The stakes in Chicago’s school strike go well beyond the nation’s third-largest public school system. For U.S. education reform, it may be a watershed. For teachers unions, it may be a Waterloo.

It was poor timing for Chicago teachers to walk out on 350,000 children Monday, the second week of the school year. (Despite union claims to the contrary, “walk out” is exactly what the teachers did, unilaterally shutting off negotiations with city.)

Chicago teachers have tough jobs: 87 percent of the mostly minority students come from low-income families. Even so, the record is shockingly awful. On the most reliable national standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Chicago’s fourth-graders not only lagged well behind the national average, they were nine points below the average among large cities on math and eight points lower on English.

The ostensible reasons for the strike concern pay increases, longer school days and teacher evaluations. The union has a weak case on all fronts. With an average salary of $76,000 a year, Windy City educators are at the top of the big-city teacher pay scale, yet they called for a 30 percent pay raise over two years amid the worst economy since the Great Depression. (The city, which rescinded a scheduled pay increase over the summer, has offered 16 percent over four years.) Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s lengthening of the school day and year were necessary, given that Chicago teachers now spend less time in the classroom than those in any other large district.

Measuring Achievement

At its heart, however, the strike is about teacher evaluation and their implications for measuring student achievement, rewarding good teachers and firing bad ones, and increasing competition through charter schools. Under the city’s new evaluation system -- which is mandated by state law -- student scores on standardized tests would make up 40 percent of a teacher’s rating. Not surprisingly, the teachers like the old system, under which 99.7 percent of them received a rating between satisfactory and distinguished.

On this issue, the strike goes well beyond Chicago: It is emblematic of other efforts to obstruct public school reform based on performance. The teachers’ mindset was neatly summed up by the spotlight-grabbing president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, who demanded the school board “evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of children we do not control.” If how much students actually learn is beyond the job description of teachers, what exactly are Chicago residents getting for their tax dollars?

Admittedly, not every reform has been flawless. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has been rightly criticized for its emphasis on one-size-fits-all testing and a flawed “adequate yearly progress” metric. Yet, all in all, the law was a tremendous step forward: It converted a hodgepodge of squishy state and local assessment practices into comparable national standards, set clear goals for school performance and made school administrations and districts accountable for student achievement.

Refinements under the Obama administration, including the Race to the Top program in which states compete for federal innovation grants and NCLB waivers granted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have added flexibility without undermining standards. The next step is likely to be widespread implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a project spearheaded by the nation’s governors that has been adopted in 45 states.

Public Approval

The public is generally behind these efforts. A study released last fall by the journal Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University found that vast majorities of Americans approve of merit pay based on state tests, as well as the expansion of charter schools and private-school vouchers for low-income students. Pluralities also favored allowing college graduates without formal teaching credentials to teach and opposed nationwide tenure. Seventy-two percent favored annual testing based on common state standards.

If teachers don’t get behind the reform movement, they will get run over by it. Research by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, indicates that teacher quality is the most important factor in student success. If unions think student scores are overemphasized in teacher evaluations, they should work with states and school boards to create more comprehensive assessments, including reports from in-class observers, feedback from students, and measures of pupil performance such as portfolios and “value-added” exams that try to identify a teacher’s contributions to student success.

Chicago might be the last stand for business as usual. Parents know it. Politicians know it. And, in their heart of hearts, the teachers probably know it, too. Perhaps they need a nudge from authority to move beyond the denial stage. Ordinarily, there’s no reason for the White House to get involved in local political disputes. But Chicago is President Barack Obama’s hometown, Emanuel is his former chief of staff and Duncan is the city’s former schools chief. Obama has so far declined to take sides. He should -- and he should side with the future.

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