Why this parent blames the mayor for teachers strike

September 17, 2012

Melissa Lindberg
Melissa Lindberg

My kid is in a Chicago public school—a really good one, with selective enrollment, great teachers, and a great new “green” school building that is LEED-certified - but has no air conditioning. And here’s the thing: It's getting warmer earlier--in the 80's last March, and hot in school. You know what? It's hard to learn and to teach when it’s too hot. The heat makes it difficult to concentrate.

Why is this relevant? The lack of air-conditioning in some schools is just one of the issues that have been raised by teachers in the current strike. In Track E schools, students were in non-air conditioned schools during several days of over 100 degrees and weeks of over 90 degrees. Were the kids there to actually learn, or to make the Board of Education feel good that they’re providing extended school hours for them?

The extended school day is another issue.  It's fine to say we need longer school days to meet current educational standards. It's not fine if you have no curriculum for those extended days-- no art, no music, no physical education, no recess.

Plus, everyone agrees that teachers should be evaluated. Teachers want evaluation so they can improve their teaching skills. But how do we know if a teacher is good? If kids like the teacher? Some kids don’t like good teachers because they enforce discipline and make them work. If the principal likes the teacher? Some principals play favorites, or penalize teachers who have spoken up about things that aren't going well. If the test scores go up? Surely test scores are unbiased data points, right?

Well, let's examine that. My kid’s school has great test scores. It also has great teachers, kids who are motivated, parents who are supportive, a new building, textbooks, computers, art and music classes, and PE. But take the same school, the same teachers and principal, and plop them down in a violent neighborhood, take away the selective enrollment, and what happens? Test scores go down. Are the teachers suddenly less qualified, less talented, less caring, and worse at teaching? No. The environment has radically changed. Introduce factors like poverty and crime, and suddenly it becomes very difficult to teach and for students to learn at the same rate.

Then what happens when a school “fails?” It's shut down, and likely re-opened as a charter school with non-union teachers. Undoubtedly, some charters are better than the schools they replaced—but overall, charters are no better.

Why disrupt neighborhoods, close schools and fire teachers just to open charter schools that perform no better?  Seems like the answer is 1) to bust the union -- the trend these days is very much towards blaming public sector unions for all our financial ills; and 2) turning public money into profit centers for individuals and corporations.

However, if you fire all the teachers, who will be left to teach? If you fire just the bad teachers, can you replace them all with good teachers? Or will you find mediocre teachers, compliant teachers, disengaged teachers, and call it an improvement? Who will go into teaching if the Board of Education and the mayor routinely put down the entire teaching profession and call into question their honesty, their commitment to their students, their quality as teachers? Who will go into a profession that demands constant continuing education if you are just told that your education and your degrees are worthless and you are paid too much?  And why is a middle-class income too much money to pay our teachers?

Failure of leadership, not teachers

When you talk to teachers, what you find is a deep anger over cuts in education funding and the feeling that the children are not being served well by the system. They argue that every school needs a social worker and a school nurse, and text books on the first day of classes, not six weeks in. They argue that the emphasis on testing forces them to teach to the test and to teach students how to fill in little circles on a form—not to teach them critical thinking, or creativity, or love of learning.  They argue that kids need art, because it unleashes creativity. They argue that kids need music and physical education, because these are lifelines for students who are otherwise drowning in the stress of their daily lives. They argue that no one should be expected to work 24% more per day and then take a pay cut. They argue that cutting health benefits means more sick days for teachers, more disruptions in the classroom. They note the major disrespect they feel from the mayor and his hand-picked Board of Education. They've been made to feel that they are at fault for everything that is wrong in the schools.

Meanwhile, Illinois is 50th in the nation in education funding. Let that sink in. And TIFs have been a major force in siphoning off money from education and into the hands of private developers, with little accountability for how those TIF dollars have been spent.

So perhaps the current situation isn’t all the teachers’ fault. Perhaps it is a major policy failure on the part of every single politician who has ever voted for a budget in the state, city, and county. Perhaps the appointed Board of Education is at fault for applying business models to education, with no basis in any research in education that has ever been done.

Perhaps the failure comes from the leaders, not the teachers.

Meanwhile, CPS parents have routinely seen their concerns dismissed by that same Board of Education. CPS parents have attended public hearings to argue forcefully against having their neighborhood schools closed, against sending their kids to other public schools and either placing them in unsafe environments or forcing them to travel through unsafe environments.  The board has consistently gone ahead with their predetermined plans for school closures, teacher dismissals, principal dismissal and the labeling of schools as “failures” even as significant improvements were being made.

For all these reasons, I think the mayor is just plain wrong and at fault for the current strike. I think he set out to demonize the teachers, imply they were overpaid and under-performing.  I think he wants to break their union so he can stop paying middle-class wages to public employees, and instead create profits for his friends in the charter industry.  I think he’s a Democrat in name only-- just like Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, he wants to break all public unions, and the police and fire-fighters unions are next on the list.  He thinks he can get away with it—but here’s hoping that he doesn’t.  

Do non-union schools perform better? Richard D. Kahlenberg, writing for the New Republic, notes otherwise:

“The theory that a non-union environment, which allows for policies like merit pay, would make all the difference in promoting educational achievement never held much water. After all, teachers unions are weak-to-nonexistent throughout much of the American South, yet the region hardly distinguishes itself educationally. Indeed, the highest performing states, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey—and the highest performing nations, such as Finland—have heavily unionized teaching forces.”

Thank you to the Chicago Teachers Union for teaching us all this past week about what the real issues are, and what the "education reform" movement is all about.  We don't need Democrats who mimic Republican talking points on education or fiscal policy.

Melissa Lindberg is a CPS parent.