On the Chicago Teachers Union strike (or, why the Mayor is an utter asshole)

My kid is in a Chicago Public School. He goes to a really good one, with selective enrollment, great teachers, and a great new school building, LEED certified and everything  – but even in his new building, no air conditioning. Maybe that would have hurt it’s LEED certification or something …. here’s the thing: it’s getting warmer earlier. It was in the 80’s in March last year, and hot in school. You know what? It’s hard to learn when it’s too hot, and it’s hard to teach when it’s too hot. The heat makes it difficult to concentrate.

Why is this relevant? Well, the teachers have brought this up as an issue. It’s an issue for the students and teachers trying to learn in the E Track schools — they were in school in July, when we had several over-100 degree days, and weeks of over 90 degree temperatures. Those kids were in un-air conditioned schools: that’s a good educational environment, wouldn’t you say? Are the kids there to actually learn, or to make the Board of Education feel good that they’re providing extended school hours for them?

And then there’s the extended school day.  It’s fine to say we need longer school days to meet current educational standards. It’s not fine if you have no curriculum for those extended days. It’s not fine if there is no art, no music, no PE, in your schools. Oh, and no recess. Who is supposed to come up with the new curriculum? The teachers. Who wants to give them a pay cut for working more hours?  The Board of Education.

So, everyone agrees that teachers should be evaluated. Teachers want evaluation so they can improve their teaching skills, become better teachers. Everyone wants to see all our kids taught by good teachers. How do we know if a teacher is good? Well, we know it when we see it, right? If the kids like the teacher (but some kids don’t like good teachers because they enforce discipline and make them work), if the principal likes the teacher (but some principals play favorites, or penalize teachers who have spoken up about things that aren’t going well), if the test scores go up — surely test scores are unbiased data points, right?

Well, let’s examine that. My kid’s school has great test scores. It also has great teachers, kids who are motivated, parents who are supportive, a new building, textbooks, computers, art and music classes, and PE. You take the same school, the same building, the same teachers and principal, and plop them down in a violent neighborhood, take away the selective enrollment, and what happens? Test scores go down. Are the teachers suddenly less well qualified, less talented, less caring, and worse teachers? No. The environment has radically changed. Introduce factors like poverty and crime, and suddenly it becomes very difficult to teach and for students to learn at the same rate.

Yet not only teachers supposed to be evaluated on test scores, but so are entire schools. What happens if a school “fails?” Why, it’s shut down, and re-opened as a charter school, mostly likely run as by a for-profit entity, and with non-union teachers.  Maybe this isn’t so bad: are charter schools better? Undoubtedly, some are better than the schools they replaced. But overall, public schools and charter schools perform about the same.  Here is a quote from The Center for Public Education:

Some charters do better; the majority do the same or worse. CREDO also moved beyond individual student performance to examine the overall performance of charter schools across multiple subject areas. They found that while some charter schools do better than the traditional public schools that fed them, the majority do the same or worse. Almost one-fifth of charters (17 percent) performed significantly better (at the 95 percent confidence level) than the traditional public school. However, an even larger group of charters (37 percent) performed significantly worse in terms of reading and math. The remainder (46 percent) did not do significantly better or worse.

So why disrupt neighborhoods and close schools and fire teachers just to open charter schools that perform no better?  Seems like the answer is 1) to bust the union — the trend these days is very much towards blaming public sector unions for all our financial ills; and 2) turning public money into profit centers for individuals and corporations.

If you fire all the teachers, who will you hire to teach? If you fire just the bad teachers, can you replace them all with good teachers? Or will you find mediocre teachers, compliant teachers, disengaged teachers, and call it an improvement? Who will go into teaching in our schools if the Board of Education and the Mayor routinely puts down the entire teaching profession, and calls into question their honesty, their commitment to their students, their quality as teachers? Who will go into a profession that demands constant continuing education if you are just told that your education and your degrees are worthless and you are paid too much?  And why is a middle-class income too much money to pay our teachers?

Who is on the Board of Education? Those appointed by the Mayor. Who has he selected? Millionaires. Do any of them have kids in the Chicago Public Schools? No. Do any of them have experience in education? No. Will any of them profit if there are more charter schools? Well …. maybe, yes.

When you talk to teachers, what you find is a deep anger over cuts in education funding — the feeling that the children are not being served well by the system. They argue every school needs a social worker and a school nurse. They argue every school needs text books on the first day of classes, not six weeks in. They argue that the emphasis on testing forces them to teach to the test, to teach students how to fill in little circles, but not to teach them critical thinking, or creativity, or love of learning.  They argue kids need art, because it unleashes creativity and you need creative thinking in so many fields (science, for instance). They argue that kids need music, and physical education, because these are lifelines for students who are otherwise drowning in the stress of their daily lives. They argue that no one should be expected to work 24% more per day and then take a pay cut. They argue cutting health benefits means more sick days for teachers, more disruptions in the classroom. They note the major disrespect they feel from the Mayor and his Board of Education: they’ve been made to feel that they are at fault for everything that is wrong in the schools.

Meanwhile, Illinois is 50th in the nation in education funding. Let that sink in. And then start to wonder if perhaps this isn’t all the teachers’ fault — perhaps this a major policy failure on the part of every single politician who has ever voted for a budget in the state, city, and county. Perhaps the failure of our school system come from the leaders, not the teachers: perhaps their bosses are really at fault. Perhaps the appointed Board of Education is at fault because they are applying business models to education that have no basis in any research in education that has ever been done — because none of them have any reality-based idea about what makes education work or how you measure it. None of them are educators. None of them have degrees in education. They are all “leaders in their fields” — but none of those fields are education. How can you appoint a board of education and not put someone who knows something about education on it?

Tonight, the Mayor is threatening to file an injunction against the CTU, calling their strike illegal, and for illegal reasons (i.e., not just compensation).  He mouths platitudes about our children not being served by the teachers’ strike, and how much harm this is doing to them. The Mayor’s kids are not being harmed: they are in a wonderful private school. He’s making sure his own kids get a great education while he’s disrupting the education of my kid and the kids of other Chicago parents. He says “this was a strike of choice,” when referring to the CTU — and I agree with that: I think it was a strike of choice pushed by the Board of Education, the new Chief Executive Jean-Claude Brizard, and the Mayor.

It seems the Mayor hired Jean-Claude Brizard primarily to force a strike by the teacher’s union — after all, he came from Rochester, where he was was noted for his top-down and heavy-handed management style. In his last job in Rochester, NY, the Rochester Teachers Union held a no-confidence vote in which 80% of the teachers voted — and 95% of them voted “no confidence.”  This vote was preceded by a vote of no confidence by parents and community members in Rochester.  So why did the Mayor pick Brizard, who clearly lacked the communication and leadership skills to manage a large school district?

CPS parents have routinely seen their concerns dismissed by the Board of Education. CPS parents have attended public hearings to argue forcefully against having their neighborhood schools closed, against sending their kids to other public schools where they had to travel further to get to them — often placing them in unsafe environments, or forcing them to travel in unsafe environments.  The Board has consistently dismissed parents’ concerns, and gone ahead with their predetermined plans for school closures, teacher dismissals, principal dismissals, the labeling of schools as “failures” even as significant improvements were being made.

Then there is the little matter of funding. TIFs have been a major force in siphoning off money from the education system and into the hands of private developers: and there has been little accountability for how those TIF dollars have been spent. The parents might be more convinced by the charter school argument if they hadn’t already seen politicians skimming dollars from the schools through TIFs: now the charter school movement seems like another way to skim some money from public education.

So yeah, I think the Mayor is just being an asshole. I think he set out to demonize the teachers, imply they were overpaid and under-performing, and I think he wants to break their union so he can stop paying middle class wages to public employees, and instead create profits for his friends in the for-profit charter industry.  I think he’s a Democrat in name-only: that just like Republican Scott Walker, he wants to break all public unions, and the police and fire-fighters unions are next on the list.  He thinks he can get away with it.  And that makes him an asshole of the highest degree. Does that offend you? Sorry.

Does giving “more flexibility in hiring”  make a difference? In other words, do non-union schools perform better? Richard D. Kahlenberg, writing for the New Republic, notes otherwise:

The theory that a nonunion environment, which allows for policies like merit pay, would make all the difference in promoting educational achievement never held much water. After all, teachers unions are weak-to-nonexistent throughout much of the American South, yet the region hardly distinguishes itself educationally. Indeed, the highest performing states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey—and the highest performing nations, such as Finland—have heavily unionized teaching forces.

Here’s hoping he’s wrong: that he doesn’t get away with it, and that he doesn’t win re-election … or, heaven forbid, election to higher office.

Thank you to the Chicago Teachers Union for teaching us all this past week about what the real issues are, and what the “education reform” movement is all about.  We don’t need Democrats who mimic Republican talking points — not on education reform, not on fiscal policy, not on national security.

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3 thoughts on “On the Chicago Teachers Union strike (or, why the Mayor is an utter asshole)

  1. From Daily Kos today:
    “Considering teachers were stripped of a negotiated raise last year, their lack of trust is understandable. The idea of looking at details before making a decision may be foreign to Chicago School Board members, though; Joanne Barkan highlights a University of Illinois at Chicago Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education report (PDF) finding that not only do school board members typically not attend hearings on school closings, but don’t even necessarily read transcripts of the hearings before voting on whether to close schools.”

  2. A great big thank you to competitivemalaise for his/her reply. It’s nice to see that more of the public, especially parents, are seeing the real motivation behind these politicians. It’s profit motivated. The less you have to pay for your overhead costs, which is what staff salaries are, the more profit you can pocket. Only this time the pocket profiting is off the backs of children.

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