After nearly twenty years of ‘reform’, the schools of Chicago remain among the lowest performing in the nation.
A funny thing happened on the way to labor’s extinction: the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) staged one of the most daring and important strikes in recent memory. As Chris Hedges put it during his Democracy Now interview last week “the teachers’ strike in Chicago is arguably one of the most important labor actions in probably decades.” And in the midst of this struggle, most of the corporate media around the country have decried the horrible greedy teachers from their editorial pages and assured readers that they were on the side of the children rather than the teachers.
If they had checked with the public in Chicago they would have found that the parents and most of the public sided with the teachers even while Obama’s former chief of staff and central fundraiser, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, was getting the solid backing of Paul Ryan. Yes, that Paul Ryan. Indeed, a Chicago Tribune poll taken last week showed that the hated teachers’ union had the support of 47% of the public while the mayor was backed by 39% of residents.
This is certainly due to the fact that the CTU has spent the last several years doing community work with the parents in some of Chicago’s most blighted schools and pointed out that the children there need much more than just standardized testing to improve their lot. Hence the teachers are pushing for things like air conditioning in classrooms, more access to social workers, teachers of art and languages in every school, libraries, and other things that would deal with the environment in which children learn in a far more holistic fashion.
Emanuel, the man who as Obama’s chief of staff once famously gave a group of progressives pushing the public option in healthcare the “double bird,” has characteristically played the bully. The man who helped the Clinton Administration ram through NAFTA followed his tried and true playbook—demonize and belittle your opponent, work the inside game, and jam through your policy over all objections, principled or not. But this time he has met his match in the CTU.
What the Strike Is Really About
But this strike is not fundamentally about personality conflicts as some have reported; nor is it really even about money. The real stakes are much higher and they have national significance. As Pauline Lipman pointed out in the New York Times :
Chicago was the birthplace of neoliberal education reform — high-stakes testing, closing neighborhood public schools and turning them over to private operators, expanding charter schools, running schools like businesses, test-based teacher evaluation, prescribed standards, and mayoral control of schools.
Over the past 15 years, these policies were promoted nationally by corporate philanthropies, conservative think tanks, and recently by billionaire-initiated education reform organizations like Stand for Children and Education Reform Now. The Chicago agenda became the official national agenda when President Obama appointed Chicago’s chief executive of schools, Arne Duncan, to be his Secretary of Education.
Educators have fought a national corporate agenda for 15 years and have had enough . . .
But more deeply, at the school level, there is plenty of research showing that these policies have reduced the curriculum to what is tested, demoralized teachers and degraded the teaching force, and left parents and students with no public school options in their communities.
These are not education policies, but rather business policies applied to schools with business goals: promoting top-down management, weakening unions, shifting the purpose of education to labor force preparation, and opening up the $2 trillion dollar global education sector to the market. Despite efforts by educators, researchers, and parents nationally to contest this agenda, it has become the new status quo. This is why Chicago teachers are on strike.
And the reason why Paul Ryan jumped to Emanuel’s side was not just to politically embarrass Obama, it was because the sad truth is that the new bipartisan hegemony on education is neo-liberalism, with the only real difference being that the Democrats still have a minority wing of the party that doesn’t want to simply union bust and open the floodgates to privatization.
Rahm Emanuel: The Scott Walker of the New Democrats?
What the Chicago teachers strike does is underline this inconvenient truth in the midst of a Presidential election, right when the Democrats want the remnants of labor to fill their phone banks in crucial swing states. Thus Rahm’s Scott Walker imitation is awkwardly timed. Still the mayor is a key figure and symbol of what most ails the party that used to be the friend of the working person. As Hedges again notes in his interview, this is all happening:
as we rapidly reconfigure this country into a neofeudalistic society, an oligarchic state. And it is, I think, emblematic that the reptilian heart of the Democratic Party is sort of represented by the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, who has, like—as far as I can tell, all major Democratic figures turn their backs on the union activity and the struggle on the part of the Chicago teachers, including, of course, Barack Obama. And it really boils down to the fact that we spend $600-some billion a year, the federal government, on education, and the corporations want it. That’s what’s happening. And that comes through charter schools. It comes through standardized testing. And it comes through breaking teachers’ unions and essentially hiring temp workers, people who have very little skills. This is what Teach for America is about. They teach by rote, and they learn nothing. There’s no career. I mean, there’s quite a difference between teaching people what to think and teaching people how to think. And corporate forces want to teach people what to think. It’s a kind of classism. People get slotted. It’s vocational. And so, I see what’s happening in Chicago as, you know, one of the kind of seminal uprisings of our age. And if they don’t succeed, we’re all in deep trouble.
But, if all you did was read, listen to/or watch the mainstream, corporate media, Hedges’ analysis may as well be from the moon because all the right-thinking liberal and moderate elites from Kristof to Brooks to Freidman to the editorial page of the New York Times are in the tank for pretty much every neoliberal reform in the book, particularly when it comes to education. That doesn’t, however, prevent them from being full of pious hot air. Fortunately, there are a growing number of voices of sanity chirping around the edges of the official bi-partisan neoliberal party line.
What You Won’t Hear from the Corporate Media’s Editorial Pages or Hollywood
One of the best voices in this regard has been Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post who has sharply opined during the Chicago Teachers’ strike that her own paper’s editorial page is dead wrong on corporate education reform as are many other prominent voices such as the New York Times editorial page and the whole new Democrat crew and their corporate pals:
The Times can say that using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is a sensible policy and Obama can say it and Education Secretary Arne Duncan can say it and Emanuel can say it and so can Bill Gates (who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop it) and governors and mayors from both parties, and heck, anybody can go ahead and shout it out as loud as they can.
It doesn’t make it true.
Can all these very smart people be wrong? Yes, according to many experts on assessment who have done extensive research on the subject.
These experts have said over and over and over that the method by which test scores are factored into an evaluation of how effective a teacher is are dramatically unreliable and unfair. Some say it will destroy the teaching profession because it will identify effective teachers as ineffective and ineffective teachers as effective. Some bad teachers will be fired but some good ones will too. Others will leave in disgust.
Strauss goes on to cite the fact that the current assault on the teaching profession is driving talented young people away from the profession. Her discussion of this is backed up by the most recent numbers that show that almost half of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years. In California, we also have seen a huge decline in the number of young people who want to go into education in the first place. Go figure. Who wants to be pubic enemy number one while making less money than most other folks with the same level of education?
Accountability, Corporate Reform Style
What’s worse is that the siren call of data-driven decision-making seems only to draw politicians’ attention when it comes from folks with big money who want to break unions and impose untested policies on the American education system as if it was one big Petri dish for self-appointed billionaire experts. The problem is that many actual researchers see the current shock doctrine approach to education reform as reckless.
In Chicago scores of researchers from 16 universities in the metropolitan area signed a letter asserting that:
As university professors and researchers who specialize in educational research, we recognize that change is an essential component of school improvement. We are very concerned, however, at a continuing pattern of changes imposed rapidly without high-quality evidentiary support. The new evaluation system for teachers and principals centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education ofChicago’s children. We believe it is our ethical obligation to raise awareness about how the proposed changes not only lack a sound research basis, but in some instances, have already proven to be harmful.
Hence it is politics, not research that is driving the push to hook teachers up to a brain dead technocratic evaluation system that may actually do more harm than good. Perhaps the most insightful observer of contemporary American education, Diane Ravitch , frames it this way:
This is the vision that Washington now supports, and that the Chicago school board, appointed by current mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, endorses: more school closings, more privately managed schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours. But in Chicago itself, where these reforms started, most researchers agree that the results have been mixed at best. There has been no renaissance. After nearly twenty years of reform, the schools of Chicago remain among the lowest performing in the nation.
But the fact that there is very little evidence that the reforms being pushed so zealously by both the right and their corporate liberal allies work just doesn’t matter. Why? Because the “accountability” crowd are unaccountable. They are rich and powerful and can fill the political coffers of both parties—much more efficiently than the teachers’ unions can. Thus, the CTU had to go old school and expose the emperor with no clothes.
What the teachers in Chicago are trying to do is not revolutionary; they are just trying to put the breaks on a runaway train by insisting that their evaluation process not be so heavily weighted in favor of unreliable standardized tests. But, most importantly, the teachers have been able to make their voices heard by putting a monkey wrench in the gears of the corporate education reform machine.
The teachers’ competing agenda for American education is one that values smaller classes, a well-rounded education, and schools that serve the whole child. And these are all things that are being sacrificed in the service of high stakes testing and an idiotic business model that devalues critical thinking and aims to create a world full of good worker bees for the glorious neoliberal future, Inc.
I salute the CTU for their courage in standing up to the soulless Taylorist factory manager vision of education that the corporate technocrats want to impose on my eight year old son and his fellow school children. As a teacher with over 20 years of experience practicing the profession in high schools, community colleges, and four-year universities, I know the teachers are right and that the self-interested billionaire boys club is wrong. There is much more to a good education than what can be measured by a standardized test. The qualitative matters as much, if not more, than the quantitative. To sacrifice all that cannot be measured on the altar of efficiency is to take the humanity out of American education.
It would be nice if, in a better world, reason could win the day, but sometimes you just have to punch a bully in the mouth before he shows you any respect. And that’s what the CTU strike has done to Rahm Emanuel and the corporate ed reform gang. And that’s a good thing because it is the misguided reformers rather than the teachers who are hurting our schools and endangering our children’s future by fundamentally misdiagnosing the problem. Sarah Jaffe of Truthout nails this in a recent article on the attacks on teachers where she quotes economist Dean Baker who notes that, “The main determinants of children’s performance continues to be the socioeconomic status of their parents. Those unwilling to take the steps necessary to address the latter (eg. promote full employment) are the ones who do not care about our children.”
So good for the teachers in Chicago, the ones who work with kids everyday and really care about them. Let’s hope they get a fair settlement and that their example spreads across the country and inspires teachers and parents everywhere to stand up for the integrity of our education system and the future of our children. Thank you CTU. After Wisconsin, we needed this.
Postscript: Just last Friday a Wisconsin district court struck down most of Scott Walker’s anti-union law. Out of the ashes of the old . . .
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