Strike!

Why the Chicago Teacher’s Strike is so important

A friend of mine recently sent me a link via facebook to Michelle Rhee crowing about the decline of unions. Here’s part 1 of my response.

Rek, I read the whole article. Trust is very important to me, as I’m sure it is to you. My responsibility to you is to only send you articles I find particularly persuasive that I think you might enjoy and benefit from, and I trust you to read them. The opposite, I’m sure, is true for you. Therefore I took this seriously and took an hour to respond to your article.

Therefore I’m going to respond in two kinds: one about Rhee’s attacks on teachers, and one about the broader question of the shift in the Democratic party she’s trying to make.

You’ll see that Rhee was heavy on sweeping statements and very light on specifics. This is by design.

Let’s take a look at the specifics. The specific case of Chicago Teachers vs. Rahm featured two sides laying out different visions of what “thinking of the children” meant.

The Rahm/Rhee side:
+ Tying employment/advancement to student performance on standardized test
+ Moving tons of money from public schools to charter schools
+ Larger class sizes
+ Pay teachers less

The Teacher side:
+ More arts/music/gym teaching
+ Making sure students get school supplies/textbooks on day one
+ Enough desks for each student in a classroom
+ The air conditioner thing is real – they often had to cancel classes because kids were fainting in the heat.

(and of course each side wants the opposite of what the other wants. For example, if one side wants larger class sizes, the other want smaller ones. I didn’t bother spelling those obvious stuff out)

All this can be found from this document: http://www.ctunet.com/for-members/strike-central/text/Board-Proposals-Summary-Comparison.pdf

It’s the clearest comparison of the different sides we have, and the Chicago Public Schools haven’t challenged its claims. If you’d like to provide a different, more comprehensive layout of the deal, I’m happy to use that instead.

So which is more credible to you? I’ve experienced a lite version of the standardized testing regime. It was horrible – for students and teachers. I saw gifted teachers struggle to “teach to the test” while still maintaining the personality and style that made them good teachers in the first place. I saw smart kids tune out because of the frustrating monotony of it all.

The Rahm/Rhee side has lots of obvious downsides: larger class sizes is obviously dumb. Of course there should be desks and school supplies for kids. Teachers have Master’s degrees and work so many unpaid hours volunteering to help children with homework after school, or working on classwork into the late hours. Of course they deserve more pay. And underfunding poor public schools to put into charter schools should seem at the very least troubling to us decent people.

The strongest argument the Rahm/Rhee side has – the underpinning of their entire argument – is around accountability and evaluation. “There are bad teachers!” they say. “We need to have an objective way of finding them and firing them”. That is true, as far as it goes. For any profession (journalists, mayors, managers, and policy entrepreneurs included), there are some people that do better than others.

Of the many counter-arguments to that line of thinking, the one that I tend to like the most goes like this: The standardized test/student assessment path to “objective” criteria is awfully bad. It’s arbitrary, and prone to corruption. Study after study exposes that the great examples of improvement that come from the testing regime (such as “The Texas Miracle”) actually happened because principals and teachers, feeling the pressure, cheated on those standardized tests.

That’s a big deal, so I’ll repeat it in a different way. The high-stakes testing regime is so high-stakes that it puts unbearable pressure on whole school systems to cheat, and is brittle enough that the cheating is easy and often undetected.

Luckily for us, there does indeed exist a better, more objective measure of teacher quality – having other teachers visit their classroom, evaluate their teaching style, and take notes. Unfortunately for mayors like Rahm Emanuel, it doesn’t promise to be a cheap and easy solution. There are no “magic beans” where, by overwhelming cleverness, you underfund education and get starkly better results.

The teacher side, on the other hand, is pretty hard to find fault with. The poorest schools don’t have arts/music/gym class. Why should being in a poor neighborhood deprive you of a well-rounded education? Of course kids should get school supplies, and of course they should be able to have desks.

Underlying this whole clash, of course, is the question of money. So let’s talk about that next.

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