Teachers conference focuses on strategies for more activism on education

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Teacher activism, “reframing” the public debate on education and
skepticism regarding teacher evaluation were among the topics at the
recent Chicago Teachers Union’s annual School Improvement Conference.

“Education in Crisis: What YOU Can Do” offered a day-long series of
speeches and workshops with advice on curriculum and teaching, but also
strategies to help teachers organize for the expected battles with a new
city administration and schools leadership.


Chicago Teachers Union Vice-President Jesse Sharkey and author and educator Lois Weiner of New Jersey City University talk at last weekend’s CTU school improvement conference.

Teacher activism, “reframing” the public debate on education and skepticism regarding teacher evaluation were among the topics at the recent Chicago Teachers Union’s annual School Improvement Conference.

“Education in Crisis: What YOU Can Do” offered a day-long series of speeches and workshops with advice on curriculum and teaching, but also strategies to help teachers organize for the expected battles with a new city administration and schools leadership.

The conference kicked off with a speech from Lois Weiner, a former New York City teacher and a leading scholar on urban education at New Jersey City University. Weiner told the crowd that public education in the U.S. has always been underfunded and “never provided equal educational opportunities for everyone, and that has to be our vision. That has to be our goal.”

Weiner also challenged many of the reform strategies now taking shape in many districts, such as charter schools and an emphasis on standardized testing, and have been championed by reform advocates and governors.

In response, Weiner said, teachers need to reach out to parents and communities for support. They also should find out what students’ lives are like outside of school and then use that knowledge in instruction, Weiner said.

The conference is an annual gathering that educates teachers about what’s happening in their profession and what they can do to help advance it, said Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, coordinator at the Quest Center, the CTU’s professional development component. This year’s conference focused on activism and how teachers can influence the debate on public education.

One strategy teachers could use is to get more people into the conversation about public education, said Kevin Kumashiro, a University of Illinois at Chicago education professor who presented one of the workshops.

“It’s too often we’re talking to ourselves,” he noted.

His comments echoed previous goals that the new union leadership has talked about: reaching out to parents and community members.

A workshop on teacher evaluation sought to bring CTU members up to date on the status of a new evaluation system, mandated by state law, which CPS is required to have in place in 300 schools by fall 2012 and the remainder of the district by fall 2013.

The new evaluations must include a value-added component that takes into account growth in student test scores. The evaluation framework is being field-tested in some schools this year and is slated to be implemented system-wide by this coming fall.

Carol Caref, Quest Center coordinator in charge of evaluations, said the CTU believes all teachers can continuously improve, but that “an emphasis on teacher-driven, collaborative professional development will do far more than teacher evaluation systems to increase student learning.”

The evaluation workshop touched off a spirited discussion and plenty of comments about the burdens and follies of testing, as well as skepticism about the usefulness of standardized tests. 

One elementary school teacher told of having to administer a test that “plainly” indicated on the form that “there is no validity to this test.” Another teacher questioned the wisdom of administering tests after students return from breaks, when they’re more likely to have not been thinking of schoolwork.

“How can you possibly evaluate someone who has been given a classroom of low performers and major disciplines and emotional problems with [a teacher] who has a magnet class?” asked another teacher. “You cannot evaluate apples and oranges and get who is the better teacher.”

“Kids are burned out” from all the testing, a teacher said from the back of the lecture hall.

“One day they will rise up angry and say, ‘This has taken our childhood away because all we did was test instead of learn.’”