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PORTSIDE  September 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE September 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Chicago's Lesson - We Need Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

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Date:

Thu, 20 Sep 2012 19:53:03 -0400

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The Top Takeaway From the Teachers' Strike: We Need
Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

by Amy B. Dean

Huffington Post
September 19, 2012

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-b-dean/the-top-takeaway-from-the_b_1891107.html

"We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools.
Right now the children are getting a raw deal."

That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago
Teachers' Union... in 1969. It still resonates in September
2012, when the CTU's members have again walked a picket line.
Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and
in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the
strike of the past two weeks is simple: We're for good
schools; we're for kids; and, yes, we're for teachers too.

There's no shame in teachers standing up for their self-
interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good
over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part
of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching
profession don't do it to get rich. They do it with the goal
of inspiring and educating the next generation.

By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers
threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the
cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a
practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation's
politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a
single group. It's called scapegoating. And scapegoating
should never be a substitute for leadership.

The takeaway from the Chicago strike is that true leadership
in education requires partnership -- an approach that supports
what is working in our schools and creates a collaborative
effort among teachers, school officials, and policymakers to
make sure we build on that success.

Education as Engine of Urban Economies

There's a reason why many big city mayors are trying to take a
stronger role in steering their cities' school systems. In a
globalized economy, there isn't much mayors can do
independently to foster development and improve the economic
competitiveness of their metropolitan regions. They have some
tools available in the realms of housing and transportation.
But good schools are a reliable driver of economic success, as
prominent education thinkers like University of Virginia
President Teresa Sullivan have documented. Ambitious mayors
recognize this fact. That's why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa -- who himself came out of a teachers' union --
has joined Emanuel in moving to exert more influence over his
city's schools.

Such mayors are right to understand the economic importance of
schools. The question is, are regional political leaders like
Emanuel willing to work with teachers to educate poor and
wealthy kids alike? Or will we wind up, as respected education
scholar Diane Ravitch warns, with a permanent two-tiered
system, with elite charter schools for the (mostly richer)
kids who score high on standardized tests? Under such a
system, kids who may be smart but lack the vocabulary and
support to succeed on the tests will languish in sweltering,
inadequately supplied classrooms.

Iconic Chicago mayor Harold Washington understood that
collaboration around education could enhance the economic
vitality of the city. That's why he brokered the peace in
response to public outcry at the last Chicago teachers' strike
in 1987. Washington saw that business leaders and parents
needed him to work with teachers to keep the machinery of
education running, so working parents wouldn't have to take
more time off for the strike, and so kids could resume
learning the skills they would need later to be effective
members of the workforce.

The way forward is to create abundantly resourced public
school systems that will push economic growth in cities and
regions. Innovating and improving public schools helps attract
middle- and upper-income families to cities and regions to
build a healthy tax base. Mayors such as Emanuel should be
funding public education and supporting what is already
working -- including strategies invented by unionized teachers
-- within public schools.

Partnership in Practice

Successful examples of smart educational investment in
partnership with teachers' unions do exist. Take Montgomery
County, MD, where students at one neighborhood school
continually scored low on tests. The administration, working
closely with the teachers' union, managed to turn the school
completely around in just three years without using draconian
pay cuts or firings. "We take the quality of teaching and
learning seriously, so we jointly created and implemented a
thorough, meaningful and transparent evaluation system that
ensures intensive support for all new and underperforming
teachers," said Montgomery County Education Association
president Doug Prouty.

Mayor Emanuel's great failing in his approach to the strike is
that he did not come to the conversation about reform with an
attitude of building on what is going right. Even Chicago has
had areas of hope and progress in public education. Chicago's
public school teachers have proven they can academically
outcompete just about anyone. This last year, more than 24,000
children competed for about 5,000 slots in the top 5 selective
enrollment high schools. The students and families lining up
to apply to selective enrollment high schools accept that
public schools can achieve excellence with unionized teachers.
The principals at these schools accept it too, providing
leadership development and mentoring for teachers and rewards
for their good work.

Emanuel could have started the discussion by celebrating these
successes and looking for ways to spread them. To be fair, the
mayor has done some work to improve public education in the
city. He created 10 new International Baccalaureate (IB)
academic excellence programs in existing high schools
throughout the city. He also lengthened the school day, which
was sorely needed as Chicago had one of the shortest school
days in the country.

Rather than saying to teachers, "I did this in spite of you,"
he could have asked, "How can we do more of this together?"
For we know from best practices in the business world that
without cultivating buy-in from all the key stakeholders,
efforts to promote change are destined to be far less
effective.

Underneath the Chicago Strike Headlines

The stories about the strike printed in the media have often
perpetuated an unhelpful framing of the issues at hand. We
were told teachers didn't want a longer school day. However,
the true issue was not whether a longer day should be
implemented, but rather what the process for putting this into
practice could be. With real input from teachers, rather than
a heavy-handed move to shove an altered school day down the
throats of those who do the educating, this issue might not
have reached an impasse.

Likewise, we were told that teachers did not want to be
evaluated. But that was not the case. Educators merely wanted
to be evaluated based on meaningful criteria that they could
actually impact in their work -- not just high-stakes test
scores whose value as a measure of students' success is highly
questionable. In Cleveland, the teachers' union and the school
district worked together to create and implement a totally new
teacher evaluation system that will phase in over a four-year
period. As Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon noted, using
teamwork to resolve such a big, contentious issue is worth the
longer timeline: "This is complex work and it takes time to
build it thoughtfully and carefully. It really has been a
joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is
the right [approach]."

Emanuel has said he favors the Waiting-for-Superman strategy
of linking teacher pay and job security to students'
performance on standardized tests. But that approach has been
found by education experts to be no more effective than
traditional teaching and evaluation methods.

Simply corporatizing the schools is not going to magically
make students learn. The use-tests-to-declare-public-schools-
failing-and-siphon-the-money-to-corporate-branded-charters
methodology has been discredited as bad pedagogical practice
and thinly disguised union-busting.

Teachers have rightly asked, if they are only going to be held
accountable for teaching to tests, when is the real educating
supposed to happen? Sadly, this pressing question has not been
heard above the din of political rhetoric.

Beyond the Strike

By making some of the changes teachers have called for, like
installing air conditioning in classrooms and creating a
teacher evaluation system jointly with the union, Emanuel
could have made the teachers' union into a powerful ally for
improving schools. Instead, he yanked the already-stretched
thread of teachers' goodwill toward the school system, and it
snapped.

Pointing fingers and placing blame is not the way to build
partnerships, and it's not the way to move forward on
education. Whatever happens with the strike in Chicago, maybe
we can look at some of the case studies of successful
initiatives in education and see that strong respect for
teachers is not at odds with the interests of students.
Conversations about how to replicate and build on the things
that are working in our schools need to be happening not just
during contract negotiations, but on an ongoing basis.

For those conversations to happen, city officials must repair
the relationships that were broken in the hardball politicking
around the strike. They need to embrace teachers as full-
fledged partners in conversation about reform. That's harder
than just placing blame. But it is needed if we're serious
about fixing our kids' schools.

[Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of "A New New
Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor
Movement" and is president and founder of ABD Ventures, and a
Fellow of the Century Foundation. She worked for nearly two
decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and
innovative organizing strategies for social change
organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or
she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.]

[Many thanks to Mariya Strauss and Amy Dean for sharing this
with Portside and Portside readers.]

==========

___________________________________________

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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