What some teachers and reformers want

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They say they are tired of being the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong in the Chicago Public Schools. They say they want respect and a stronger voice in school reform. Those were the themes teachers emphasized when asked about the new leadership at the Chicago Teachers Union. School reform activists echoed the teachers, saying they believe it’s time to stop blaming teachers and to start giving them more help, suggesting everything from better professional development to smaller schools and class sizes to more special education aides. “Teachers were getting beat up pretty badly, especially in the high schools, and it didn’t seem like anyone was listening to them,” says Reid Sechan, a 6th-grade special education teacher at Irving Park Middle School. “No one asked them to take part. They just said, ‘Do this and do that.’ It didn’t seem like Thomas Reece was giving us enough of a say in what went down.” Sechan adds: “I’ve been listening to Deborah Lynch, and she voices the concerns of most teachers.

Those concerns include lowering class sizes, raising salaries, improving professional development, lessening the emphasis on testing, and ending intervention, the board’s most recent remediation program, imposed on five high schools last year. Teachers, school reform activists and other educators contacted by Catalyst expressed support for Lynch on most of these issues, with the exception of smaller class size. None was against smaller classes, but some believe it’s an impractical goal in a space- and cash-strapped system. Here’s a look at what teachers and others say they would like to see from the new leadership at the CTU:

On speaking up

“[Paul] Vallas was always in the newspaper. [Gery] Chico was always in the newspaper, but you never heard from our union on important issues. I think that will change.”

Robert Mankiewicz, social studies teacher and union delegate, Bowen High School

“[Under Reece’s leadership,] most people felt we didn’t have a union anymore. … [Now] we’ll finally have a voice. I’m not sure any of us can put into words exactly what that voice will be, but we’re tired of a union that just agreed with whatever the board put out there.”

Jon Hawkins, English teacher and union delegate, South Shore High School

On class size

“I absolutely think class size is critically important, but I’m not sure [lowering it] is 100 percent do-able. “In my school and many others, overcrowding is a big issue. We can’t make any more classrooms. We’re pleading for another school, and we don’t feel we’re being heard.”

Lucy Klocksin, reading teacher, Boone Elementary

“At my school, it’s impossible. There’s no room for any more classrooms, so even if we had the teachers, there’s no place to put them. I’m starting with 32 students in the fall.”

Jacqueline Maldonado, 5th-grade teacher, Waters Elementary

“Just getting teachers to cover the classes we already have is going to be a challenge. … On the other hand, the Chicago Public Schools have tended to put a lot of money into programs outside the regular school day, like after-school programs, summer school, and things like intervention that bring additional people into the school. While those can be valuable, it’s really important to strengthen the basic school day instead of putting programs around it, and that would include smaller class size.

“My own experience in classrooms is that even when a kindergarten has 25 students instead of 30, it’s still a challenge for teachers to learn how to serve the needs of all those children, and better staff development can help them learn how to do that. So smaller class size alone doesn’t solve the whole issue of serving all the needs.”

Steve Zemelman, director, Center for City Schools, National-Louis University

On professional development

“My hope is that the union will really work on the professionalism of teachers and carry that as far as they can and make the curriculum the best it can be. For many years the union has been protection for people who maybe should be looking for another career. I know they have to do that, but I don’t want that to be the only thing they do. I’d like them to work for the empowerment of teachers, so we’re using our own expertise, for example, for staff development.”

Carol Gaul, resource teacher, Cameron Elementary

“What I’d really like to see is better working conditions and having readily available materials. [For example,] if you use the structured lesson plans, many times the materials they suggest you use aren’t included, or they’re sent after the lesson is taught.”

Sharrel Titlebaum, 4th-grade teacher,

Calhoun Elementary

“I would rank professional development as the absolute No. 1 priority [for the union]. Then I’d say teacher support beyond professional development. I’m talking about the resources teachers need, the materials, the support staff—like more special ed people to assist them. We have a teacher shortage in special education of serious proportions. In terms of classrooms not having resources, it’s a budget problem, and we aren’t going to find more money. It’s a matter of taking a look at our money [and how it’s being spent].”

Barbara Radner, director, Center for Urban Education, DePaul University

“I’d like to see [the new union leadership] address the whole question of improving the quality of ongoing support and development of teachers. We’ve had so much pressure and a punitive push on teachers without saying, ‘How can we design support systems that help them grow?’ I hope they will put that on the table in a serious way.”

Anne Hallett, executive director,

Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform

“I’d like the union to target the issue of teacher leadership in school reform and teachers taking a more active role in reform. The teachers union has a legitimate claim on school reform issues. The other thing I’d like to see them do is … high school restructuring. I’d like to see the union play a role in transforming these large, mostly unsuccessful high schools we have in the city. Instead of blaming the teachers for the problems, we need to take a look at the structure and culture of our high schools.”

Michael Klonsky, director, Small Schools Workshop, University of Illinois at Chicago

On testing

“You need to have a general assessment for everyone so you can compare how you’re doing with other places, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of everything. There’s too much teaching to the test and too much money spent on booklets that promise you’ll get higher scores, and they aren’t even made by people who give tests or [who] are teachers. The stakes on the tests are way too high.”

Carol Gaul, Cameron Elementary

“I don’t think the disenchantment of teachers has been the standardized tests but how the test results have been used. That’s really what has driven the teach-to-the-test momentum that has taken hold in the system. Should they get away from that? Absolutely. It’s bad to use standardized tests to drive curriculum and instruction.”

Raelynne Toperoff, Teachers Task Force

On remediation programs

“Everybody knows intervention didn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but the way it was implemented was ridiculous. Here’s a chance to redefine what intervention means. It shouldn’t mean attacking the teachers. It should mean envisioning a way to give teachers support and developing new ways to look at what success means, instead of looking at a single test score as a way of evaluating schools, teachers and students.

Michael Klonsky, Small Schools Workshop

“The problem with those kinds of programs is they always blame the teachers. That’s the attitude of the board, the media, everybody. We get kids with a wide variety of problems and we give them the same test as the kids [in the suburbs], and they’re supposed to perform the same way, and it just isn’t going to happen.”

Jon Hawkins, South Shore High School

“The idea of intensive help for troubled schools is not a bad idea, but coming in and blaming the teachers and cracking the whip is never going to work.”

Robert Mankiewicz, Bowen High School

“The schools identified as needing intervention certainly need a lot of support, but it doesn’t appear to me that the way it has been organized has succeeded. What I hope is that resources are still provided but they are provided in a more effective way. I was told originally that the plan for intervention would be patterned after the very successful effort at Manley to improve reading skills. Manley had a team of four teacher facilitators. The intervention teams did not have the expertise to do that job, and they were given more of a job of monitoring and writing reports.”

Steve Zemelman, Center for City Schools

On salaries, benefits

“I felt like things we walked the [picket] line for, we had to give up with Reece. I felt we lost some of the benefits we fought for. I’d expect her to try and get better insurance coverage. We have a poor plan. For example, the dental plan only covers the worker, not the family. I’d also like them to privatize payroll because I think a lot of mistakes are made.”

Sharrel Titlebaum, Calhoun Elementary

“I didn’t go into teaching to make a lot of money. It would be nice, but it’s not at the top on my list.”

Carol Gaul, Cameron Elementary

“I’d like to see better benefits, maybe paid maternity leave or family leave. And we’ve been dissatisfied with the medical coverage. It’s hard to get someone to honor our plan. When I’ve had to find a dentist, I had to travel for an hour to find someone who would accept our coverage.”

Andrew Pascarella, social studies teacher,

Robeson High

“We’re having enough trouble attracting and keeping teachers in the system. It’s difficult to do that if you pay less than the surrounding communities. So I think pay is a legitimate concern.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director,

Parents United for Responsible Education

“The tack needs to be not that we’re looking to get rich but we’re looking to attract quality people. If you talk about what’s best for children, they need fully-staffed schools, and you get that by paying people.”

Robert Mankiewicz, Bowen High