What did we learn in school today? The Machine versus Kids and Teachers

Leonard Ramirez, Ph.D.
Educational observers are giving high praise to the Chicago teachers strike for doing the nation a favor by challenging the conservative neoliberal “school reform” agenda championed by both Republicans and Democrats allied with the financial establishment. On one side are the so called reformers: politicians, civic clubs comprised of economic elites, corporate media, and relentless Astroturf groups positioned open mouthed, waiting for the next worm to tumble. They say what they want is what’s best for children, longer school days and teacher accountability. They claim to want to salvage public schools from self-serving unions, system bureaucrats (often those appointed by them) and highly-paid and ineffective teachers.  

 On the other side are many if not the majority of parents who came out in support of CPS teachers and clinicians. Also within this circle are educational professionals, social justice activists, and scholars who believe it is unfair to saddle the complex problems of poverty and inequality on schools and teachers. School reform is seen as merely a ploy to undermine collective bargaining rights and continue the disinvestment from poor and middle-class neighborhoods. Public education advocates say they want to stop the siphoning off of neighborhood resources and demand that the city address the deteriorating conditions of urban schools and decry public education’s transformation into a business opportunity with no oversight or quality control.

Here are 10 things that might have been learned from the recent strike.

1.      Few public officials in the city had the courage to stand with students and teachers or at least try to explain the real issues at stake. The absence of strong independent voices was daunting. Instead, teachers relied on a groundswell of popular support bolstered by an oppositional context partly created by local school struggles, the Immigrant Rights Marches, the actions of the Dreamers, and the Occupied Movement. 

2.      Chicagoans are less likely to swallow the old manipulative PR talking points that hide behind the “interests of children” or some other rhetorical shield in order to justify the reneging of labor agreements, the wheedling of more work for little or no extra pay and that are used to deflect the criticism of educational inequality and disinvestment from neighborhood schools.  

3.      Charter schools do not as a whole raise standardized tests scores and constitute no silver bullet solution to improve education. In fact, one of the major comprehensive studies estimates that 40 percent of charter schools produce poorer outcomes than neighborhood schools, while an additional 40 percent produce similar results with only 20 percent outperforming public schools.

4.      If one is more likely to receive a better or just as good an education from a public school, then the argument that the newest iteration of NCLB, Race to the Top, is a Trojan Horse meant to dismantle unions and public education gains credibility.

5.      The mainstream media’s support for the mayor and criticism of unions and teachers deepened the already growing perception that corporate information outlets such as the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune are part of the Foxification of the news. Independent sources like the Chicago Reader are fast becoming the only trustworthy, non-electronic venues for discussion of issues.   

6.      The strike called into question the logic of a mayoral appointed school board that does not represent the most important stakeholders of Chicago’s Public Schools. The Board is seen as bent decidedly in the direction of a financial elite whose children generally attend expensive private schools that provide competitive teacher salaries and do not rely on standardized tests that many argue are invalid measures of teacher competence.    

7.      The strike questioned the legitimacy of a so-called school reform that is reluctant to address issues of class size, supplies for children, the inadequate number of clinicians or the lack of libraries, music, arts, and sports programs; all of which have been seen as important in the mix that can produce better school outcomes for kids.  

8.      The battle against unions does not need Scott Walker, Wisconsin style Republicans. Romney and Ryan’s rush to support Emanuel suggests the influence of corporate interests in both parties and their willingness to collaborate and sacrifice public education in order to keep corporate taxes low and monopolize access to public tax dollars through vehicles such as TIFS, which often comes at the expense of poor and middle-class children.    

9.       The successful framing of educational issues by teachers has been met with post-strike attempts at damage control through editorials and expensive TV ads seeking to affirm the role of school officials and politicians as the true defenders of the public good. However, the upsurge in popular support for teachers and kids has left officials smarting from the loss of public trust and the erosion of system legitimacy.  

10.   Deteriorating educational conditions and diverting resources away from neighborhood schools do not resolve educational problems but might very well contribute to maintaining the cycle of poor school outcomes for inner city youth.
Teachers have opened up a critical policy discussion about the importance of neighborhood schools and the maintenance of public education and the future access that non-elites will have to educational opportunity in an era of wealth concentration and globalization.