Chicago Teachers – Canaries In The American Coalmine

Jeff Bryant

When a leading conservative pundit compliments a labor union leader for getting something right, it’s usually worth noticing.

That’s exactly what happened recently when The Washington Post’s conservative op-ed columnist George Will praised Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, and its members for being “not all wrong” to pick a fight with Chicago mayor Rham Emanuel.

Will pointed out that Emanuel is forcing tough new “accountability” policies, including “merit pay,” on teachers and schools at time when the city is “experiencing an epidemic of youth violence,” “social regression,” and “family disintegration.”

His perfectly reasonable conclusion is that the mayor is ratcheting up the demands on teaching at a time when teaching is being “subordinated to the arduous task of maintaining minimal order.” And because the purpose of unions is to “enhance members’ well-being,” then Lewis and her followers — who voted overwhelmingly (90 percent) in favor to authorize a strike — are rational actors in this conflict and have just cause to dispute the mayor’s strong-arm contract.

But regardless of Will’s brief spate of rationality, he offsets it out with an irrational treatise that the standoff between the mayor and the teachers union is a conflict between Emanuel’s “admirable ideas” and the teachers’ desires for “a pay raise.”

In fact, just this week, when a “fact-finder” hired to help arbitrate the dispute recommended a double-digit raise for teachers, the union voted it down because of “classroom quality issues.”

Although the school board rejected the recommendation too — for “financial” reasons — Lewis, speaking for the teachers, said “smaller class sizes” and “a rich curriculum that includes art music foreign language and physical education” were what mattered most.

For Will to be confused about the positions held by teachers and their unions is, unfortunately, not at all unusual. People on the opposite end of the spectrum also think that the positions that teachers and their unions take are primarily a “labor issue.”

But this sells the value of teachers far too short. And it diminishes the significance of the message that teachers in Chicago are sending us about the dire circumstances in the communities they serve.

How dire?

Chicago Youth In Trauma

Chicago is currently experiencing a 35 percent increase in homicide rate. “More young people are killed in Chicago than any other American city,” investigative journalists at The Chicago Reporter recently observed.

Last year, a journalist at that news site, Megan Cottrell, found that among the 10 largest cities in America, Chicago has the third highest poverty rate, — with 21.6 percent of residents living under the poverty level — and leads the nation in poverty rate among African Americans, with 32.2 percent of all black families living in poverty.

Also last year, the Huffington Post reported about a study that found “1 In 5 Chicagoans aren’t sure where they’ll find their next meal.” And in January of this year, the Chicago Sun Times reported that more than 10,660 students were homeless at the beginning of the school year — 1,466 more than the previous school year, which ended with a record number of students with nowhere to call home.

Emanuel’s response to the worsening situation in Chicago has been to demand sacrifices from public service workers, including teachers, and use an argument about “wages” to distract from far more critical concerns that have more potential to rescue the city’s children and youth — including issues that Chicago teachers want to bring to the table, namely, class size and school turn-arounds.

This Is Not About Wages

What’s being forced on the Chicago teachers — and by connection, the city in its entirety — is described by another Chicago local reporter at ChicagoNow.com. as a power play by powerful establishment politicians to limit the debate.

Yana Kunichoff reports that teachers are being prevented from making negotiations include issues parents care about — such as class size and well-rounded curriculum — because of bills muscled through the state legislature that “narrowed the range of issues that can be discussed during collective bargaining.”

Kunichoff quotes an expert on education labor from the University of Chicago to explain how teachers are forced to confine negotiations to “salaries” rather than issues that the teachers and their “allies have argued are essential to the development of students.”

One of those issues, class size, became especially important to teachers when they conducted an analysis and found that classrooms for younger students in Chicago “were larger than 95 percent of those in districts in the rest of Illinois” and that class sizes in kindergarten averaged more than 24 students. An analysis of class size in K-3 grades conducted by The Center for Public Education concluded that “a class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits.”

Another important issue for the Chicago teachers are “school turn-arounds,” where struggling schools are ordered to replace the principal and half of the teaching staff or are closed down altogether — often to return as a privately controlled charter school with a completely different teaching staff.

Turn-arounds have become particularly prevalent in Chicago, despite strong opposition from teachers, parents, and public school advocates.

Those opposed to these disruptive turn-around models have good reasons to protest. A recent study conducted by the Center for Longitudinal Data in Education Research looked at the impact of high teacher turnover — an inevitable outcome of the turn-around models — and concluded that treating teachers like replaceable widgets lowers the morale in schools to the point of harming academic achievement.

A review of the study by Education Week’s indispensable Stephen Sawchuck highlights the key findings of the research, including

    • Students taught by teachers in the same grade-level team in the same school did worse in years where turnover rates were higher.
    • An increase in teacher turnover by 1 standard deviation corresponded with a decrease in math achievement of 2 percent.
    • Students in grade levels with 100 percent turnover were especially affected, with lower test scores by anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent.
    • The effects were seen in both large and small schools, new and old ones.
    • The negative effect of turnover on student achievement was larger in schools with more low-achieving and black students.

So with one side — teachers — being prevented from bringing important issues to the table that quite probably have the most impact on the wellbeing of students, how can this even be called a fair negotiation?

Where Parents Stand

Parents, of course, should be an important constituency in the dialogue.

According to a recent survey of Chicago-area parents conducted by the teachers union, a hefty majority of Chicagoans support the city’s public school teachers and are highly skeptical of the mayor’s handpicked Board of Education.

Many parent groups in Chicago have voiced strong support for the teachers.

A coalition of Chicago Public School parents representing 16 parent and community organizations” has declared its opposition to mayor Emanuel’s positions.

And at least one parent group has declared that “Chicago is on the forefront of corporate education-busting because of the true grass roots collaboration between the Chicago Teachers’ Union and Chicago’s old and new parent and community groups.” (emphasis, original)

The Bigger Picture

What’s important to make note of is that the situation occurring in Chicago is not unlike what communities across the country are experiencing.

Nationwide, the U.S. poverty rate is now on track to rise to its highest rate since 1960s. The percentage of adults unsure of their financial standing because they are engaged in temporary employment is also reaching new heights. And census data show children are increasingly likely to live in high-poverty, low-opportunity communities.

The way our leaders are responding to these emergencies is to increasingly put the pressure on public employees, particularly teachers, to take on more sacrifice and adhere to austere budgets rather than demand taxpayers, especially the wealthy, to pay more.

If you’re a parent, you know what it’s like to have to dig deep, financially, when you’re confronted with a health emergency for your kid or you’re having to provide a foundational experience — like education — for your child because you know, in the long run, it’s going to be beneficial to his or her long term wellbeing.

Why doesn’t political leadership in Chicago get that? Why don’t they dig deeper to finance quality improvements like smaller class size and well-rounded curriculum and end destructive policies like school turn-arounds?

Truth be told, Chicago teachers are playing the role of canaries in the coalmine of one of America’s most traumatized communities. When canaries were brought down into coalmines to detect dangerous gas build-ups, miners knew that as long as the birds kept singing, they knew they were safe.

Right now, Chicago teachers are singing loud and clear. Is America listening?

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