On the fifth day of the 2012/2013 school year, 29,000 Chicago teachers did not report to their classrooms, abruptly halting the education of 350,000 mostly poor, black students. On the second day of the strike a group of Baltimore teachers gathered outside the Polytechnic Institute to show support for the “bravery” of their Windy City colleagues.
“It’s a really courageous decision on their part to stand up to a national movement that’s really against students,” said Baltimore teacher Iris Kirsch. In voicing this opinion Ms. Kirsch’s offered no support for her belief that linking standardized test scores to a teacher’s compensation is harmful to students.
Given the absence of empirical proof that picketing rather than teaching is a good thing for students, I think it’s fair to question how much courage it takes for adults who have secured their education to leave stranded thousands of students who desperately need every second of classroom time the new school year has to offer.
It’s against the law in Maryland for teachers to strike. Nevertheless, the terms of the strike’s resolution will have impact on local education reform measures. "This is going to become a long-term battle that everyone's watching very closely," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative research center.
"Teacher unions are at a crossroads: Are they going to participate in designing better teacher evaluations or resist and not change anything. The Chicago union seems to be taking the resist option, drawing their line in the sand."
Here’s a closer look at what’s at stake as reported by Stephanie Simon and James B. Kelleher: “Chicago teachers walking picket lines on Monday, in a strike that has closed schools across the city, are taking on not just their combative mayor but a powerful education reform movement that is transforming public schools across the United States.
The new vision, championed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run Chicago's schools, calls for a laser focus on standardized tests meant to gauge student skills in reading, writing and math. Teachers who fail to raise student scores may be fired. Schools that fail to boost scores may be shut down.
And the monopoly that the public sector once held on public schools will be broken with a proliferation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run— and typically non-union. To reformers, both Democrats and Republicans, these changes offer the best hope for improving dismal urban schools.
Many teachers, however, see the new policies as a brazen attempt to shift public resources into private hands, to break the power of teachers unions, and to reduce the teaching profession to test preparation.
In Chicago, last-minute contract talks broke down not over pay, but over the reform agenda, both sides said Sunday. The union would not agree to Emanuel's proposal that teacher evaluations be based in large measure on student test scores.
Nor would the union accept his push to give principals more autonomy over hiring, weakening the seniority system that has long protected veteran teachers.
Already, the demographics of the teaching profession in Chicago have notably shifted, as the private managers who run charter schools tend to favor rookie teachers who are younger and far less likely to be minorities, studies have shown.
Today, just 19 percent of the teaching force in Chicago is African American, down from 45 percent in 1995, the union says; organizers fear that shift means fewer teachers have deep roots in and passion for the communities where they work.
About 42 percent of the city's 400,000 public school students are black and 87 percent are low-income, according to district figures. "This is a fight for the soul of public education," said Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Opponents reject such high-flying rhetoric as self-serving; they describe the union as an obstructionist force that stands in the way of progress for kids. "This is a union very much concerned with job protection and job security," said Rebecca Nieves Huffman, who runs the local branch of Democrats for Education Reform.
"It's crazy to think [that] if we keep doing the same model of school over and over, we'll get different results," said Juan Jose Gonzalez, the local director of Stand for Children, another reform group allied with the mayor. "Teachers need to decide if they're going to be part of this process or not."
Jayne Matthews-Hopson is an education writer and academic advocate. Education Matters because “only the educated are free.” Your thoughts, comments and suggestions are welcomed at: www.baltimoretimes-online.com.