can get warning resolutions for poor performance, but CPS officials say the warnings were mostly issued because of policy violations or failures to comply with rules, including the residency requirement.

But district officials point out that even with the increase under Huberman, the number of warning resolutions issued was small, given that the district employs some 23,000 teachers.

Several principals contacted by Catalyst Chicago refused to comment on the matter. One, Kelly High School Principal Al Pretkelis, said the warning given to one of his teachers had to do with residency and was pursued by central office, not him.

Sara Echevarria, grievance department coordinator for the CTU, says the uptick was unprecedented.  Yet Warnings are a big deal to teachers, she says, partly because they are public and readily available online after the monthly board meeting.

“There is a stigma attached to it,” she says. “That ticks off a lot of members.” Plus, warnings put teachers in a vulnerable position with principals, who were also subject to more scrutiny, and more likely to be removed, under Huberman.

The district has always investigated residency questions and the union has no problem with the board insisting that teachers comply, she notes. But in some cases, teachers who received warnings had worked in the district for 12 to 15 years, never lived in the city, admitted that to their principal and had their paycheck mailed to their suburban address.  To discipline these teachers after so long seems suspicious, Echevarria says. 

In the past, principals and district officials took the issuance of warning resolutions very seriously, Echevarria contends, and wouldn’t hand one down until every other disciplinary measure, such as suspension, was exhausted.

One teacher who was given a warning resolution last year echoes that contention. The teacher (who asked not to be identified), contends that a series of relatively minor and unfounded accusations led to write-ups by his principal, followed by the warning. In one case, the teacher says, he was written up for being in the boys’ bathroom (teachers are supposed to use faculty restrooms), where he says he was looking for graffiti. The teacher has since transferred schools and says he thinks Huberman and his staff targeted veteran teachers, like him, who have higher salaries.

But CPS officials contend many of the warnings stemmed from a need to protect the district from legal liability and students from being harmed.  Chief Human Capital Officer Alicia Winckler says that she has worked to make sure that teachers and principals are in compliance with rules and has instituted more stringent background checks and drug testing upon hiring.

“It is important that we not inadvertently harm students by not knowing something we should know about,” she says.

As for residency violations, a huge spike in warnings last May—80 warnings were issued that month—mostly involved residency issues, Winckler says.

“When there is an act that doesn’t meet a policy or our expectations, it’s important that we are clear,” Winckler says. “Warning resolutions are a tool to ensure clarity regarding when an act or series of behaviors have not met our expectations. We expect it to be used – but used only when necessary.”

One expert agrees with Winckler’s aggressive stance.

Brenda Ellington-Booth, Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, says that effective organizations, whether corporate or non-profit, should have a grid that identifies high and low performers. In the best case scenario, 80 percent are high performers, whom leaders can spend most of their time nurturing. The bottom 20 percent should be getting support, a plan of action or an escort out the door.

Ellington-Booth, however, says that many non-profits and government agencies don’t see their workforce in this way. She teaches classes to future and current CPS and charter school principals and says many of them have the attitude that the teaching staff is not something they can change. “They think these are the teachers and this is what I have to work with,” she says.

Taking a strong stand against ineffective workers is seen as draconian, she says. This shouldn’t be the case.

However, Ellington- Booth says the fact that warning resolutions are public does change the situation a bit. “That is terrible and quite shocking,” she says.