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Chicago Reminds Us Why We Have Unions

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The strike by Chicago teachers is reminding all of us of the reason we have unions, and the reason why they are so feared and hated by those who are in command. The ability of these 29,000 teachers to act as one, to withhold their labor, gives them a power far mightier than the sum of their parts. So long as they stay unified, and have the support of parents in their community and others across the nation, they will prevail.

Unions don't just exist to handle grievances and negotiate contracts. Unions are here to give members leverage. The strength of that leverage depends on our capacity and willingness to strike. Over the past two decades, as the political climate turned hostile to unions, few have been willing to go this route, even when pushed to the wall. When the strike is removed as a possible action, we wind up negotiating the terms of surrender, over and over again.

Teachers in Chicago have done their homework. They did not just decide to strike this month. They have laid the groundwork, in a way that should be studied by others around the country. They have made it clear what they are fighting for, and done tremendous work with parents and in the community to build support. While the media has been critical of the union, public support remains strong, with 47% of voters in support, and only 39% in opposition.

This support was hard-won. Teachers in Chicago have been working for several years to build an understanding of what the schools there need. They have presented their OWN vision of reform. In February of this year, they released this report, The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve.

This report lays out key changes that are needed, and many of these are now central to the strike demands.

1. Recognize That Class Size Matters. Drastically reduce class size. We currently have one of the largest class sizes in the state. This greatly inhibits the ability of our students to learn and thrive.
2. Educate The Whole Child. Invest to ensure that all schools have recess and physical education equipment, healthy food offerings, and classes in art, theater, dance, and music in every school. Offer world languages and a variety of subject choices. Provide every school with a library and assign the commensurate number of librarians to staff them.
3. Create More Robust Wrap-around Services. The Chicago Public Schools system (CPS) is far behind recommended staffing levels suggested by national professional associations. The number of school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists must increase dramatically to serve Chicago's population of low-income students. Additionally, students who cannot afford transportation costs need free fares.
4. Address Inequities In Our System. Students and their families recognize the apartheid-like system managed by CPS. It denies resources to the neediest schools, uses discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color, and enacts policies that increase the concentrations of students in high poverty and racially segregated schools.
5. Help Students Get Off To A Good Start. We need to provide age-appropriate (not test-driven) education in the early grades. All students should have access to pre-kindergarten and to full day kindergarten.
6. Respect And Develop The Professionals. Teachers need salaries comparable to others with their education and experience. They need time to adequately plan their lessons and collaborate with colleagues, as well as the autonomy and shared decision-making to encourage professional judgment. CPS needs to hire more teaching assistants so that no students fall through the cracks.

These proposals make it clear that the union has the interests of their students as its highest priority, and that is crucial.

The issue with the highest stakes may be the proposal to use test scores as a substantial portion of teacher evaluations. Teachers in Chicago have seen what has happened in other places where this has been done. A prominent group of Chicago area professors sent a letter back in March explaining the likely consequences of this sort of system. Their most important warning is this one:

Concern #3: Students will be adversely affected by the implementation of this new teacher-evaluation system.

When a teacher's livelihood is directly impacted by his or her students' scores on an end-of-year examination, test scores take front and center. The nurturing relationship between teacher and student changes for the worse, including in the following ways:

a. With a focus on end-of-year testing, there inevitably will be a narrowing of the curriculum as teachers focus more on test preparation and skill-and-drill teaching. [6] Enrichment activities in the arts, music, civics, and other non-tested areas will diminish.

b. Teachers will subtly but surely be incentivized to avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, students who are English Language Learners, or students suffering from emotional issues. Research has shown that no model yet developed can adequately account for all of these ongoing factors.

c. The dynamic between students and teacher will change. Instead of "teacher and student versus the exam," it will be "teacher versus students' performance on the exam."

On the national scene, politicians have made the debate over test-driven reform all about teachers seeking to avoid accountability. In Chicago, teachers are taking this challenge head-on, by making it clear that they are all about serving their students, and giving them the well-rounded education they deserve.

Much of the media coverage has suggested that this strike is "against reform." Reporters ask "isn't there a lot wrong with the public schools?" The Chicago strike makes it clear we are far from happy with the status quo, and teachers there are speaking clearly about what needs to change. Teachers are rejecting the idea that accountability means they should follow a scripted curriculum, and be paid and evaluated according to test scores. They want professional responsibility and the autonomy that comes with it. This is a strike for REAL reform, from the classroom up. More information can be found at the Chicago Teachers Union web site.

What do you think of the Chicago teacher strike? What lessons are you learning? How might this shift the debate over education reform?

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