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Meryl Ain, Ed.D. Headshot

Chicago Teachers and Students Return to School: What Happened to Caring?

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The 350,000 students and 29,000 students in the Chicago Public Schools returned to school on Wednesday after the teachers' union voted to suspend its strike that had lasted seven days.

Union members must still ratify the contract agreement with the school district. Key provisions in the contract include: longer school days for elementary and high school-age students, 10 additional instructional days each school year, and a 17 percent salary increase over the next four years.

The contract preserves the right of principals to determine which teachers will be hired and puts into place a teacher evaluation system in accordance with state law that takes into account student performance. The system will be phased in over three years, when test scores will account for 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

The evaluation system, based on standardized exams, was a sticking point for the union, as it is for teachers throughout the country. Teachers object to this impersonal form of evaluation that they believe destroys creativity and forces them to teach to the test. They also point to the fact that any test is only a snapshot of a student on a particular day and can be influenced by any number of factors, including a challenging home situation, special needs, and health issues. One thing a standardized test can never measure is caring -- a teacher's ability to understand and address the unique needs of every child in his or her class.

Having sat in on numerous school contract negotiations, I can tell you that the best contract agreement is when both sides walk away not feeling totally satisfied. That appears to be the case in Chicago.

But one has to question the wisdom of union officials to have locked the poorest and most vulnerable children out of class at the beginning of the school year, placing additional burdens on their already struggling parents. Chicago teachers can't have it both ways. They can't object to an evaluation system that does not recognize their profession as a humane enterprise -- and then turn around and ignore the basic needs of their students.

Caring -- the most essential and least tangible element in education -- cannot be measured by test scores. But can it be gauged by the actions of a union?

As Chicago and the nation move forward from the debacle of this strike, let's hope that the needs of children, teachers, and parents, can find common ground. The teaching profession is a caring one, and children who are nurtured by teachers and parents have a better chance of succeeding in school and in life. The concept of caring needs to be injected not only into the dialogue about education, but also into the actions of all stakeholders.

The subject of Dr. Meryl Ain's doctoral dissertation was caring leadership in schools. She writes about this and other issues on her blog, Your Education Doctor www.youreducationdoctor.wordpress.com