Monday, September 24, 2012

A Gold Star for the Chicago Teachers' Union

After 10 years of top-down disruptions, teachers showed
the power of collective action by those who work in

By Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten Opinion

Wall Street Journal September 23, 2012

After more than a decade of top-down dictates,
disruptive school closures, disregard of teachers' and
parents' input, testing that squeezes out teaching, and
cuts to the arts, physical education and libraries,
educators in Chicago said "enough is enough." With
strong support from parents and many in the community,
teachers challenged a flawed vision of education reform
that has not helped schoolchildren in Chicago or around
the country. It took a seven-day strike - something no
one does without cause - but with it educators in
Chicago have changed the conversation about education

These years of dictates imposed upon teachers left
children in Chicago without the rich curriculum,
facilities and social services they need. On picket
lines, with their handmade signs, teachers provided
first-person accounts of the challenges confronting
students and educators. They made it impossible to turn
a blind eye to the unacceptable conditions in many of
the city's public schools.

Teachers and parents were united in the frustration
that led to the strike. Nearly nine out of 10 students
in Chicago Public Schools live in poverty, a shameful
fact that so-called reformers too often ignore, yet
most schools lack even one full-time nurse or social
worker. The district has made cuts where it shouldn't
(in art, music, physical education and libraries) but
hasn't cut where it should (class sizes and excessive
standardized testing and test prep). The tentative
agreement reached in Chicago aims to address all these

Chicago's teachers see this as an opportunity to move
past the random acts of "reform" that have failed to
move the needle and toward actual systemic school
improvement. The tentative agreement focuses on
improving quality so that every public school in
Chicago is a place where parents want to send their
children and educators want to teach.

Its key tenets:

First, use time wisely. The proposed contract lengthens
the school day and year. A key demand by educators
during the strike was that the district focus not just
on instituting a longer school day, but on making it a
better school day. Additional seat time doesn't
constitute a good education. A well-rounded and rich
curriculum, regular opportunities for teachers to plan
and confer with colleagues, and time to engage students
through discussions, group work and project- based
learning - all these contribute to a high-quality
education, and these should be priorities going

Second, get evaluation right and don't fixate on
testing. Effective school systems use data to inform
instruction, not as a "scarlet number" that does
nothing to improve teaching and learning. One placard
seen on Chicago's picket lines captured the sentiment
of countless educators: "I want to teach to the
student, not to the test." If implemented correctly,
evaluations can help Chicago promote the continuous
development of teachers' skills and of students'
intellectual abilities (and not just their test-taking

Third, fix - don't close - struggling schools.
Chicago's teachers echoed the concerns of numerous
parents and civil rights groups that the closing of
struggling schools creates turmoil and instability but
doesn't improve achievement. Low- performing schools
improve not only by instituting changes to academics
and enrichment, but also by becoming centers of their

Schools that provide wraparound services - medical and
mental- health services, mentoring, enrichment programs
and social services - create an environment in which
kids are better able to learn and teachers can focus
more on instruction, knowing their students' needs are
being met. Chicago, with an 87% child-poverty rate,
should make these effective - and cost- effective -
approaches broadly available.

Fourth, morale matters. Teachers who work with students
in some of the most difficult environments deserve
support and respect. Yet they often pay for their
dedication by enduring daily denigration for not
single-handedly overcoming society's shortcomings.
These indignities and lack of trust risk making a great
profession an impossible one.

In a period when many officials have sought to strip
workers of any contractual rights or even a collective
voice, the Chicago teachers strike showed that
collective action is a powerful force for change and
that collective bargaining is an effective tool to
strengthen public schools. Chicago's public- school
teachers - backed by countless educators across the
country - changed the conversation from the blaming and
shaming of teachers to the promotion of strategies that
parents and teachers believe are necessary to help
children succeed.

It is a powerful example of solution-driven unionism
and a reminder that when people come together to deal
with matters affecting education, those who work in the
schools need to be heard. When they are, students,
parents and communities are better for it.

[Ms. Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Ms. Weingarten is president of the CTU's national
union, the American Federation of Teachers.]

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