Even though I’m one of the many working parents inconvenienced by childcare this week, I spent most mornings out on the picket lines supporting the teachers strike. Yesterday I called my alderman’s office to voice my opinion, and when I mentioned that the job I’m trying to attend to this week is professor of education, the staff on the other end of the line had some questions. “Air conditioners?” she asked. “It seems like this strike is over air conditioners, but surely it can’t be that . . . ?” After we talked over the issues, she asked me to put them in an email for the Alderman. Here's what I wrote:
Beneath all the particular items on the negotiation table – the pay, class size, evaluation mechanisms – is a struggle over the deprofessionalization of teaching. In Chicago, teachers are standing up for their profession as a genuine profession worthy of respect. If our school system is to attract and retain good teachers (which is harder than the “lay the bums off!” crowd realizes), teaching needs to appeal to smart young people as a profession worthy of their ambitions. Whatever the reforms’ short-term impact, in the long term such reforms contribute to the growing problem of attracting and retaining qualified workers in an increasingly demonized profession.
Over the past twenty years, and most intensely since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2003, there has been a move to hold teachers accountable for problems in the public school system, without providing the money that would make this high expectation achievable. Neoliberal reformers like Rahm Emanuel argue that the path to improving schools is better teachers and that the way to improve teaching is to weed out the bad teachers. Good teachers are essential, but this does not mean that bad teachers are the real problem, nor is teacher accountability (including the new evaluation system) likely to improve the teaching force.
There are low performers, of course, as there are in any line of work, but they are few in number and do not account for the problems in our schools. Education scholar Richard Rothstein argues that teachers are probably responsible for about 15% of student achievement. That means that a good teacher makes a big difference, but also that children who come to school hungry, who lack medical care, who live in fear of public violence, are going to face difficulties regardless of their teacher.
When classes are too big, when schools lack supplies, and given what we are learning about the impact of poverty on psychological health, we cannot expect teachers to fix their schools without a huge increase in funding. And that means not just for schools but also for public safety, for health, for housing, and all the other issues a city should care about.
In improving the quality of teaching, teacher accountability measured by test scores is a problematic tool for several reasons. For one, it encourages teachers to teach to the test and disregard the more complex, valuable, and hard to measure learning that they could otherwise focus on. Also, the tests are statistically unreliable: they simply cannot measure students' performance with perfect accuracy, let alone a teacher’s, and therefore they should not be used as a high stakes assessment. The teachers I know are increasingly frustrated by their loss of autonomy on the job, by their inability to teach what their students are interested in, to assess student work in meaningful ways, to teach what they know to be important. Our schools are hemorrhaging good teachers, and failing to attract them in the first place, and this ought to worry us far more than weeding out the handful of bad ones.
So yes, we need good teachers. No, the reforms Emanuel supports will not make this happen. I support the strike because the teachers are reminding us that the long-term success of Chicago’s schools calls for careful action and deeper commitment to our public school system, not hasty reforms. Throughout American history, public schools have both built our common civic life, through their education of future citizens, and enacted it, as places where parents, teachers, and members of the broader community cooperate for the common good. As the strike winds down, bigger questions about public education remain. When the strike is over, the responsibility for thinking about these bigger issues passes over to us, the citizens of Chicago.
And a final note: the most depressing piece of my week was a post on a school list serve asking those of us who had been posting information about the issues (e.g. a list of good novels about labor history, particularly informative newspaper pieces) to please stop. The issues were divisive, this parent wrote, and we needed to stop talking about them so that we could all be friends. In contrast, a highlight of my week was my conversation with the Alderman's staff. I called up mad but listened to her explanation of his views and acknowledged that his position was reasonable. She asked me for my interpretation, and she listened to that. Our entire conversation was about the issues, and we ended it wiser and friendlier than we began.