Two Visions for Chicago's Schools

According to most news reports, the teachers in Chicago are striking because they are lazy and greedy. Or they are striking because of a personality clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and union president Karen Lewis. Or because this is the last gasp of a dying union movement. Or because Emanuel wants a longer school day, and the teachers oppose it.

None of this is true. All reports agree that the two sides are close to agreement on compensation issues--it is not money that drove them apart. Last spring the union and the school board agreed to a longer school day, so that is not the issue either. The strike is a clash of two very different visions about what is needed to transform the schools of Chicago--and the nation.

Chicago schools have been a petri dish for school reform for nearly two decades. Beginning in 1995, they came under tight mayor control, and Mayor Richard Daley appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, to run the schools; Vallas set out to raise test scores, open magnet schools and charter schools, and balance the budget. When Vallas left to run for governor (unsuccessfully), Daley selected another non-educator, Arne Duncan, who was Vallas's deputy and a strong advocate of charter schools. Vallas had imposed reform after reform, and Duncan added even more. Duncan called his program Renaissance 2010, with the goal of closing low-performing schools and opening one hundred new schools. Since 2009, Duncan has been President Obama's Education Secretary, where he launched the $5 billion Race to the Top program, which relies heavily on student test scores to evaluate teacher quality, to award merit pay, and to close or reward schools; it also encourages the proliferation of privately managed charter schools.

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.

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no teachers of the arts.

What do the teachers want? The main sticking point is the seemingly arcane issue of teacher evaluations. The mayor wants student test scores to count heavily in determining whether a teacher is good (and gets a bonus) or bad (and is fired). The union points to research showing that test-based evaluation is inaccurate and unfair. Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any job protections.

The strike is a headache for President Obama, because he is trapped between two allies that he needs for the November election. He needs the support of organized labor, especially the four million teachers, many of whom enthusiastically campaigned for him in 2008. But how can he abandon Rahm Emanuel? Even more problematic for the president, the teachers are rebelling against the core principles of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. That program, which provides grants to states, including Illinois, that demonstrate they are pursuing its reforms, relies heavily on standardized testing to enable states to evaluate teachers, to award merit pay, and to identify schools as "failing" and set them up for mass firings and closure.

Ultimately, the strike may be resolved around seemingly technical issues having to do with pay scales (whether teachers continue to earn more for degrees and experience) and regulations governing layoffs and rehiring. But what is likely to remain are the biggest issues: Will carrots and sticks for teachers produce better education for students? Should Chicago continue privatizing public education? Are standardized tests appropriate measures of teacher quality and school quality? Do school closings lead to better schools? Can school reform overcome concentrated racial segregation and poverty? Can our society afford to give children in urban districts a far higher quality of education than is now available?

Predictably, the striking teachers are taking a beating in the national media, which admires Rahm Emanuel's tough position, but teachers elsewhere are rallying around the Chicago strikers. Many see them as standing up for teachers and their right to bargain collectively, a right that was settled--or so it seemed--during the Depression with the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the right of workers to join unions. Education researchers, who have been concerned about the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, may fear to see issues settled politically instead of by reference to evidence. If the mayor wins, it will be perceived as a victory for a continued assault on teachers and their unions and an endorsement of school closings and privatized charters. If the teachers win, which is a long shot, the children of Chicago might get smaller classes and a better curriculum. The best outcome would be an amicable settlement, one that assures not more testing but better education.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 New York Review of Books