by Amy B. Dean
"We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools. Right now the children are getting a raw deal."
That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago Teachers' Union... in 1969. It still resonates in September 2012, when the CTU's members have again walked a picket line. Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the strike of the past two weeks is simple: We're for good schools; we're for kids; and, yes, we're for teachers too.
There's no shame in teachers standing up for their self-interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching profession don't do it to get rich. They do it with the goal of inspiring and educating the next generation.
By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation's politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a single group. It's called scapegoating. And scapegoating should never be a substitute for leadership.
The takeaway from the Chicago strike is that true leadership in education requires partnership -- an approach that supports what is working in our schools and creates a collaborative effort among teachers, school officials, and policymakers to make sure we build on that success.
Education as Engine of Urban Economies
There's a reason why many big city mayors are trying to take a stronger role in steering their cities' school systems. In a globalized economy, there isn't much mayors can do independently to foster development and improve the economic competitiveness of their metropolitan regions. They have some tools available in the realms of housing and transportation. But good schools are a reliable driver of economic success, as prominent education thinkers like University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan have documented. Ambitious mayors recognize this fact. That's why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- who himself came out of a teachers' union -- has joined Emanuel in moving to exert more influence over his city's schools.
Such mayors are right to understand the economic importance of schools. The question is, are regional political leaders like Emanuel willing to work with teachers to educate poor and wealthy kids alike? Or will we wind up, as respected education scholar Diane Ravitch warns, with a permanent two-tiered system, with elite charter schools for the (mostly richer) kids who score high on standardized tests? Under such a system, kids who may be smart but lack the vocabulary and support to succeed on the tests will languish in sweltering, inadequately supplied classrooms.
Iconic Chicago mayor Harold Washington understood that collaboration around education could enhance the economic vitality of the city. That's why he brokered the peace in response to public outcry at the last Chicago teachers' strike in 1987. Washington saw that business leaders and parents needed him to work with teachers to keep the machinery of education running, so working parents wouldn't have to take more time off for the strike, and so kids could resume learning the skills they would need later to be effective members of the workforce.
The way forward is to create abundantly resourced public school systems that will push economic growth in cities and regions. Innovating and improving public schools helps attract middle- and upper-income families to cities and regions to build a healthy tax base. Mayors such as Emanuel should be funding public education and supporting what is already working -- including strategies invented by unionized teachers -- within public schools.
Partnership in Practice
Successful examples of smart educational investment in partnership with teachers' unions do exist. Take Montgomery County, MD, where students at one neighborhood school continually scored low on tests. The administration, working closely with the teachers' union, managed to turn the school completely around in just three years without using draconian pay cuts or firings. "We take the quality of teaching and learning seriously, so we jointly created and implemented a thorough, meaningful and transparent evaluation system that ensures intensive support for all new and underperforming teachers," said Montgomery County Education Association president Doug Prouty.
Mayor Emanuel's great failing in his approach to the strike is that he did not come to the conversation about reform with an attitude of building on what is going right. Even Chicago has had areas of hope and progress in public education. Chicago's public school teachers have proven they can academically outcompete just about anyone. This last year, more than 24,000 children competed for about 5,000 slots in the top 5 selective enrollment high schools. The students and families lining up to apply to selective enrollment high schools accept that public schools can achieve excellence with unionized teachers. The principals at these schools accept it too, providing leadership development and mentoring for teachers and rewards for their good work.
Emanuel could have started the discussion by celebrating these successes and looking for ways to spread them. To be fair, the mayor has done some work to improve public education in the city. He created 10 new International Baccalaureate (IB) academic excellence programs in existing high schools throughout the city. He also lengthened the school day, which was sorely needed as Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country.
Rather than saying to teachers, "I did this in spite of you," he could have asked, "How can we do more of this together?" For we know from best practices in the business world that without cultivating buy-in from all the key stakeholders, efforts to promote change are destined to be far less effective.
Underneath the Chicago Strike Headlines
The stories about the strike printed in the media have often perpetuated an unhelpful framing of the issues at hand. We were told teachers didn't want a longer school day. However, the true issue was not whether a longer day should be implemented, but rather what the process for putting this into practice could be. With real input from teachers, rather than a heavy-handed move to shove an altered school day down the throats of those who do the educating, this issue might not have reached an impasse.
Likewise, we were told that teachers did not want to be evaluated. But that was not the case. Educators merely wanted to be evaluated based on meaningful criteria that they could actually impact in their work -- not just high-stakes test scores whose value as a measure of students' success is highly questionable. In Cleveland, the teachers' union and the school district worked together to create and implement a totally new teacher evaluation system that will phase in over a four-year period. As Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon noted, using teamwork to resolve such a big, contentious issue is worth the longer timeline: "This is complex work and it takes time to build it thoughtfully and carefully. It really has been a joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is the right [approach]."
Emanuel has said he favors the Waiting-for-Superman strategy of linking teacher pay and job security to students' performance on standardized tests. But that approach has been found by education experts to be no more effective than traditional teaching and evaluation methods.
Simply corporatizing the schools is not going to magically make students learn. The use-tests-to-declare-public-schools-failing-and-siphon-the-money-to-corporate-branded-charters methodology has been discredited as bad pedagogical practice and thinly disguised union-busting.
Teachers have rightly asked, if they are only going to be held accountable for teaching to tests, when is the real educating supposed to happen? Sadly, this pressing question has not been heard above the din of political rhetoric.
Beyond the Strike
By making some of the changes teachers have called for, like installing air conditioning in classrooms and creating a teacher evaluation system jointly with the union, Emanuel could have made the teachers' union into a powerful ally for improving schools. Instead, he yanked the already-stretched thread of teachers' goodwill toward the school system, and it snapped.
Pointing fingers and placing blame is not the way to build partnerships, and it's not the way to move forward on education. Whatever happens with the strike in Chicago, maybe we can look at some of the case studies of successful initiatives in education and see that strong respect for teachers is not at odds with the interests of students. Conversations about how to replicate and build on the things that are working in our schools need to be happening not just during contract negotiations, but on an ongoing basis.
For those conversations to happen, city officials must repair the relationships that were broken in the hardball politicking around the strike. They need to embrace teachers as full-fledged partners in conversation about reform. That's harder than just placing blame. But it is needed if we're serious about fixing our kids' schools.
Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.