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Kevin P. Chavous Headshot

How Does a Teachers Strike Help Kids?

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It's the second week of school in Chicago and 350,000 public school students are without teachers. Students who were eager to start a new school year and more importantly ready to learn. Instead these kids are at recreation centers, at home or at work with their parents because teachers have made the decision to strike. As I was listening to the many media reports, I couldn't help but wonder at the end of the day, how does a strike really help our kids?

This should be the ultimate question. But in all the rhetoric and political talk coming out of Chicago over the past few days, the interest of the affected Chicago school children has taken a back seat. I posed that question on my Facebook page and the responses were telling. Some immediately jumped on teachers and commiserated over the state of our schools and the poor quality of some of our teachers. While others of course bemoaned the emergence of charter schools, unfounded reliance on test scores and the privatization of public schools. Teachers, in particular, talked about being respected and taking a stand for what's right.

In essence, teachers are striking over salary issues, work hours and teacher evaluations. I agree that many of our teachers are underpaid and I have always respected the collective bargaining process and the right to strike, but I have to agree with the Mayor Rahm Emmanuel on the need to upgrade or elevate the discussion on what collective bargaining for teachers means in 2012 as opposed to 1962.

In nearly every aspect of education in America, strangely, the interests of children are always secondary to the interests of adults. All of the major education decision-makers instinctively weigh adult considerations before thinking about the impact on kids and their academic achievement. Just as the auto industry in Detroit refocused their priorities from their workers' interests to improving the quality of their cars, we must also shift the paradigm to achieve effective outputs and deliverables for kids.

Some time ago, I wrote "Reading Between the School Budget Lines", in which I addressed the Byzantine nature of school finance and the fact that even if every school district in America had twice as much money as they do now, it is doubtful that they could properly educate every child with the current financing structure in place. According to Dr. Marguerite Roza, one of the nation's preeminent school finance experts, the best approach would be to rebuild school finance systems so that funding is directly linked to results.  For that to occur, we have to start with the basics.

America's school districts, including Chicago, have the wrong core mission. Should we ever agree on a core mission in education the need for strikes would not exist. Why? Because all of the stakeholders would understand that the academic enrichment of our children takes precedence over everything else. This clearly defined mission would be best for all involved, including teachers because funding would be better allocated toward the classroom and the entire system would be geared toward supporting kids' learning as opposed to system preservation.
We have to start elevating the conversation and putting out kids first. As we ponder lessons learned from the Chicago teachers' strike, high on that list is the need to redefine the mission of our schools. There is no doubt that the outcome of this strike will influence the future of a national movement for accountability, teacher salaries and job security of public school teachers. And it's about time.

Kevin P. Chavous heads the Chavous Group, an education consulting firm, and is a founding board member and senior adviser to the American Federation for Children.