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September 2012, Week 2

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Striking Chicago Teachers Take on National Education Reform

 Analysis: Striking Chicago teachers take on national
 education reform

 By Stephanie Simon and James B. Kelleher

 Reuters
 September 10, 2012

 http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/10/us-usa-chicago-schools-analysis-idUSBRE8890VS20120910

 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
 United States.

 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
 typically non-union.

 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
 scores.

 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
 work.

 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
 Union.

 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
 public schools.

 "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
 limited success.

 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
 the nation.

 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
 standardized tests.

 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
 consortium found.

 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
 education overall.

 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
 new landscape.

 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)

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