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Chicago Teachers Strike: 2 Educators Speak

Friday, September 14th, 2012

NOTE: Chicago is America’s third largest city, and its teachers’ strike this week has rocked this bustling Midwestern town, and our nation. Once more we are hearing heated and angry debates about public schools versus charter schools, teacher pay and teacher competency, and children being pawns in the local and national education battles. But in the spirit of the late Studs Terkel, that legendary Chicago author and historian who taught us how to listen to the voices of everyday people, below, in their own words, are two Chitown educators speaking from the heart about this strike, about education, about our children, about why they do the work that they do. They are Mr. Reed, a teacher and union delegate, and Stephanie Hicks, who works with a citywide coalition called Teachers for Social Justice. I purposely asked them the same questions, and certainly raised same issues I have been hearing in the mainstream media and reading on Twitter and Facebook. For once we need to learn how to respect and listen to each other, even where there may be disagreement. As a product of America’s public schools myself, and a single-mother led household and dire urban poverty, too, I know what a quality public school education and caring teachers did for me: saved my life, quite literally. Mr. Reed and Ms. Hicks do not agree on everything, as you will read, but they certainly are committed to education, and to our children. As rumors swirl of a pending resolution (or not), these hard conversations still need to be had, and heard, across America long after this Chicago teachers’ strike is over.—k.p.

MS. STEPHANIE HICKS:
1) Are you yourself a teacher, or ever been?

I’m not a Chicago Public School K-12 teacher or member of the union. But I have taught adult education (GED) classes, and I currently teach college students. (I’m a PhD student in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.) I’m also a proud Chicago Public School grad, and I come from a family of Chicago Teachers Union teachers.

2) What is Teachers for Social Justice, please, and how long has it been in existence?

Teachers for Social Justice is a citywide grassroots group of teachers (public, charter and private, Pre-K through higher ed), school staff (social workers, administrators), parents, students, community members, and youth activists that organizes around issues of social justice in education in Chicago. We’ve been involved in resisting the school closings and turnarounds of Renaissance 2010 (city government/capital’s plan for privatization of public schools) since its inception in the early 2000s. More recently, we’ve been involved in the struggle to save Ethnics Studies in public schools in Tucson, AZ and nationally. We’re most known for our annual TSJ Curriculum Fair, which brings together nearly 1,000 educators and community members each Fall to share curricular resources, improve social justice education practices, and support activists in the struggle to defend and improve public education.

3) What led to the Chicago teachers’ strike, in your opinion, very specifically?

The teachers have been working without a permanent contract for at least the past 3 years, and they’ve been negotiating around the issues of a better school day, job security, and fair compensation since November of last year. The better school day includes bringing back rich curriculum like world languages, music, art and physical education that have been diminished as preparation for repeated standardized tests has come to dominate the curriculum. Job security for teachers means that they will be protected from unfair evaluation polices based solely on the results of their students’ standardized test scores. Teachers are also seeking fair compensation (particularly benefits) for the work that they do, which has become more strenuous as the Board has instituted a longer school day without resources to support it. Teachers ultimately want better working conditions for themselves and school staff, and better learning conditions for their students. Concretely, schools have operated without air conditioning in 90-plus degree weather for months. There are schools without libraries, without social workers or staff psychologists, and Chicago Public School students have been exposed to high levels of violence without the emotional support that they need. The teachers union is fighting for these conditions, and the fact that neither the Mayor nor the CEO of the Board seriously began to negotiate until a strike was authorized forced the teachers to take action.

4) Are you a native or long-time resident of Chicago? If so, what are your thoughts on what has happened with Chicago’s public schools,
and public schools in general?

Yes, I’m a native Chicagoan! I was born and raised on the South Side, and have an immense amount of respect for CPS teachers. The students served in CPS are predominately Black and Latina/Latino, and from low-income neighborhoods. While teachers are fighting for better conditions for all students, I think it’s important to remember that CPS students in low-income neighborhoods of color have been facing massive amount of school closures, turnarounds, displacement (layoffs) of teachers, and increased surveillance (by police and security) for years. This has meant, at the very least, instability, and at the most, an outright inability to receive quality education and thrive in neighborhood schools. And these same things are happening in urban districts around the country (New York, Detroit, Philly, etc.). While corporate “reformers” are touting charter schools and high-stakes testing as the answer to educational problems, the results of massive turnovers of schools to charter networks and heavy standardized testing are not improving schools, but in many cases, the opposite. When schools are closed, students are shifted to other school buildings, often losing connections with the faculty and staff of their community schools, and heightening tensions that have existed between folks of different neighborhoods, without support for these transitions. Heavy standardized testing often results in the standardizing of curriculum, which means that students miss out on the rich curriculum they deserve. So in the past decade especially, as the privatization of public education has been rampant in our city and beyond, we’ve had a school district that has completely underserved the large majority of its children. And at the same time, competition to get kids into the few schools that seem to offer great educational resources has been high. Because parents see what’s happening in most of the district, they’re clamoring to get their kids into the few schools that are well resourced. And of course there just aren’t enough seats in those schools for everyone. The current system isn’t designed to accommodate that. I’m very proud of my CPS education. But because we have a Board that isn’t focused on providing each student with a quality school in their own neighborhood, only a few choice seats in a few schools, less and less Chicago Public Schools alum will be able to say the same.

5) How do you respond to those who say teachers are asking for too much?

To those who say that teachers are asking for too much, I’d say that the conditions under which teachers teach, and students learn, make a world of difference in the educational process. If teachers aren’t compensated fairly, if they don’t have adequate affordable healthcare, and time to attend to their families, or the resources they need in the classroom to teach effectively, their students are going to suffer. Just as students should be able to go to school in healthy, safe, supportive environments, teachers should be able to work in them.

6) How do you respond to those who say teachers’ strike is affecting the children?

I’d say that the strike is affecting them in the best way possible: they’re learning the most valuable lessons out there on the picket lines! I’ve been at two of the big rallies in the past week, and student and parents are out there in solidarity with teachers. High school marching bands provided the background music to the chants. First graders were waving hand-made signs calling for lower class sizes and showing support for their teachers. Many parents understand that teachers aren’t striking to hurt kids. They’re not striking because they’re lazy. They’re striking because they’ve have had enough of the disinvestment and want better for their students.

7) How do you respond to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s charge that this is a strike of choice?

The Mayor and the rest of the Board members (all appointed by the Mayor) made the choice not to take negotiations seriously, thereby backing the union into a corner. If there was any choice in this situation, it was the Board’s choice not to listen to the demands of teachers that brought this strike on.

8) How do you respond to the growing chorus of folks in America who, in the past few years, have been steadily blaming teachers and teachers unions for the problems with this nation’s public school system?

I think that certain politicians and media outlets have done a great job of casting teachers as lazy, incompetent people who are only concerned with getting Summers off. And because banks and corporations (those at the forefront of the movement to privatize education) have access to almost limitless funds and resources to further their message, it’s no wonder that people have adopted that messaging. Parents and community members look at reports on standardized test scores, which are hailed as the only/best indicator of school performance (though we have vast amounts of research to the contrary) and see the poor results of America’s public schools. Then they hear rhetoric about how our students are faring so much worse than students in other countries. They see a dismal job market, they may have even lost jobs themselves, and they think about how hard it’s going to be for their kids to get into college and get good jobs if public schools are failing, and all of these things pile up. This national anxiety just builds. And who’s supposed to be responsible for young people’s education? Teachers. But the truth of the matter is teachers are dealing with so much more than teaching young people how to read and write. They’re doing that, plus trying to provide spaces where students feel safe and supported. They have to teach every student that sits before them, and in a large urban district like Chicago, that means teachers are addressing issues of poverty and violence and health disparities every day in their classroom, which we know greatly affect students’ learning. So in reality teachers are teaching under immense pressure without the wrap-around services (school nurses, social workers, therapists, bilingual resources) that make it possible for students to learn. And teachers and teacher unions that recognize that these social issues need attention aren’t the problem with the educational system; they are actually part of the solution.

9) Do you think public schools and charter schools can co-exist? And why so much tension and anger between advocates on other side, in your opinion?

Do I think they can co-exist? Anything’s possible!!! Seriously, I think that some of the original intentions of charter schools were good ones. Charter schools were intended to be spaces in which those who had historically been kept out or pushed out of the public school system could have some semblance of control over education in their communities. That’s extremely valuable. They were also spaces in which educators could experiment and model new practices to find out what works in schools. Also extremely valuable. Today, we hear stories about charter schools in urban districts that have made huge gains in standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. However, I think we need to be critical of those stories. We have no credible research that tells us that charter schools as a whole perform better than neighborhood public schools. And what we do know is that because charter schools have different levels of accountability to parents and the broader public, we can never be sure that the test scores, graduation rates and college acceptance rates of these schools are based on the whole population of the students who attend the school, or if they’ve been calculated after certain populations of students have been marginalized (i.e. special education students, English language learners, etc.). Charter schools have been touted as the solution to problems facing urban districts, making them attractive to parents and families in low-income neighborhoods of color. These schools usually spring up as the shining alternative to decrepit public schools: they have beautiful facilities, young, bright faculties and staffs, and seemingly endless resources. Of course they seem like the obvious answer to parents who’ve been dealing with poorly resourced neighborhood schools with high teacher turnover and low-test scores, always on the brink of suspension or closure. But corporate charters, after all is said and done, are businesses. Their main goal is profit; we’d be wise to keep that in mind. That profit is increased as charter networks take over more and more schools and replicate and distribute their curriculum, not necessarily because they’re educating kids well. And for as long as that is true, there’s going to be tension between those who want quality public schools in every neighborhood for every child, and those who want to privatize schools and make them compete against each other. I hope that tension continues, actually. I would hate for communities and cities and states and nations to wholeheartedly accept the charter model. It’s not what’s best for children.

10) Finally, how long do you think this strike will last?

On the issue of compensation, the union and the Board are said to be close, but they’re still said to be far apart on benefits and the school day, so I can’t honestly say. But I believe that teachers will strike as long as necessary to get the conditions students deserve. And I think as long as they know that parents and students and community members are in solidarity with them, they’ll be able to keep fighting.

MR. REED:
1) Are you yourself a teacher, or ever been?

Yes, I am a teacher.

2) What transpired this week significance around this strike?

What transpired on 9/11 around this strike was nothing of significance. Chicago Public Schools had still not decided to take us seriously at that time.

3) What led to the Chicago teachers’ strike, in your opinion, very specifically?

What led to this strike was a group of politicians decided that they were going to bully the teachers into accepting the blame for students’ progress, or the lack thereof. They believed that it would be easy to blame teachers, paint us in a bad light, and open charter schools for their cronies to make money. All in the name of education.

4) Are you a native or long-time resident of Chicago? If so, what are your thoughts on what has happened with Chicago’s public schools,
and public schools in general?

I have lived in Chicago for 48 years. Nothing in particular has happened to the school system itself. What has happened is that the drive of the student population has taken a drastic downturn. Today’s CPS student lives in an environment that breeds despair, desperation, and an inherent sense of hopelessness. These children are not dumb. They simply do not see the value of an education in a society that is increasingly shutting them out. It is hard to educate a child that does not value education. The school system sees this trend and instead of addressing the social ills that have caused this mindset in poverty stricken areas, they constantly try to come up with new ways to teach these children; instead of addressing the true question of why they DON’T WANT TO LEARN; they waste time retreading and renaming old teaching methods to constantly go around in circles trying to address the falsehood that they CAN’T learn.

5) How do you respond to those who say teachers are asking for too much?

Teachers are not asking for too much. We are asking for respect, and job security. We are also asking for the resources to actually try to help the same children that CPS professes to care about.

6) How do you respond to those who say teachers’ strike is affecting the children?

I agree that the strike is affecting the children. But if we don’t strike, or lose this strike, the instability that will be wrought because of the agenda that the CPS wants to implement will affect the children in an exponentially more negative way than a teacher strike in which we are fighting for stability and resources FOR the children.

7) How do you respond to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s charge that this is a strike of choice?

YES, IT IS A STRIKE OF CHOICE. WE CHOSE THIS ROUTE TO RESPOND TO YOUR BULLYING AND DENIGRATION OF TEACHERS.

8) How do you respond to the growing chorus of folks in America who, in the past few years, have been steadily blaming teachers
and teachers unions for the problems with this nation’s public school system?

One may be able to blame the school system which is actually enabling students to fail by not teaching them that they don’t have to be accountable and by not making them face motivational consequences; but one cannot blame the teachers. Until we are given the freedom and resources to really teach we are just pawns in the game.

9) Do you think public schools and charter schools can co-exist? And why so much tension and anger between advocates on other side, in your opinion?

I do not think that public schools and charter schools can co-exist. One reason is that the proponents of charter schools DO NOT WANT THEM TO CO-EXIST! Charter school advocates are politicians and rich people that plan to privatize public education to make money. Public schools stand in the way of the privatization of the educational system, so they must go. In order to get rid of public schools, older teachers must go and teaching in public schools must be made as unattractive and intolerable as possible to incoming teachers.

10) Finally, how long do you think this strike will last?

I think it will last about one week for political reasons.

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Kevin Powell is a writer, public speaker, and author of editor of 11 books, including “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him, kevin@kevinpowell.net

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