School & District Management Opinion

Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike

By Stephen Dyer, Paul Thomas, Kamau Bobb & Andrea Kayne Kaufman — October 02, 2012 7 min read
Chicago teachers picket on Sept. 10, the first day of their strike, which closed schools in the nation's third-largest district for seven days.
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Observers had plenty to say about the first Chicago teachers’ strike in 25 years. The walkout last month turned on disputes about teacher evaluation and pay and student testing, among other issues. Here are essays sent to Commentary about the strike and its impact.

On Teacher Buy-In: Lessons From Ohio
Missing the Forest for the Trees
The Strike and Minority Students
The Strike Is Over, Not the Relationship

On Teacher Buy-In: Lessons From Ohio

By Stephen Dyer

While the Chicago teachers’ strike was a terrible thing for everyone involved, I think if folks in Chicago had taken a lesson from our experience in Ohio, especially on teacher compensation, it could have been avoided.

In 2009, I was the lead legislator on a comprehensive, statewide education reform plan that dealt with teacher compensation, accountability, and a brand-new school funding system. I learned much during the development of that plan. But most importantly, I learned that many well-meaning education reformers make three basic mistakes that lead to all kinds of headaches when trying to implement the reform.

If reformers listen to teachers and seriously include them in the discussion over the changes in their profession, [teachers] can become the reformers’ greatest allies."

Many reformers move too fast, too unilaterally, and too confidently. As a result, they alienate people who could be their greatest allies: teachers.

If teachers buy into what you are doing as a reformer, it enhances the reform rather than weakens it. Cleveland reformers didn’t even engage the city’s teachers’ union on their recent reform plan until after they introduced it to the business and philanthropic communities. Somehow, teachers’ unions are seen as the roadblock to reform, despite the fact that the centerpiece of many reformers’ efforts—charter schools—was promoted by the late Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers.

In 2009, Ohio took a different approach. We gave teachers a broad framework in which to develop a new evaluation system, but it was the teachers who developed the details. The plan they drew up even allowed for test scores to count for up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Many teachers, and even their unions, have bought into the idea that test scores should count for something, just not everything. And this brings me back to the mistakes many well-meaning reformers make: moving too fast, too unilaterally, and too confidently.

If reformers listen to teachers and seriously include them in the discussion over the changes in their profession, they can become the reformers’ greatest allies.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

By Paul Thomas

The Chicago teachers’ strike has sparked even more debate over the role of unions and the importance of teacher quality in public education. Yet, arguments and policy associated with teachers’ unions and teacher quality share one serious problem: missing the forest for the trees.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, front right, attends a rally on Sept. 11, the second day of the teachers' strike in the Windy City.

Carefully examining the debates themselves—in other words, pulling back from the trees to consider the forest—offers an opportunity for the public, educators, and policy stakeholders to reframe those debates and thus improve the likelihood education reform can achieve what it has failed to accomplish over the past 30 years.

Unionization, poverty, and measurable student outcomes are so deeply interconnected that focusing solely on union influences on student outcomes misses the central obstacle facing public schools, teachers’ unions, and political leadership: poverty.

The current education reform debate, then, captured by the Chicago strike, represents a self-defeating problem of focusing on the trees (solutions and policy) without considering the forest (problems, goals). The solution means stepping back and addressing the forest; for example, consider the following:

• What is the broad purpose of universal public education?

• What are the influences of unions across the United States, and what are the essential roles unionization should serve in public education as a force for democracy and equity?

• What is the proper relationship between teacher autonomy and teacher accountability?

• Who is designing and mandating education policy? What is their experience and expertise in education?

The education reform debate remains a regrettable failure of ideology over evidence.

The Chicago teachers’ strike shows that political leaders are starting with solutions without defining the problems, and then promoting those solutions without grounding them in the wealth of evidence available to them.

Paul Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

The Strike and Minority Students

By Kamau Bobb

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right, chats with Isaiah Roman, 11, in the cafeteria of Frederic Chopin Elementary School, on Sept. 19, the first day of school for students after the strike was suspended.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike highlights the disproportionate dependence black and Hispanic children have on public education in the nation’s major urban centers. It is clear that the trauma to the city and to the approximately 350,000 students and 26,000 teachers affected is significant and will require considerable healing. It is no secret that large urban public education systems across the country are made up of predominantly black and Hispanic students, a majority of whom are children of the poor and working poor. The consequences of public bickering, budget reductions, and ever-changing political and educational policies are borne by children and families least resilient amid these forces.

According to the U.S. Census, the state of Illinois is 78 percent white, 15 percent black, and 16 percent Hispanic—proportions almost identical to those for the United States as a whole. The Chicago public school system, however, is made up of nearly 9 percent white students and 42 percent and 44 percent black and Hispanic students, respectively. Additionally, 87 percent of all students in the Chicago public schools are classified as low-income. Of the approximately 404,000 students in the public education system in Chicago (including students in charter schools, which were not affected by the strike), only slightly more than 35,500 are white.

So what does the strike say to the students themselves? One possibility is that their teachers are fighting to ensure that they get the best education possible. Another possibility is that they feel abandoned. The nuances of the argument over whether teachers’ wages should be tied to students’ performance on standardized exams likely does not resonate with children.

A fundamental issue for national leaders in industry, education, and public policy is that the U.S. workforce will not be sufficiently well educated to compete with its international counterparts.

So, where does that leave the child in Chicago whose teachers and public servants have walked out on her?

It leaves her as a representative of a generation of mostly poor black and Hispanic children who are at the center of a critical juncture for the nation. If we continue down this path of social neglect, she is and will continue to be, as the late Harvard professor Derrick Bell wrote, a face at the bottom of the well. Our other option is to be clear about who she is and the challenges she is facing. Her education is trapped in a thicket of race, income, and geography. The extent to which the nation is willing to address that is the extent to which the nation is willing to move in the right direction.

Kamau Bobb is a research scientist for outreach and policy analysis at the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The Strike Is Over, Not the Relationship

By Andrea Kayne Kaufman

A pupil heads back to Helen M. Hefferan Elementary School as classes resume in Chicago.

As a professor in a graduate educational leadership program in Chicago, I work with students who are mostly full-time teachers seeking their master’s degrees and licensure to be school administrators. One course I teach this quarter is called Home, School, Community Relations: Transforming Conflicting Stakeholders Into Strategic Partners.

The first night of class was Sept. 10, and while there is no uniform in graduate school, many of my students were wearing, if not seeing, red, having spent the better part of their day on picket lines in Chicago chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has to go” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” Unfortunately, the Chicago strike reflects a national trend. We agnostics in education are very lonely these days among the divisive, polarized ideological camps that have professionally and personally undermined and lambasted the perceived “other” under the pretext of education reform, seeking to blame them for all that is wrong in education.

True and lasting education reform should eschew zero-sum politics and bring diverse stakeholders together with their unique experiences, perspectives, and interests. Education is multilayered and complex: No one group is to blame for education failure. We all need to take responsibility and work together as constructive problem-solvers without blame or retribution.

Andrea Kayne Kaufman is an associate professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago.

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2012 edition of Education Week as Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike


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