Striking Chicago Teachers Take on National Education Reform
Analysis: Striking Chicago teachers take on national
By Stephanie Simon and James B. Kelleher
September 10, 2012
Chicago teachers walking picket lines on Monday, in a strike
that has closed schools across the city, are taking on not
just their combative mayor but a powerful education reform
movement that is transforming public schools across the
The new vision, championed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run
Chicago's schools, calls for a laser focus on standardized
tests meant to gauge student skills in reading, writing and
math. Teachers who fail to raise student scores may be
fired. Schools that fail to boost scores may be shut down.
And the monopoly that the public sector once held on public
schools will be broken with a proliferation of charter
schools, which are publicly funded but privately run - and
To reformers, both Democrats and Republicans, these changes
offer the best hope for improving dismal urban schools. Many
teachers, however, see the new policies as a brazen attempt
to shift public resources into private hands, to break the
power of teachers unions, and to reduce the teaching
profession to test preparation.
In Chicago, last-minute contract talks broke down not over
pay, but over the reform agenda, both sides said Sunday. The
union would not agree to Emanuel's proposal that teacher
evaluations be based in large measure on student test
Nor would the union accept his push to give principals more
autonomy over hiring, weakening the seniority system that
has long protected veteran teachers. Already, the
demographics of the teaching profession in Chicago have
notably shifted, as the private managers who run charter
schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and
far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.
Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is
African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union
says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have
deep roots in and passion for the communities where they
About 42 percent of the city's 400,000 public school
students are black and 87 percent are low-income, according
to district figures.
"This is fight for the soul of public education," said
Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers
Opponents reject such high-flying rhetoric as self-serving;
they describe the union as an obstructionist force that
stands in the way of progress for kids.
"This is a union very much concerned with job protection and
job security," said Rebecca Nieves Huffman, who runs the
local branch of Democrats for Education Reform, a coalition
of wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs pushing to remake
"It's crazy to think if we keep doing the same model of
school over and over, we'll get different results," said
Juan Jose Gonzalez, the local director of Stand for
Children, another reform group allied with the mayor.
"Teachers need to decide if they're going to be part of this
process or not."
AN AGGRESSIVE UNION
Teachers in Chicago - at least, a core group of them - long
ago chose confrontation over cooperation.
That group spent two years quietly building support among
teachers for their vision of a more aggressive union that
would fight reform on principle as well as seeking to
protect members' pay and benefits.
In June of 2010, the activist faction's candidate for union
president, Karen Lewis, won the job. Her ascent symbolized
the union's transformation to a "big, red fighting machine,"
said Debby Pope, a union official.
Pope discussed that strategy at the American Federation of
Teachers' convention in Detroit earlier this summer. While
the AFT carried on official business in the convention
center, Pope held court for a handful of teachers and union
organizers from across the United States in the back room of
the Anchor bar.
She urged them to use aggressive tactics to resist a reform
agenda that pins much of the blame for poor student
achievement on bad teachers. In Chicago and elsewhere,
teachers respond that the main problem is poverty; they say
their students do poorly because they're hungry, because
their lives are chaotic, because they don't have the
eyeglasses they need or quiet places to do their homework.
"We say no, teachers are not the root of the problem," Pope
told the group gathered in the bar. "The root of the problem
is the way capitalism is destroying public schools."
Teachers have raised similar concerns elsewhere, but with
In the past three years, at least 20 state legislatures have
passed bills setting up new teacher evaluation systems; many
require student test scores to be the primary factor.
(Teachers are typically rated not on how many students pass
the test, but on how much growth students show from one year
to the next.)
In some cities, teachers have worked with politicians and
administrators to design evaluation systems they feel are
fair. AFT President Randi Weingarten has praised that
approach, which she calls "solution-driven unionism."
In Chicago, though, negotiations went nowhere.
"Nowhere else has a teachers union said, 'Enough is enough,'
" said Mark Naison, a professor of African-American history
at Fordham University and a union supporter. "This is ground
zero of resistance to corporate education reform."
LONG HISTORY OF REFORM
The union stand comes in a city that's long been at the
forefront of education reform.
In the late 1980s, U.S. Secretary of Education William
Bennett condemned Chicago's public schools as the worst in
Ever since, civic leaders have been trying to fix them.
The first wave of reforms called for empowering citizens by
creating hundreds of locally elected school councils across
the city. That lasted just a few years, until the state
stepped in to centralize control over Chicago schools in the
hands of the mayor, who was to appoint a chief executive
officer to run the district more like a business.
The first CEO, Paul Vallas, ushered in high-stakes testing:
Thousands of students a year were held back a grade or
denied entry into high school because they couldn't pass
Vallas' successor, Arne Duncan, took high-stakes testing a
step further. Duncan closed scores of schools with poor test
results. He remade others by firing the staff and hiring
private turnaround specialists to run the schools. Duncan
also encouraged the spread of charter schools.
Results have been mixed.
High-school graduation rates have improved and high-school
test scores are up, according to an analysis last year by
the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University
of Chicago. But test scores have barely budged at the
elementary and middle grades.
And two decades of reform have done nothing to close the
racial gaps in achievement levels. On the contrary, black
students have fallen farther behind than ever, the
Chicago also fares poorly compared to other cities. On the
most recent national exam, Chicago fourth-graders didn't
come close to the average scores posted by students in other
large urban districts, in either reading or math.
There are some bright spots. Some elementary schools taken
over by private turnaround specialists - and bolstered with
millions in additional public and private funds - have
boosted test scores significantly.
Some charter high schools, too, have dramatically raised
scores and college matriculation rates among their low-
income students, who must commit to spend hundreds more
hours in the classroom than their peers and follow a rigid
code of behavior.
"Parents have voted with their feet," said Michael Milkie,
the CEO of the Noble network of charter high schools, which
has thousands of families on its waiting list. If city
leaders push ahead with plans to expand the charter network,
including eight new Noble campuses over the next four years,
"Chicago can serve as a model for the nation," Milkie said.
Yet teachers, backed by some civic activists, contend that
while some charters stocked with highly motivated students
have flourished, Chicago's reform policies have hurt public
They complain that regular neighborhood schools suffer with
crumbling facilities and overcrowded classrooms while
privately run charters and turnaround schools get pricey
renovations, new equipment and additional staff.
And they argue that closing schools has destabilized poor
neighborhoods and even sparked violence, as rival gangs end
up crammed together into the schools that remain.
Some parents praise Mayor Emanuel for the courage to stand
up to the unions and replace failing neighborhood schools
with charters. "It's about our kids," said Fri Baez, whose
third- grade daughter attends a charter school and is
already planning for college.
Other parents, however, have yet to find their place in the
Lisa Kulisek lives just a short walk from three magnet and
charter schools with good reputations. But they receive so
many applications, they choose their students by lottery.
Kulisek said she has been told that her daughter, now in
preschool, has less than a 10 percent chance of landing a
slot. That would leave her to attend the only neighborhood
school left in the area, which is farther away, posts
terrible test scores, and primarily serves a destitute
public housing complex.
Kulisek says she worries that by emphasizing charter schools
the reforms have created a two-tier system.
"If everyone who can get out, does get out, there isn't
going to be much of a system of public education left, and
that terrifies me," she said. "For some of us, the public
school system is all we have."
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Denver and James Kelleher
in Detroit; Editing by Eric Walsh)
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate