Union challenge to teacher screening test faces hurdles

Print More

The controversial TeacherFit assessment that Chicago Public Schools uses to screen teacher candidates has come under fire from the Chicago Teachers Union, which has filed an unfair labor practices charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The union is demanding that CPS eliminate questions that ask about applicants’ willingness to work after hours and, more broadly, about their attitudes toward confrontation and challenging the status quo.

It’s also asking for CPS to “hire all teachers who were rejected for employment solely based on failing the TeacherFit questionnaire” and give them back pay.

The TeacherFit assessment is used in more than 100 districts around the country – usually without incident. Abe Reese, president of General ASP, which produces the TeacherFit, says that he does not know of the assessment being involved in any other legal disputes. And, he says, the assessments are vetted to make sure they comply with regulations.

“[Test designers] are always concerned with protecting the client, in this case CPS, against any sort of legal claims that might arise out of the use of the assessment,” he said.

But, he noted, many of the questions on the CPS version of the TeacherFit are unique to the district – likely including the questions the union is taking issue with – and were developed out of research done by the district’s human resources department.

A spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers also said that he was not aware of any other unfair labor practice charges or legal complaints focusing on the TeacherFit Inventory.

“The labor complaint filed by the CTU addresses a topic that is not part of the collective bargaining agreement. The TeacherFit questionnaire is developed and administered  by an outside firm and it does not share the individual responses with anyone at CPS,” district spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus wrote in an e-mail. “We fully support and encourage our teachers to participate in any and all activities with their union. Therefore, the allegation that the questionnaire discourages teachers from asserting their rights under the CTU contract is not accurate. The District is of the opinion that the complaint has no merit.”

She noted that teachers’ scores on the questionnaire are just one tool that principals can use during the hiring process. Low scores no longer prevent teachers from being hired.

Legal experts: Case might be a stretch

Several legal experts contacted by Catalyst Chicago said that the unfair labor practices charge has a chance, but faces hurdles.

At issue are questions asking applicants how they would react to “being assigned work that takes away from class preparation and requires working over lunch breaks, evenings and weekends” and “a job that would require the applicant to regularly work after hours.”

The union says these questions are, essentially, asking applicants if they are willing to violate the collective bargaining agreement.

The union also attacks several questions more typical of workplace personality tests, which the union claims include legally protected grievances and confrontations with principals and administrators.

CTU highlights three such questions, which ask applicants how much they agree or disagree with the following statements:

“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.”

(It is not clear whether agreeing with these statements, or disagreeing with them, would result in a more favorable score on the questionnaire.)

Courts have long held that it is illegal for employers to ask employees whether they are union members or, for instance, whether they would join in a strike.

Now, the executive director of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board will have to consider whether the TeacherFit questions are akin to similar interrogation, intimidation, and coercion – or whether they are simply an attempt to find the best teachers for the job, while happening to screen out a few potential union activists along the way.

The director will decide whether to dismiss the charges or issue a complaint against CPS. That would trigger a hearing in front of an administrative law judge; the board could then ask the courts for an injunction against the district.

Mike Zimmer, a professor at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, notes that CTU would have to prove the district specifically intended to weed out pro-union teachers.

He and other legal experts said the questions about after-hours work are likely to cause CPS more problems than those about personality traits.

“It’s hard to take those as being in any way illegal” except when considered alongside the other questions on the TeacherFit and the district’s acrimonious disputes with the union, Zimmer says.

Matthew Finkin, a labor and employment law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, makes a similar point.

“There is no doubt in the private sector that employers use these personality tests to screen out those who are more likely than not to be union activists, but unless you can prove that’s the intent, they are going to say, ‘We want team players — those who are going to be compatible with our mission, and efficient, non-disruptive employees,’ ” he says.

And, Finkin notes, CPS could respond by saying that it intends to change teachers’ working conditions with the next contract, and is simply using the questionnaire to seek people who will be suited to continue with the district.  

“It’s an interesting case,” he says. “(CTU is) pushing the envelope.”