The Chicago Teachers Strike, with Deborah Meier

Why do business people want to privatize schools? “Because that’s where the money is,” says Deborah Meier, citing Willie Sutton’s famous response to a reporter who asked him why he robbed banks.

Meier, senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University; author; former teacher in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia; and founder of innovative schools in East Harlem and Boston, is considered the founder of the small-schools movement. We were talking about the Chicago teachers’ strike that surprised Mayor Rahm Emanuel as well as a lot of other people – and interests – among the champagne and brie education “reformers.”

As Meier suggested, the strike showed both how angry teachers are (it was followed by teacher strikes in some Chicago suburbs as well) and how that anger can be productive with good leadership. Once again it demonstrated a lesson we too often forget: collective action can be effective. Beyond the impact on Chicago public schools themselves, that lesson may be the most important legacy of the strike.

And why are teachers so angry? Meier had an interesting answer: the credentials touted by public school “reformers” such as former Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard1, former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein in NYC have not been what a good job they did with the public schools. Rather, they trumpet the number of schools they close and/or convert to charter schools that offer the opportunity for transferring public tax dollars to private corporations. To accomplish this goal, those “reformers” add layers of bureaucratic control and reporting structures to the public schools, numbing the creative impulses of teachers and children alike. The outcome drives parents – and, often, young college graduates in Teach for America – to conclude that the only option is a charter school. The strategy is much like that of neoliberal policies at the national level: to insure that government is ineffective and wasteful, thus undermining confidence that through collective, democratic decision-making we can shape our future, creating a better world for ourselves and our children.

Why did this fight-back come from Chicago teachers?

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is the oldest

1As I write, Brizard, who was handpicked by Mayor Emanuel, has become Emanuel’s fall guy, resigning as superintendent of schools after only 17 months.

American Federation of Teachers’
local in the country; it had been a
leader in education for many years.
Over the past decade, however,
the union had lost the respect of
many of its members as well as
parents of Chicago schoolchildren.
This dynamic changed when
the Caucus of Rank and File
Educators (CORE) won the CTU
presidency and vice presidency in
2010. Karen Lewis, the new president, along with her vice president Jesse Sharkey and the CORE-affiliated trustees, immediately set about both democratizing the internal operations of the union and, of equal importance, building links between the union and parents. Thus the strike was not primarily about wages but, as the excellent study produced by CTU says: “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” ( SCSD_Report-02-16-2012-1.pdf). The study outlines a vision of the future for Chicago’s school children that is sharply at odds with that of Stand For Children or Children First as well as Mayor Emanuel, but one that resonates with parents and children in the schools. CTU’s study called for the expansion of art and music programs, more “wrap-around” services to reach at-risk children, recognition that class size matters (Emanuel talked about going as high as 55 students in a class), and equalizing funding across schools. These are all pieces of a vision that should be embraced by true education reformers – but the study has been largely ignored by those who currently run the Chicago public school system.

One of the most talked-about issues in the strike was the extent to which standardized tests are the measure of both teachers’ and students’ educational success. The school board wanted these tests to count for 50 percent in teacher evaluation, but CTU refused, eventually winning the 30 percent state-mandated minimum. In many respects, standardized testing is the symbol of the neoliberal education “reform.” Such tests create quantified outcomes that can be compared, much like one can say a particular business is more or less profitable than another. These tests also mean that principals or other education executives do not have to know much about teaching and learning as they assess their educational labor force: all they have to do is read and compare scores. However, as Meier pointed out,

no country that she knows of has tested its way to the educational top, and even the Chinese education system is moving away from use of these standardized tests.

It is not that other educational systems, such as the very successful Finnish system, make no use of these tests, because they often do. However, the tests do not drive the educational curriculum, and are not significant in teacher evaluation, but rather are used as a diagnostic tool

to help teachers, students and parents improve learning. And ultimately it is learning that education should be all about. Meier described learning as the process by which we, individually and collectively, learn to speak and think more thoughtfully and with greater insight. This is an educational goal we should all embrace. t

Bill Barclay is an Oak Park, IL DSA member.