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Chicago Teachers Go to Bat -- and Take a Hit -- for Their Students

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Co-authored by Kevin Kumashiro

"At schools across the city, 29,000 Chicago teachers and education professionals are on strike -- demanding both a fair union contract and a radically different vision of school reform than that propagated by nearly the entire nation's political class. At the largest teachers' strike in two decades, educators are fired up to fight for wraparound services for students, with more school social workers, counselors and psychologists; a holistic educational environment where all students have access to school libraries, world languages, art, music, physical education; and the preservation of the tenure system -- because good teachers are made through experience in the classroom."

You would probably never know it from much of the media coverage of the Chicago teachers strike, now in its fifth day, but this excerpt from The Nation paints a much more comprehensive picture of the complex issues at stake in Chicago Public Schools, from the perspective of those who know them best -- the city's teachers. What are the teachers worried about, to the point where they are risking not only their jobs, but their reputations, in a highly public action? A host of popular but troubling policies -- and underlying assumptions -- that might finally get the in-depth public discussion that has been too long neglected.

Evaluations. On the surface, using students' test scores on standardized tests as one-fourth of teachers' evaluations seems reasonable, even modest in a context in which other districts are counting them as half or more. But this proposal provides much reason for concern, as evidenced by, among other things, a letter authored by 88 professors and researchers at 16 universities in the Chicago metropolitan area warning against this new law. These scholars raised concerns about lack of preparedness, prior findings that such scores are inherently unreliable measures of teacher effectiveness, the intent to increase the weight of test scores to half over the coming years, and, most troubling of all, that "[s]tudents will be adversely affected by the implementation of this new teacher-evaluation system." The researchers point to the narrowing of curricula, incentives to avoid harder-to-teach (and test) students, a less nurturing teacher-student relationship, and reduced collaboration among teachers. These are the same concerns cited by members of the teachers union. In other words, teachers are striking not on the basis of self-interest, but in the interest of their students, especially the most vulnerable of them.

Tenure. Teachers worry, too, that weakening tenure provides an easy path to eliminate the experienced teachers needed to teach low-income and struggling students, and to overcome obstacles they face without deciding that the job is too much to handle. Indeed, in the recent wave of reform, hundreds of Chicago teachers won a suit based on the judge's findings that the city had saved money by replacing effective, experienced teachers with low-paid novices. In Washington, D.C., which has seen the same pattern, effective teachers now are leaving to teach in districts in which they feel more appreciated, to the detriment of the city's students. There is certainly room for negotiation about how and when tenure should be awarded, and mechanisms for firing ineffective teachers must be more streamlined, but such discussions must take place in good faith. Chicago's teachers have reason for skepticism in this case.

Resources. The teachers are striking to stop the city from citing limited resources to justify shuttering libraries that enrich classroom instruction, eliminating the nurses, counselors, and social workers who enable at-risk students to come to class and to focus on learning, and increasing class sizes such that the individual instruction touted by "reformers" as key to effective learning is impossible. The mayor has largely dismissed those issues as peripheral, as have schools across the country. Yet there is substantial evidence that such cuts do real harm to students and counter any gains that might be seen from other changes.

Mayor Emanuel and Chicago's teachers have a chance at this moment to do something truly innovative -- they could jointly acknowledge that schools, especially high-poverty urban schools, need to take a broader, bolder approach to education. They could ensure that limited resources are targeted to reforms that make the most difference for children. They could work together to create a system that educates the best students to become teachers, provides the right incentives to teach in the schools in which they can do the most good, and establishes conditions that make them want to stay, as well as enabling schools to more easily get rid of teachers who are not doing their job well. They could ensure that all children are well-fed, healthy, and that the stresses that impede their attention, and their good behavior in class, are addressed, minimizing absences due to sickness and suspensions. They could prioritize enrichment through libraries, after-school and summer programs, and field trips. And they could show how very much students gain when all the people who care about them work together, not at odds.

Let's hope that they do it.

Kevin Kumashiro is professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, president-elect of the National Association for Multicultural Education, and author of the new book, "Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture."