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Yes, Teachers Do Have A Breaking Point

We all remember the scene in the movie Network where a character throws open the window, sticks his head out, and yells, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." Last week, about 30,000 educators in Chicago came to a similar breaking point.

It was a fascinating week for watchers and listeners. The media pundits immediately went to union bashing as if 90 percent of the membership had not voted to assert their collective and legal right to go on strike. Shame on MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, and Willie Geist. Loyal viewers, like me, were very disappointed.

Let me repeat a message I've shared before: teachers and teacher unions are the same. Where do you think union members come from? Union leaders and their teacher members hate strikes. When they choose that alternative, you know they have been insulted, disrespected, and demeaned by management proposals. And what is most important is that you know that the proposals on the table hurt students---proposals such as larger class sizes, refusal to upgrade facilities and improve learning conditions, inadequate school supplies, and school closures that cause community disintegration and hardships for parents.

When the pundits, politicians, and administrators have exhausted their union bashing, they have moved to accusing teachers of greediness because they were being offered a 16 per cent raise over 4 years. After all, these teacher bashers said, the average salary for a teacher in Chicago was over $70,000. Don't you just love it when millionaire pundits criticize teachers for making a middle class salary? I would love to see them live and raise a family on $70,000 in Chicago, Washington, DC, or New York City.

Finally, these critics started figuring out that the anger of teachers may have been about more than money. The abuse and misuse of standardized tests had been the breaking point. These tests have not been validated for the purpose being proposed. Teachers in Illinois, against the better judgment of many, had already accepted having student test scores count as 25 percent of their evaluations, despite knowing that student effort often has more impact on test scores than they, the teachers, do. A mayor who thought he could bully teachers into accepting an unreasonable figure of 40 percent pushed teachers over the edge.

Now I should quickly point out that I believe teachers should be evaluated on the effectiveness of their teaching practice in improving student learning. But using standardized test scores as the only indicator of learning is a "one-size-fits-all" model that is fraught with unintended consequences. Teachers should be able to determine appropriate indicators of student growth and present their evidence to those evaluating them.

I suspect Chicago teachers have provided to teachers across the country an extra measure of courage in challenging those who misuse standardized tests. I suspect researchers will come forth with valid data that this misuse is a huge mistake and an injustice thrust upon teachers. I suspect the politicians will start paying more attention to the polling data that show the public growing more opposed to this misuse of standardized tests. I suspect that this education "reform du jour" will be replaced with the next slick idea.

There was a bright spot last week. Actor Tony Danza was also on the talk show circuit promoting a great book, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High. Every interviewer asked why he cried during his teaching experience. He said he cried out of fear of not being a good teacher, empathy for the circumstances of his students, and happiness when his students succeeded. That is every teacher I know. Teachers teach for their students, and they will strike for their students. To all of those who criticized the teachers in Chicago: start apologizing.


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