By JOE NOCERA
Published: September 10, 2012
“This is going to be a hot, buttery mess.”
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
So said Karen Lewis, the fiery president of the Chicago Teachers Union, when Mayor Rahm Emanuelnamed a new chief executive of the city’s sprawling school system, the third largest in the nation.
It was April 2011. The new man was Jean-Claude Brizard, who had cut his teeth working with one of the country’s best-known school reformers, Joel Klein in New York City, before becoming superintendent of schools in Rochester. There he promoted charter schools and merit pay, pushed for performance standards — and so infuriated the teachers’ union that it overwhelmingly gave him a vote of no confidence two months before he left for Chicago.
In naming Brizard, Emanuel was sending a clear signal: He was going to push the same kind of aggressive reform agenda as Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in New York. And Emanuel has — lengthening Chicago’s notoriously short school day, backing charter schools and promoting tougher evaluations of teachers. He has not done this with any particular finesse. The move to extend the school day had even many parents complaining about how it was handled. Then again, neither did Bloomberg.
Yet, even in Bloomberg’s New York, where the pushback from the teachers’ union was fierce, the teachers never went on strike. Across the country, teachers complained of being unfairly vilified, and unfairly scrutinized, but, in general, they grudgingly accepted that there was too much momentum to stop things like charter schools and performance standards. Democrats and Republicans alike supported them.
In Chicago, on Monday, Lewis and her 26,000-member union appear to have drawn a line in the sand and said: We’re done with reform. Though the Chicago school district is expected to have a $3 billion shortfall over the next three years, according to Reuters, the issues that separate the teachers and the Emanuel administration have very little to do with money. They almost completely revolve around reform: whether the teachers will agree to the performance standards the city wants; whether teachers who lose their jobs when a school closes can have first dibs on new openings; whether pay should be based on merit or seniority. I don’t know how hot or buttery it is, but it sure is a mess.
As regular readers know, I have been somewhat skeptical of the reform movement. For those disadvantaged students who get into a good charter school or land in a program that can help them succeed, that’s wonderful. In the grand scheme of things, though, the number of students who get that kind of attention is small. There really isn’t much evidence that introducing choice and competition — an important rationale for charter schools — has forced the big-city public schools to improve. Until somebody figures out how to create reforms that work for all, and not just the lucky few, American public education will continue to suffer. The reform movement hasn’t come close to that goal.
On the other hand, the status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable. In Chicago, about 60 percent of public school students graduate from high school. The percentage who graduate from college before the age of 25 is appalling: somewhere around 6 percent. In a meeting with Emanuel, according to Jonathan Alter, who profiled the mayor for The Atlantic earlier this year, Lewis “derided the longer day as ‘baby-sitting and warehousing.’ ” On Sunday night, when she announced that the teachers were going on strike, Lewis said that teachers should not be at risk of losing their jobs over new evaluations that rely heavily on standardized test scores, which don’t account for outside factors like poverty and homelessness. Reformers have long complained that teachers’ unions too often use poverty as an excuse for poor performance. Lewis’s remarks would seem to justify that complaint.
What is frustrating about this strike, with its powerful national undercurrents, is that it is unlikely to change much. What both sides are doing is completely understandable. Like unions everywhere, the Chicago Teachers Union is trying to hold on to what it has, while management is trying to impose new work rules. However it is settled, teachers will still feel under assault, while reformers will continue to feel as if the union is the enemy. It’s a little like the battles in the 1970s and 1980s between unions and industry, with the two sides fighting each other so fiercely that neither noticed that imports were on the rise and globalization was making their squabbles irrelevant.
Students in other countries now regularly outperform American students. We are truly in the midst of an education crisis — one that won’t be solved until we completely rethink the way we offer public education. For starters, teachers and school administrators need to start working together instead of fighting each other. What the strike in Chicago mainly illustrates is how far we are from that goal.