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As the seven-day Chicago teachers strike ends, local teachers and education advocacy groups say there are lessons to gain from their Midwestern peers that coincide with what’s happening with teachers both in Fairfax County and across the nation.

Chicago public school teachers began the strike in response to several workplace issues including teacher out-of-the-classroom labor loads, purchasing of school supplies and classroom sizes. The strike also highlighted changes to teacher evaluation criteria that would put additional emphasis on student performance on standardized test scores, which is part of the No Child Left Behind waiver requirements received by states such as Illinois and Virginia.

The strike in the U.S.’s third-largest school district affected about 350,000 students, according to the Chicago Tribune. A vote to end the strike took place Tuesday.

In Fairfax County Public Schools, the nation’s 11th-largest district, teachers also are concerned about the role student performance measures will play in evaluations. Teachers heading back to the classroom after summer break were trained on the new system just before classes began Sept. 4.

“There’s definitely the opportunity for teachers to assess students and see progress, but we do that all the time,” Mosby Woods Elementary School Librarian Kimberly Adams said. “They’re just asking us to pick one goal … and that’s the only goal that makes it to your evaluation.”

The Virginia Department of Education has applauded the No Child Left Behind waiver, saying it allows public schools and school systems to get away from “arbitrary” and “unrealistic” student performance benchmarks created under the law. However, as part of the waiver requirement, the state had to create a plan that would generate accountability measures for teachers.

Fairfax Education Association President Michael Hairston served on a state panel, which drafted waiver requirements. Before the panel discussions began, Hairston said state officials made it clear student performance measures would dominate teacher evaluations under the new standards.

“I would say the bar is much higher with the new instrument than it was under the old instrument,” Hairston said. “Forty percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be tied to the students’ achievement and we thought it would be better at closer to 20 percent.”

The new evaluation system includes seven measures focused on professionalism and planning, but the greatest weight is given to student academic progress, according to the state. Depending on the school, educators said, teachers are asked to create one or more “smart goals” that will measure student performance in their classroom.

Fairfax County Federation of Teacher’s President Steve Greenburg said the new evaluation system has brought up a lot of questions and concerns, specifically about implementation and fairness, because the new system was put into place in July.

“One of the problems with the teacher evaluation process in Fairfax County is the timeline,” he said. “We were put on a timeline where we had to rewrite the teacher evaluation process and have that in place by July. …We did not have time to discuss — in implementation terms —workloads. When are the principals supposed to do these evaluations?

“The busiest time of the school year is the first two months. And [that’s when] the principals are having to sit down with teachers and ask what their smart goals are.”

Longtime county teacher Barry Weinstein, a traveling art instructor at three elementary schools, said the time crunch is a real concern as the trend in teacher workloads has already balanced in favor of out-of-classroom activities rather than teaching.

“With the teacher evaluation — I’ve been through many iterations of this before,” Weinstein said. “I think this one is different. It started off very quickly and it’s got some of the things that are typical in getting it wrong. … it’s very confusing. We weren’t even told how many goals we need. Some principals say three, some say one. I sort of see these inequities in changing variables for certain employees.”

Weinstein’s questions on the new system focus on how a teacher knows whether his or her goals are appropriate, how outcomes are measured and the level of additional work created by the new system.

Although the Chicago teachers’ strike is over, it might generate a better conversation about the new evaluation system nationwide.

“Time is still going to be an issue because this is going to be an extra thing for teachers to do, … I’m being cautious to see how the process works out,” Hairston said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com