Chicago Teachers Strike: Referendum on the Kids Left Behind and the Teachers Who Champion Them
The Chicago Teachers Union strike was not only about wages, hours and working conditions. This strike was different. It was a referendum on the public turning its back on 328,000 children who live in poverty and the teachers who champion them. Fully 86 percent of children attending Chicago Public Schools (CPS) live below the poverty level. They have been disproportionately affected by the closure and transformation of 100 neighborhood schools into charters over the last several years (and will be by the proposed closures of 100 more in coming years). The children and their families have faced upheaval, disruptions and displacements as teachers and staffs they loved and counted on have been taken from them, their only crime, working in a high poverty, struggling school. The school community, the social glue and oasis of safety, structure and support has been dismantled and divided in community after community. These students and families have no voice. Their teachers are their voice and a strike is the time that those in power have to listen to them. The politicians and the public heard more about teacher concerns in the seven days during the strike than they had in the previous seven years.
In my research, completed during the 2011-2012 school-year, I have surveyed over 2,000 teachers and interviewed over 100 of them in the year leading up to the first Chicago teacher's strike in 25 years. These participating teachers reported feeling betrayed, belittled and bewildered as 100 schools were closed, as the attack on “failing” schools and “bad teachers” intensified. How did we become the enemy, they asked. How have we become the scapegoats for societal issues beyond our control?
I have found that Chicago teachers want the public to know five things: 1.) that they chose to work in urban schools specifically because they want to make a difference for children in need; the work is incredibly complicated and challenging as they face and deal with children dealing with hunger, violence, abuse and survival; 2.) that the majority of their colleagues are dedicated, expert and committed and that they agree that those who aren’t should be removed; 3.) that they work incredibly long hours (and have to invest a great deal of their own money for materials), the preparation required to be ready for six hours of instruction being monumental; the longer day demands were viewed as an insult, as good teachers easily put in ten hour days already; 4.) that they cannot do the job alone; they need the unfailing support of parents (to value education and work with their children at home), the community (to resist neighborhood school closures and fight for what will improve them), and politicians (to view them assets, not liabilities, to work with them not around them); and 5.) that they passionately believe that disadvantaged children can learn as well as those who are advantaged; the public must understand that they arrive even to preschool school years behind their more advantaged counterparts (the number of words they know at age three, the lack of being read to) and so they require additional resources like smaller class sizes to bridge the achievement gap and prevent it from widening.
It is not the neighborhood school and urban teacher that are the source of our lack of international competitiveness. When controlling for poverty levels, U.S. schools outperform all the developed countries. We also outperform other developed countries on another statistic: childhood poverty. The U.S. child poverty level is 23 percent, three to four times higher than the countries we are often compared to. So blaming the urban teacher, turning our backs on neighborhood schools, and privatizing urban education are not the answers. Addressing conditions that allow 1 of 4 children in America (and 9 of 10 in Chicago’s public schools) to remain trapped in poverty begins with listening to the teachers on the front lines, on the picket lines, and beyond. Their prescription: smaller classes, intensive early intervention, and conditions that attract and keep the best teachers in the schools that need them the most.
Deborah Lynch Assistant Professor, Chicago State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
One big eighth grade boy wiped tears away as he begged his audience not to have his be the last graduating class of his school--ever. Another seven year old girl cried and she said "the kids and the teachers at my school promise that we will try harder if you keep us open." And another girl, so tiny she could not be seen over the podium, told the audience that "if you close my school you will break my heart real hard bad."
Such was the tragic scene at Thursday's hearings on school closures at the Chicago Board of Education offices. One parent, teacher, staff member, student, grandparent and alumni after another followed in the footsteps of the 80 schools closed before them in the last five years as part of the Mayor's Renaissance 2010 Plan. Never mind that there is no research supporting this plan, that there has been irreparable harm done and at least one fatality as a consequence of the plan. City and School officials are continuing to move forward on the unprecedented destruction of our system of neighborhood public schools.
Closing the recalcitrant achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is a stubborn challenge that every city is facing and no city has achieved. One thing is for certain, however. Closing schools is not the answer. Many of the schools that have been or are being closed have an astounding 50 percent mobility rate, making year by year comparisons a cruel joke. These schools serve the neediest of the needy: homeless children and families in insecure, unstable, impoverished and often violent circumstances. "The throwaway children," one parent described them. "The children," another parent said, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, "that have been left so far behind that they were never in the race in the first place."
There were dozens and dozens of beautiful, well behaved children from targeted schools at the meeting who heard their school and themselves being castigated as one of the poorest performing schools and student bodies in the city. And one after another of the children went to the microphones crying and promised "to be good, to be better, to try harder" if only they "would leave our school alone."
School officials were present who described how much help these schools had been given,. One official bragged that he had spent a whopping 23 hours in one of the schools. Yet staff member after staff member, parent after parent, said they'd never ever seen those people in the school buildings. The Board's Safety and Security Department officials made incredible statements about how "confident we are that these children (who would be walking 6-8 blocks further from home across gang territory) will arrive at their new schools safely."
Not only are students from closed schools stigmatized and marginalized, they are in very real physical danger I was able to speak and castigated the Board for disrupting these very fragile lives based on "metrics" and "regression analysis" and "value added points" and "trend points", when they themselves wouldn't walk down the streets they are now asking these children to navigate. I proposed a new standard: no school closures unless and until Board and CPS officials themselves feel safe enough to walk down the streets they are asking very young students to.
Many speakers described the vitally important role their neighborhood school played in their community, the sense of family in a community with a very fragile social fabric. The Board is asking these beautiful, innocent children to give up a part of themselves, children who have so little to give to begin with. The Board is asking these innocent children pay the price for its failure, for our failure, to explode the code and find better ways of reaching and teaching poor children. It's easy for the Board to issue an edict closing a school, to turn its back on it, to give up on it. But that's the wrong way. The hard way, the right way, the real challenge, has to be staying and fighting to find the answers to meet the needs of these, our most vulnerable children.
Teaching poor children
Chicago Tribune, December 22, 2011
New Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is already fond of saying that more than 123,000 Chicago school children are in "underperforming schools" and that he "will not allow this failure to continue."
The fact is that it is not the schools that are failing our primarily poor (86 percent) CPS students. It is the society that has failed them, leaving so many in such abject, desperate poverty.
The fact is that despite all the hand-wringing about U.S. achievement comparisons to other countries, our highest scores are in the level of poverty. When compared by comparable poverty rates to 16 other major industrialized countries, we score highest.
The fact is, poor kids arrive in preschool years behind their more advantaged counterparts and, according to researchers, the difference is all economic. By age 3, the differences in vocabulary between children from welfare versus professional families is more than double. While both groups improve over time, this gap widens over time also.
Poor children can and do learn, but they start from so far behind their more advantaged counterparts that even with one year's growth per year, they can never catch up without intensive interventions.
The fact is, we already know what needs to be done to close this class achievement gap: small class sizes (especially for African-American males), early prevention efforts and intensive remedial efforts, delivered by extremely skilled expert teachers, among others.
These are things the teaching profession has long called for. They are not the quick fixes politicians are looking for, and they cost more than society is willing to pay to make up for these disparities at the starting gate.
The hard, cold fact is that poor kids are more expensive, not more difficult, to educate. Do we really want to?
-- Deborah Lynch, former Chicago Teachers Union president (2001-2004) and Gage Park High School teacher (2004-2011), professor of Graduate Studies, College of Education, Chicago State University