Chicago Teachers' Strike Lesson: We Need Autonomous Educators, Not Corporate Reform

A corporate reform takeover is hurting students.

One week ago, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education reached an agreement on teacher contracts. But, what most pundits still don't realize is that the strike wasn't really about the contracts or the unions. It was about stopping the assault on public education, teachers, and children.

You know what's hurting kids in Chicago and elsewhere? Contrary to media reports, it's not the teachers union. It’s the corporate reform takeover—mayoral, not local control, closing schools and turning them over to charter corporations, evaluation of students and teachers with test scores, and weakening teachers unions. These policies are backed by billionaires, many of whom have never stepped foot in a public school classroom in their lives and they've blossomed thanks to the passing of President Bush's No Child Left Behind and President Obama's Race to the Top initiative.

In Chicago—as in many places—Mayor Rahm Emanuel and corporate reformers have waged a war on teachers. During the strike we heard that Chicago teachers are overpaid—elementary and secondary teachers combined earn an average of $71,236. An analysis found that public school teachers make 94 cents for every dollar earned by workers in 16 comparable occupations. Why are the people who hold our children's minds in their hands paid the lowest of the low? Politicians who say that teachers are overpaid are living in a parallel universe. Many of my teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pocket. And they work damn hard. Please show them some respect.

Next is the fuzzy teacher evaluation system. Under Obama's Race to the Top initiative, for states to be eligible to receive funds, they were forced to revamp their evaluation systems to allow for standardized test scores to be tied to teachers’ evaluation. Emanuel followed his former boss' lead. Now, he wants test scores to represent as much as 40 percent of evaluations. His logic behind this is very crooked.

Unless you balance every classroom in terms of ESL, special education, behavioral tendencies, and socio-economic status, tying scores to evaluation is "flawed, dubious, and inaccurate" on many levels. The director of the University of Chicago Lab School, the very school where Mayor Rahm Emanuel's kids attend, has even publicly criticized the use of standardized test scores for teacher evaluation measures.

When you have such evaluation changes, teaching to the test becomes the dominant pedagogy in classrooms, because if scores aren't raised, teachers are fired. Instead of educating the whole child with math, English, science, social, studies, the arts, music, and physical education, for most students, an entire month of schooling is allocated to drilling, killing, and bubble filling. Emanuel has made the testing corporations very wealthy in his tenure as Chicago mayor. Schools have become test prep factories, churning out obedient and submissive graduates year after year.

The job of a teacher isn't to raise test scores, but rather to create lifelong learners and active participants and citizens in our democracy. Stephen Covey once remarked, "Reducing children to a test score is the worst form of identity theft we could commit in schools." I am not a number; I am a human being. It's time to finally acknowledge the national testing experiment has not only failed miserably, but has gone haywire. We need to end this inappropriate high-stakes testing regime.

Why should politicians with no teaching experience come in and tell teachers how to do their job? Parents and teachers should only begin to believe a politician's education proposals if they will send their own children to the schools they prescribe for others. Emanuel would certainly scoff at such a suggestion.

The strike may be over but the root issues still exist. Instead of corporate reform, if we want to really create change in schools, we need to trust teachers, give them autonomy, and most importantly, treat them like professionals. Is that too much to ask?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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