Who Can Democrats Trust About The Chicago Teachers Strike?

Jeff Bryant

“So much for Democratic harmony,” is the way Herold Meyerson chose to start his op-ed in The Washington Post analyzing the ramifications of the current Chicago teachers strike on the well being of the Democratic party.

His conclusion is that there must be some kind of “win-win solution,” but a meaningful compromise has been thwarted because Chicago mayor Rham Emanuel “from the start… had no interest in working with the teachers, and the teachers reacted as angry and aggrieved partisans.”

Viewing the Chicago teachers strike from another point of view, “life-long Democrat” Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive of New York City charter school chain Success Academy Charter Schools, concluded something quite different. In her view, the Chicago teachers are afflicted with a “solution-phobia” against “reform measures,” in particular, new standardized test-based teacher evaluation systems that “would help identify whether teachers are actually succeeding at elevating student achievement.”

But what’s important to note is that in both of these op-eds, regardless of their sympathies, each author gets crucial facts wrong.

In Myerson’s sympathetic view of the Chicago Teachers Union, he can’t help but repeat a patently untrue point that Chicago’s school day is “one of the nation’s shortest at six hours” and “should certainly be lengthened.” Contrary to what Myerson wrote, the meme that Chicago’s school day is one of the nation’s shortest is a talking point that was made up by Stand For Children’s Jonah Edelman and subsequently repeated by Rham Emanuel in his campaign to discredit the union. This was captured in a video of Edelman’s presentation at the Aspen Institute.

Furthermore, research on the impact of lengthening the school day or year on student achievement is “inconclusive.” Also commonsense strongly supports the conclusion that lengthening school time by itself is not as important as focusing on what students actually do during that time. And doesn’t it strike people as bizarre that those who are the most critical of teachers and how they do their jobs assert that making our school children stay with teachers longer would instantly improve education?

Likewise, the test-based teacher evaluation systems that Eva Moskowitz believes are the “reasonable and necessary reforms that benefit children” are actually completely unreliable and inaccurate. “Junk science” is how education historian Diane Ravitch refers to them.

By now Democrats should be used to the fact that most of what their party’s spokespeople tell them about education policy is a complete fabrication. This was especially true at the recently completed Democratic National Convention.

One of the most thrilling speeches of that event was delivered by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. In his soaring endorsement of president Obama, he stated that one example of the administration’s “accomplishments” was a Boston-area school called Orchard Gardens Elementary School where “a host of new tools, many enacted with the help of the Obama administration,” had taken a school that was “in trouble” with “its spirit broken, and its reputation… a wreck” to a situation where it was “turning itself around.”

According to Patrick’s accounting, due to the policies of the Obama administration, apparently, Orchard Gardens has now become a place transformed, where “teaching standards and accountabilities are higher. The school day is longer and filled with experiential learning, art, exercise and music.” And “in less than a year, Orchard Gardens went from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state. The whole school community is engaged and proud.”

In the giddy atmosphere of the DNC, this was well received by Democrats everywhere. And no one in the mainstream media bothered to fact-check it.

But Patrick’s story, although stirring, isn’t quite true. To disprove it, all it took was a lowly blogger to bother to look up the facts of the situation and find out that Orchard Gardens is anything but a shining example of “education reform.”

In fact, after the grandiose “turnaround effort” trumpeted by Patrick, during which 80 percent of the teachers were fired, Orchard Gardens still has an academic proficiency level far below the rest of the state. Reading scores for third graders are 19 percent compared to statewide averages of 61 percent. Seventh grade math proficiency levels are 30 percent compared to statewide averages of 51 percent.

Republicans are of course no better. Right now, the education darling of the Republican party is Jeb Bush whose signature accomplishment, among many, is presiding over a voucher program that committed widespread fraud and chaos in Florida.

Such misleading representations from our political elite about the American education policy are unfortunately routine. And we should expect the same sort of misrepresentations coming out of the Chicago teachers strike.

If we had journalists who would help us cut through the confusion, that would be helpful. Alas, that’s is anything but the case. Witness the most recent offerings.

The New York Times dismissed the teachers’ grievances as “folly” and “hurtful to children and families,” despite objective data showing that teacher strikes do not have a long-term hurtful impact on school children.

The editors’ contention is that the teachers’ objections to being subjected to unfair evaluations — that certainly do students no good because of the likelihood of good teachers being fired — are an affront to “sensible policy changes… that are increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.” In other words, how dare anyone buck the conventional wisdom!

In other media channels, mainstream “journalists” made sure that the conventional wisdom critical of the teachers strike was strongly reinforced against any contrarian views coming from teachers.

On CNBC, an advocate for small class size — an important bargaining point of Chicago teachers — Leonie Haimson was pitted against three business-minded commentators who roundly denounced teachers, their unions, and public schools.

In similar vein, NPR’s The Diane Rehm show featured Diane Ravitch against three school reform enthusiasts: Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Rotherham of an education business consultancy Bellweather Education Partners, and ex-mayor of Washington DC Adrian Fenty.

That any journalist would find these reports to be “balanced” is laughable.

So back to the question posed by this post’s title: What’s a Democrat to do?

Now that both Republicans and Democrats have resolved that education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” perhaps we should recall what actually happened during that struggle when black Americans were fighting for their civil rights.

During that deeply conflicted period in our nation’s history, the least dependable source of information was government officials. And representations of the truth in the broadcast media were spotty at best.

Instead, what served as the most accurate lenses to the reality of the times were those actors who were closest to the ground — the ordinary civilians who experienced discrimination, spoke out against it, and bore the brunt of the backlash to preserve the status quo.

Now let’s be clear: When it comes to understanding the reality of the situation in Chicago, Deval Patrick and Jeb Bush are not on the ground. Frederick Hess, Andrew Rotherham, and Adrian Fenty are not on the ground. Neither, for that matter, are Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson. But at least they are willing to listen to those on the ground.

Rham Emanuel is not on the ground either. From his elite perch in society, he can simply choose the kind of schooling he wants for his children while denying that choice for the citizens of Chicago.

Who is undoubtedly on the ground of course are the teachers, parents, school children, and citizens of Chicago. And it’s instructive to note that 98 percent of the teachers, excluding abstentions, voted to strike. And in a recent survey of Chicago voters, only 39 percent of Chicago voters oppose the teachers strike, 47 percent back it, and only 6 percent strongly support mayor Emanuel.

Right now, President Obama, Congressional Democrats in Illinois, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are opting out of taking a stand in this fight.

They aren’t on the ground either, so they can afford to.

But everyone calling themselves Democrats needs to take especially seriously the need to stand up for those on the ground in any fight to preserve and expand our rights. Otherwise, they aren’t really Democrats at all.

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