Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago teachers say "Enough!" to scapegoating

By Barbara J. Miner

Much of the media debate on the Chicago teachers strike has centered on teacher pay and evaluation. But underlying the strike is growing apprehension over this country’s education reform strategy.

The dominant education narrative, promoted primarily by Republicans but increasingly embraced by Democrats, goes something like this:
Our education system is failing because we are not holding our schools to high standards.
Teachers are primarily to blame. Too many teachers are either self-centered, incompetent, lazy, or refuse to adhere to those high standards (as measured by standardized tests).
Unions are protecting these teachers.
If we want our country to thrive and our children to succeed, we must break the unions, close failing schools and get rid of the lazy and/or bad and/or greedy teachers.
One way to do so: promote semi-private, non-union charter schools where principals have the power to hire and fire at will.
Are there lazy teachers? Of course, just like there are lazy journalists, lazy doctors, lazy corporate CEOs. Are unions without blame? Of course not.
But the dominant education reform strategy substitutes scapegoating for substantive reform. It seeks to get rid of unions, dumb down the teaching profession (and pay less), and promote corporate-based reforms that treat children and teachers as cogs in a machine whose main purpose is to churn out higher test scores.
In this political and economic climate, no one cavalierly goes on strike. The Chicago action, in essence, is a case of teachers believing they had no other way to get across their message that “Enough is enough.”
Alex Kotlowitz, in an opinion in a New York Times on Sunday, lays out the problem of asking teachers to be miracle workers. He writes: “In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and, by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide? This is a question asked not only in Chicago, but in virtually every urban school district around the country.” 
An analysis in the Chicago Reader, the city’s long-standing alternative newsweekly, has good background on the local specifics of the strike, but within a national context. “Keep in mind before you join the rip-the-teachers chorus,” the article cautions. “Mayor Emanuel's pushing us toward a system in which all teachers— charter and union — are lower-paid, at-will employees who have about as much job protection and say in their workplace as grill-line workers in a fast-food restaurant. Please tell me how that's good for kids.”

An article in the New Republic most clearly lays out the national repercussions of the Chicago strike. It also takes on the myth that charter schools — a reform promoted by Democratic and Republicans alike as the answer to our education woes— are out-performing traditional public schools. “Although 88 percent of charters are nonunion, giving principals in those schools the flexibility that reformers prize, the most comprehensive study of charter schools (backed by pro-charter foundations), concluded that charters are about twice as likely to underperform regular public schools as to outperform them,” the article notes.
An article on the Huffington Post is one of the few to explain that the teachers’ demands also focus on increased resources for children. The teachers’ vision of reform includes smaller classes, music, art, phy-ed and library for students, and more wraparound services with professional social workers, nurses and counselors.
The international news agency Reuters, in its analysis of the strike’s causes, touches on the racial implications of Emanuel’s reform strategies. “Already,” Reuters writes, “the demographics of the teaching profession in Chicago have notably shifted, as the private managers who run charter schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.

 Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have deep roots in and passion for the communities where they work.”

The American Prospect, meanwhile, notes the strong parental support for the teachers strike in its first week, especially among parents of color. “Fully 66 percent of parents with children in the public schools, and 55.5 percent of Chicagoans overall ‘approve the Chicago Teachers Union decision to go on strike,’” it noted. “Among African Americans, strike support stood at 63 percent; among Latinos, 65 percent. (Roughly 80 percent of Chicago’s schoolchildren are minority.)

“So, who disapproved of the strike? A majority (52 percent) of parents with children in private schools, and a majority of whites (also 52 percent).”
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

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