Chicago Teachers Strike Post Mortem: Did the Children Win?

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If you were looking for balance in the mainstream press coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike over the past few weeks, you looked in vain. It was kind of amazing how much virulent hostility the Chicago Teachers Union engendered by virtue of standing against the proposals of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Most of the union’s grievances focused on Emanuel’s proposal that 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student test performance.

For all of the societal complaints about the dynamic in public education of “teaching to the test,” much of the impetus of educational reform efforts promulgated by foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and by allied nonprofits is exactly that, with a few additional political agendas attached.

Don’t take this essay as a full-throated, knee-jerk defense of the Chicago Teachers Union. Anyone who witnessed the debacle of the teachers union in Washington, D.C. and Miami saw horrendous union behavior aided and abetted for too long by the national unions turning a blind eye to what was happening at the locals. But it is also not a mindless attack on the unions as yet another case of unions protecting the interests of their members. The issues at the heart of the Chicago strike are much more nuanced than the mainstream press’ focus on the impact of the strike on the kids (and their parents) who suddenly had no daytime adult supervision, and the notion of a protectionist teachers union.

Our concern here are the flashpoints for the nonprofit sector, some focusing on issues of educational reform, others more about where the nonprofit sector stands in relation to other parts of society. Two stand out for us:

The labor movement: The debate resolution is accepted; the labor movement is a mess. Few would argue to the contrary. Union membership is at historic lows for the modern era and continues to decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2010 and 2011, union membership of wage and salary workers dropped to 11.8 percent, a decline of 0.1 percent, but union membership among Asian-Americans fell from 10.9 percent to 10.1 percent, and for Latinos from 10.0 percent to 9.7 percent. Rarely discussed is the fact that union membership (13.5 percent) and union representation (15.0 percent) is highest – and growing – for black workers, particularly for black males (14.6 percent union members, 15.8 percent represented by unions).

It seems to be common currency to dump on unions where membership is healthiest, (more than half of unionized workers are found in public sector jobs), and particularly the teachers unions, as though organized labor is somehow at the heart of most problems in private industry and the public sector. Teachers become a target because, by profession, education, training, and library occupations have the highest rate of union membership (36.8 percent in 2011, although that is down from 37.4 percent in 2010). It is a little obvious to see the confluence of factors – union membership on the decline, union membership higher in the public sector, union membership concentrated in education occupations, and union membership higher for blacks than whites – as a pattern that makes unions a vulnerable target when they stand up against proposals for some kinds of change.

With nonprofit sector employment growing despite the recession, it makes sense that nonprofits would increasingly be areas of interest for union organizing, especially because, as the NPQ Newswire noted yesterday, there is an unfortunate strand in the nonprofit sector that excitedly promotes the notion of increasing CEO salaries, but shows scant interest in the sector’s dependence on below-living-wage (or even volunteer) labor. As a possible consequence, some nonprofit employers, particularly the larger ones in the health and education areas, have had to deal with intrepid organizing efforts by the likes of the Service Employees International Union and others. Are nonprofits seeing themselves as employers aligned with management? Are nonprofits buying into the story that conservatives, neoconservatives, and social entrepreneurs have used that casts unions as the almost-always bad guys? It feels like on union issues, particularly in education, the nonprofit sector hews toward the anti-union sentiments of Students First, founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Stand for Children, the latter running a petition against the CTU on the website.

Test scores: It is difficult to find education reformers defending the reliance on student test scores for the evaluation of teachers’ performance, though the student test score issue continues to be a default option in the school administrators’ reform platform. That stands in contrast to the continuing critique of the heavy reliance on student test scores in the research. The Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Straus, has published a couple of commentaries in the wake of the Chicago strike on the weaknesses of testing (this one, for example), but despite her using the academic literature to demolish Emanuel’s position on testing a better response might be an op-ed this week from Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.

In a defense of teachers, he pointed out that plenty of good, courageous, intrepid teachers teach in inner city schools where the scores don’t advance or even decline, not because of poor teaching technique, but because of factors exogenous to the classroom – like whether poor kids had enough to eat before going to school, whether they have a stable and safe home life, whether their they come from a family with books in the house, whether their home is livable or falling apart – what he describes as the challenge of poverty. “Yes, I’m talking about poverty,” Robinson writes. “Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.”

He adds, “Some of the most dedicated and talented teachers I’ve ever met were working in “failing” inner-city schools… [but in award-winning, middle income schools] I’ve met some unimaginative hacks who should never be allowed near a classroom.” He concludes powerfully, “It is reasonable to hold teachers accountable for their performance. But it is not reasonable – or, in the end, productive – to hold them accountable for factors that lie far beyond their control. It is fair to insist that teachers approach their jobs with the assumption that every single child, rich or poor, can succeed. It is not fair to expect teachers to correct all the imbalances and remedy all the pathologies that result from growing inequality in our society.”

Linking this issue back to teachers and unions, Robinson is open to charter schools, but hardly sees them as a panacea. Remember as the Chicago Tribune noted, charter schools tend to be led by teachers who are more white than their overall public school counterparts – and who are generally not unionized. And frequently charter schools are managed by nonprofit organizations that are highly favored by the big education reform funders such as Gates, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

In the NPQ Newswire, we quoted an equally powerful statement by Anthony Cody on the importance of understanding and dealing with issues of poverty in public school reform. Cody teaches in Oakland, but this author has been watching the educational process in the Washington D.C. public schools that have been educating his daughter for some years. If anything, despite a clunker of a teacher or two, our critique has been not of the teachers in these inner city schools, but of school administrators. Perhaps few remember, but in the New York City of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s predecessors, one of the most important elements of educational reform was the reduction in bloat at 110 Livingston (where the New York City Department of Education was long headquartered).

For anyone who has experience in local government dynamics, it is at the administration level where politics hold great sway, as the teachers unions have succeeded for the most part in protecting teachers against political meddling. Imagine the challenge facing teachers in some of the states where teaching to the test is teaching unscientific bunk on issues of evolution and intelligent design. Thank goodness that there’s a teachers union that will in most cases protect teachers against the kinds of political interference that would otherwise be rampant in public education.

Looking forward: It is so frustrating to find the debate over schools – and the decision about the structure and content of public education – dominated by people whose direct experience of public education is a little limited. According to one source, “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his kids to a private school with three libraries and seven art teachers. But half of Chicago public schools don’t have full-time art and music teachers, 98 don’t have playgrounds, and 160 don’t have libraries.”

Emanuel, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who used to head the Chicago school system), and Emanuel’s former employer, President Obama, are all enthusiasts for privately managed charter schools. Although the president has done his best to steer clear of taking a position on the Chicago teachers, his Republican challenger has been enthusiastic in his support for Emanuel’s position in the controversy and called for more privatization of traditional public schools with charters and other alternatives. During Duncan’s tenure in Chicago, he authorized dozens of charter schools and promoted flexibility in management and curriculum. In truth, as the NPQ Newswire reported recently, observers find less distance between Obama and Romney on school issues than most – other than the fact that Romney’s program of budget cuts would enfeeble the federal government’s ability to do much with public education.

A knee-jerk reaction to the strike would lead people to think that the Chicago teachers were fighting for wages, but that was actually not the case. It was the questionable focus on standardized testing as a significant part of the Emanuel formula for evaluating teacher and school performance. Class size was a big issue for the teachers. And it was teacher training, with the teachers arguing for more and better professional training for teachers in contrast to the increasingly popular notion in some parts of the nonprofit sector that several weeks of training for people with little or no background in education is sufficient for tossing them in front of large and challenging classrooms. The CTU’s position is consistent with the American Federation of Teachers program for bolstered teacher training. You don’t call for more, better, and more rigorous training if you don’t believe in doing the best for the education of kids.

Nonetheless, the nonprofit sector hasn’t been particularly vocal in challenging the political and press orthodoxy of good education reform versus bad teachers unions. It isn’t just from nonprofits in general, but we haven’t seen much response to the continuing disparaging remarks about the teachers in the union and teachers themselves. We really don’t get it. If you know teachers working in the public school systems, you know that they work much longer hours than their nominal school day, working with kids, grading papers, generating new activities and exercises for their classrooms. They take out of their own pockets to pay for extra supplies and books for the kids. For every clunker, there are dozens and dozens of dedicated teachers who are arguing to be collaborative partners with city government and boards of education in improving educational outcomes for kids.

In Robinson’s view, “portraying teachers as villains doesn’t help a single child.” Neither does portraying teachers unions as malevolent entities with no concern for the educational process and kids. Emanuel hired as his incoming school superintendent the head of schools from Rochester, N.Y. where he earned a 95 percent no-confidence vote from that city’s teachers, perhaps girding for a prolonged battle against the teachers union. A war against teachers and against their union, which gives them a collective voice, is unproductive at best. It’s time to end the war, and it’s time for nonprofits to stand up for teachers when they are being pushed into teaching-to-the-test for their own survival and pummeled for looking to their union to represent their concerns about public education.

  • Anne

    Interesting and comprehensive. Thanks!

  • michael

    Well Rick, when innovative nonprofit charter schools (like KIPP) who have achieved great things with low-income and minority students, find themselves constantly under attack from public teacher unions who are more about defending their cozy positions than, you know, actually teaching black kids is it hard to understand why the nonproift sector is lining up in oppostion?

    When teachers in a dysfunctional system like Chicago are get 16% raises in an age of stretched budgets just because they have massive campiagn war chests, the public who pays the bills cannot be faulted for pausing to ask, ‘WTF?”

    When increasing chunks of scarce public dough go towards featherbedded public school systems, decent, hardworking nonprofit educational support organizations know they’ll be the ones to see their funding cut in order to pay for unions largesse.

    I’ve said it before Rick, it’s amazing that a publication called ‘The Nonprofit Quarterly’ so consistently lines up behind a moribund statist status quo at the expense of the innovative, creative nonprofit sector.

  • Doris Jean Heroff

    Check the grammar in the following sentence:

    “Our concern here are the flashpoints for the nonprofit sector, some focusing on issues of educational reform, others more about where the nonprofit sector stands in relation to other parts of society.”

    Subject s/b “concerns” and maybe you should say “some that focus”…and “others that are more about”?? No need to make this public.

    Your English teacher is probably wondering why you are writing so fast, but we know how much you produce so well; we are awed by the output!

  • rick cohen

    Dear Doris: I’m so embarrassed. I do write so fast that I’m pretty nuts most of the time (thanks for giving me the excuse!). Thank you for politely pointing out this egregious mistake.

  • sharon r

    So what’s with the gratuitous racial references? Are you implying opposition to teacher unions are because they’re primarily black? That support for Charters is because the majority of those teachers are white?

    We work with an array of public, private and charter schools. In our experience, private and charter teachers are more flexible, engaged and committed than their brethren in public schools. It is only in public schools where we encounter teachers who, in our opinion, should have been terminated long ago.

    I do hope you are not suggesting we look for racial causes for this as well.

  • William Mansfield

    thank you for the most thoughtful, nuanced and fair article I have read throughout the entire strike. I am the husband of a Chicago public school teacher and have been very upset with the media coverage throughout. It is refreshing to read your article which makes an effort to tell the whole story.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Sharon: Not gratuitous at all. The concept is structural racism, which needs no racial animus behind it. Sometimes, if there are policies or positions taken without any racial animus but tend to work against certain racial groups, it is an issue of disparate racial impact. In the case of the unions, the data I showed on the unions is that as unions have become more and more a target criticism, the segment of the working population that is increasing in its union membership and union coverage happens to be black. So no, it is not a matter of causation, but a matter of impact. There are some excellent pieces on structural racism written by jon powell (now at UNCLA, I think, formerly at Ohio State) and by Lori Villarosa of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. They are worth looking at for people to think about how some issues may have a racial element even if there’s absolute zero animus or intent.

    But you do raise an interesting question. Are the majority of teachers in the charter schools white? Is that in Chicago or nationally? I know that there are some charter schools whose teachers are unionized. Is union membership in the charter school field increasing or decreasing? I know that there are some charter school sponsors (Green Dot, I believe) that have been welcoming to unions. Is the composition of teachers at unionized charters different than the composition of teachers at non-unionized schools?

    Thanks for your comment and question.

  • rick cohen

    Dear William: Not the whole story at all, but a contribution of some information that we hope adds to what people know and don’t know about what was going on there. Thanks for your comment.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Michael: Thanks for your comment as always. There’s so much in your brief comment, I’ll let it stand on its own merits, so to speak, but I will respond to your amazement about the Nonprofit Quarterly’s name. Interestingly, we are not automatic adherents for anything nonprofit and automatic opponents of anything that isn’t. In fact, as you know, about 1/3 of nonprofit revenues come from government grants, contracts, and fees, and probably a good chunk more of the fee income earned by nonprofits occurs because of payments to clients from what I think you might consider statist things like government programs. Moreover, many times, as you know, we call out nonprofits for not doing the right thing and we encourage a robust system of government oversight of the nonprofit sector to ensure that nonprofits function as well as they should. As someone who spent some years working for government programs, I can tell you that in government I met some of the most dedicated people I will ever meet in my life–including government people who happen to be public school teachers. Overall, nonprofits and government together are part of the civil sector (I have never believed that nonprofits have sole ownership of the civil sector brand). Nonprofits sometimes have to be tough critics of government, if as you say there are government officials nesting in beds of feathers. Government has to be strong and consistent in its oversight to ensure that nonprofits use their charitable status appropriately. Bothhave to take appropriate advantage of opportunities for productive partnership and collaboration. At NPQ, we recognize and value the symbiotic relationship of government and nonprofits. Hopefully both will help each other minimize tendencies toward entropy (which might make them “moribund”). Thanks again for your comments, Michael.

  • Clark

    Rick – The CTU claimed as one of the great achievements of its strike the avoidance of merit pay. In my job, I lobby FOR merit pay. I want my good work to be rewarded. The determination of merit pay in my case is subjective and ultimately rests with my boss — as would be the case with CPS teachers. But I am confident in my skills and competence in my work. Somehow, CTU appears less confident that the excellence of its teachers will be apparent when they are compared to one another. Or perhaps they are more concerned with those who might be revealed to be less excellent.

    You did identify one tired shot I read so frequently in the news relating to the fact that Mayor Emanuel sends his kids to private school. I live in Chicago and do so too. In my case it’s not because there are no quality schools in my neighborhood. It’s because I am Catholic and want a particular type of value system threaded through my child’s educational experience. But let’s recall that the Mayor did attend public schools himself. It’s not like public schools are foreign to him.

    From my vantage point, the most significant issue you missed is that CPS is very large and diverse. The strike was viewed differently in different neighborhoods. The reactions were different. The issues are different. If solutions emerge that allow decisions to be made at lower levels, that’s a good thing. A large union negotiating against a large district just isn’t going to move us in that direction.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Clark: thanks so much for your note. It’s good you put the issue of merit pay on the table. The teachers’ strike involved lots of issues, and they “merit” debate on their own merits, but without the rather obvious animus of many commentators demonizing teachers unions as simply out to featherbed the cozy nests of teachers. I mentioned where Emanuel sends his kids to school because I find it relevant that so many people engaged in the education reform debate choose to debate reform as it affects others’ kids, not their own. In my case and in the case of many others, we chose to put our kids in public schools, not for the demonstration effect, but committing us to work for school betterment as parents, and boy did we ever. My kid is still in the public school system. Public schools aren’t foreign to Emanuel or to me (I went to public school all my life as well), but I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. The Mayor is younger than I am, but not that much younger. Life changes, education changes, and the public schools I went to in those decades are a lot different today. Your point about the size and diversity of the CPS is very interesting and a subject worthy of discussion. Remember it was movement of decision making to lower levels that was one of the core issues in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversies in Brooklyn. Thank you for raising that issue. It’s worth some attention and hopefully we can look at the pros and cons here in the Quarterly. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Phillip Jackson

    Chicago Strike Over: City, Teachers Union, Chicago Public Schools All Claim Victory
    While Black Children Continue to Lose

    By Phillip Jackson

    What is different for Black Chicago children two weeks after a grueling, internationally-watched, hard-fought strike than two weeks before the strike? By most accounts, Black children will go back to the same schools they attended before the strike with few difference-making improvements.

    There is an old African proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. When big cities and school boards fight with teachers’ unions, it is the children who get trampled!

    Here are the shockingly abysmal educational, social and economic realities for Black children in Chicago:
    • Only three out of 100 Black young men “educated” in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) earn a college degree by age 26.
    • Only 39% of CPS Black male students graduate from high school.
    • The Chicago Public School system has the highest suspension, expulsion and arrest rates of Black students anywhere in the world.
    • In 1995, 45% of CPS teachers were Black. In 2012, 19% of CPS teachers are Black (trend expected to continue).
    • Less than 2% of CPS teachers are Black men.
    • 52% of Black men in Chicago (most of whom attended CPS) are not working.
    • In 34 of 104 Chicago high schools, less than 10% of CPS students met or exceeded Illinois State Standards in math and reading on the 2011 Prairie State Achievement Exam. Those schools were predominately in Black communities.
    • In 52 of those 104 Chicago high schools, less than 15% of CPS students met or exceeded Illinois State Standards in math and reading on the 2011 Prairie State Achievement Exam. Those schools were also predominately in Black communities.
    • After the agreement between Chicago and the teachers’ union, the city is expected to close between 80 and 120 elementary and high schools in the near future, mostly in Black communities.
    • Illinois had 11,775 Black men students in its 22 largest colleges in 2010 while there were 24,914 Black men caged in its 22 largest prisons that same year.
    • One out of three Black males born in America after 2001 will be incarcerated in prison or jail.
    • Chicago has become the murder capital of the world for school-aged Black males.

    Black children are not being adequately prepared to successfully compete globally or to participate in any meaningful way in the 21st century. While Black parents may be relieved that Black children are back in a structured learning environment, how can we truly celebrate a resolution that fails to significantly benefit Black children? Black people will not rest while this educational genocide continues to decimate the Black community.

    It is time for Black parents and Black communities in Chicago to strike a blow for all Black people across America and
    across the world. We must take over the education of our children. We must occupy the schools!

    We must take the control of the education of our children from charter schools, public schools, private schools, corporate schools, city administrations, unions, school boards, voucher proponents, elected officials, foundations, businesses, school reform organizations, the media and any other entity that fails to put the best interest of Black children first.

    Black people should not be distracted by settlement “wins” in this round of the vicious battle between the City of Chicago and Chicago Board of Education versus the Chicago Teachers Union and supportive local and national unions. Rather, let’s be concerned with who lost. Black children lost and will continue to lose unless Black parents and communities rise up and take control of the education of Black children.

  • Gladys Reyes

    The links in this paragraph seem to be broken. Can you please send me the working links to the articles? Thanks so much!

    Test scores: It is difficult to find education reformers defending the reliance on student test scores for the evaluation of teachers’ performance, though the student test score issue continues to be a default option in the school administrators’ reform platform. That stands in contrast to the continuing critique of the heavy reliance on student test scores in the research. The Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Straus, has published a couple of commentaries in the wake of the Chicago strike on the weaknesses of testing (this one, for example), but despite her using the academic literature to demolish Emanuel’s position on testing a better response might be an op-ed this week from Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.