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Chicago Teachers Striking a Blow Against Inequality

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Thanks to an email from Eric Pitt (@SuperBad_) over at MentorMob I was alerted to a guest post on the MM blog from one of the striking Chicago Public School teachers, Mike Ryan, that explains the teachers’ reasons for going on strike. This perspective represents a stark contrast to the general perception that the strike is over salaries, benefits, job security, and teacher accountability. Here is what Ryan had to say about the reasons for the strike:

"Union President Lewis and Mayor Emanuel agree on one thing: the remaining issues of the contract are not financial. So, if there is enough money to go around, then the sticking point must be on where the money is going. When I realized this last night, I knew we were going to strike for three reasons. Two reasons are recognized by the Board, and may be temporarily resolved by the end of the contract negotiations. The third reason is the big one, and I’m afraid we will have a long way to go before much progress is made, but I’ll get to that one later" (11 Sept., 2012). 


(MentorMob.com)

What are the three reasons that Ryan sees as the underlying cause of the strike and who really is to blame for the impasse?

Board Recognized Issues
The first two issues that Ryan discusses in his post are:

  • Giving principles the authority to get the results the mayor wants
  • Putting in place a system for constant teacher improvement

According to Ryan, these are the concerns that the Chicago School Board is acknowledging and that also provide an insight into a larger societal debate over education that is being played out publicly (if not overtly) through the CTU strike. The first of these is the question of what to do with schools that have poor standardized test scores. Chicago’s current solution, and one that is gaining increasing national traction, is to close failing schools and reopen them as non-union charter schools. Ryan presents several problems with this strategy:

  • The new schools don’t always serve the same neighborhood population as the schools they replace, thus displacing some students.
  • Charter schools don’t always fix the problems they inherited from the original schools and they do not improve the neighborhoods they are located in.
  • Teachers – good, bad, and other – are displaced from their jobs and are often difficult to re-hire because their experience makes them more expensive than new teachers. So some very good teachers end up out of work and unemployable in budget conscious schools.

The second overarching issue that the strike is addressing is the debate over how to evaluate what "good" teaching is and how to improve teaching in general.  The proposal on the table in Chicago is to evaluate teachers based almost exclusively on standardized test scores. There are many, many factors that contribute to student success in school: parental involvement, nutrition, school resources and funding, pre-K access, peer pressure, societal attitude, and of course, the teacher. Why is it then that teachers seem to be the only ones held accountable for the results? Yes, educators have an profound effect on student success on standardized assessments, but sending unprepared, non-supported students into a classroom that lacks resources, and is under constant pressure to meet standardized test benchmarks is a recipe for failure.

The Real Reason for the Strike: Student Learning Environments
While the results and teacher improvement issues are huge societal questions that must be answered in the near future, Ryan indicates that the Chicago teachers are striking for a third, even more important reason –student learning conditions. There are many problems with the Chicago Public School system that contribute to the shortcomings on test scores and teacher performance:

"There are buildings in the CPS that have leaky roofs and no air conditioning. Text books arrive late in the first quarter or not at all. Some students attend classes with forty or more classmates. Conditions are rough, right? The truth is they’re a lot rougher in some places than others. Other schools in the district have beautiful new buildings. Textbooks and supplies are readily available. Class sizes remain small enough for individualized instruction. I ask myself why this is so on a regular basis and I can never come up with an answer. In the same district, how can there be so much inequality?" (Ryan, 11 Sept., 2012)

Ryan sums up the CTU strike by stating that every teacher who is striking has witnessed something that has made them ask themselves the same question about the inequality present in their system, and that is why they are on those picket lines – for the students who are suffering from the injustice of unequal educational opportunity.

Who is to Blame?
Education is a promise made by the older generations of a society to their children. Education is not a business, an entitlement, or a privilege. It is a promise. It is also hope and economic opportunity for the entire country. Ryan’s take on the CTU strike reveals that we are failing to uphold our societal obligation to provide an excellent education to every student in our schools.

While the media is inclined to lay blame for the CTU strike on Mayor Emanuel or the "greedy’ teachers, they really need to look at us collectively as a society that does not value education or the benefits that educating someone else’s child provides for all of us. It is time to begin supporting our children by supporting their teachers, and making sure that every school is an excellent school, and that every child receives an outstanding education regardless of where they live or who their parents are. I guarantee that if we supported education like the national priority it should be, there would be no need for the CTU or any teachers to ever go on strike again.

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