[Marxism] Diane Ravitch: Two Visions for Chicago’s Schools

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 15 08:05:44 MDT 2012


Two Visions for Chicago’s Schools
Diane Ravitch

According to most news reports, the teachers in Chicago are striking 
because they are lazy and greedy. Or they are striking because of a 
personality clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and union president Karen 
Lewis. Or because this is the last gasp of a dying union movement. Or 
because Emanuel wants a longer school day, and the teachers oppose it.

None of this is true. All reports agree that the two sides are close to 
agreement on compensation issues—it is not money that drove them apart. 
Last spring the union and the school board agreed to a longer school 
day, so that is not the issue either. The strike is a clash of two very 
different visions about what is needed to transform the schools of 
Chicago—and the nation.

Chicago schools have been a petri dish for school reform for nearly two 
decades. Beginning in 1995, they came under tight mayor control, and 
Mayor Richard Daley appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, to run 
the schools; Vallas set out to raise test scores, open magnet schools 
and charter schools, and balance the budget. When Vallas left to run for 
governor (unsuccessfully), Daley selected another non-educator, Arne 
Duncan, who was Vallas’s deputy and a strong advocate of charter 
schools. Vallas had imposed reform after reform, and Duncan added even 
more. Duncan called his program Renaissance 2010, with the goal of 
closing low-performing schools and opening one hundred new schools. 
Since 2009, Duncan has been President Obama’s Education Secretary, where 
he launched the $5 billion Race to the Top program, which relies heavily 
on student test scores to evaluate teacher quality, to award merit pay, 
and to close or reward schools; it also encourages the proliferation of 
privately managed charter schools.

This is the vision that Washington now supports, and that the Chicago 
school board, appointed by current mayor and former Obama chief of staff 
Rahm Emanuel, endorses: more school closings, more privately managed 
schools, more testing, merit pay, longer school hours. But in Chicago 
itself, where these reforms started, most researchers agree that the 
results have been mixed at best. There has been no renaissance. After 
nearly twenty years of reform, the schools of Chicago remain among the 
lowest performing in the nation.

The Chicago Teachers Union has a different vision: it wants smaller 
classes, more social workers, air-conditioning in the sweltering 
buildings where summer school is conducted, and a full curriculum, with 
teachers of arts and foreign languages in every school. Some schools in 
Chicago have more than forty students in a class, even in kindergarten. 
There are 160 schools without libraries; more than 40 percent have no 
teachers of the arts.

What do the teachers want? The main sticking point is the seemingly 
arcane issue of teacher evaluations. The mayor wants student test scores 
to count heavily in determining whether a teacher is good (and gets a 
bonus) or bad (and is fired). The union points to research showing that 
test-based evaluation is inaccurate and unfair. Chicago is a city of 
intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. 
Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their 
instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies 
endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all 
over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers 
insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced 
curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even 
though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter 
schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them 
are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be 
fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach 
controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any 
job protections.

The strike is a headache for President Obama, because he is trapped 
between two allies that he needs for the November election. He needs the 
support of organized labor, especially the four million teachers, many 
of whom enthusiastically campaigned for him in 2008. But how can he 
abandon Rahm Emanuel? Even more problematic for the president, the 
teachers are rebelling against the core principles of the Obama 
administration’s Race to the Top program. That program, which provides 
grants to states, including Illinois, that demonstrate they are pursuing 
its reforms, relies heavily on standardized testing to enable states to 
evaluate teachers, to award merit pay, and to identify schools as 
“failing” and set them up for mass firings and closure.

Ultimately, the strike may be resolved around seemingly technical issues 
having to do with pay scales (whether teachers continue to earn more for 
degrees and experience) and regulations governing layoffs and rehiring. 
But what is likely to remain are the biggest issues: Will carrots and 
sticks for teachers produce better education for students? Should 
Chicago continue privatizing public education? Are standardized tests 
appropriate measures of teacher quality and school quality? Do school 
closings lead to better schools? Can school reform overcome concentrated 
racial segregation and poverty? Can our society afford to give children 
in urban districts a far higher quality of education than is now available?

Predictably, the striking teachers are taking a beating in the national 
media, which admires Rahm Emanuel’s tough position, but teachers 
elsewhere are rallying around the Chicago strikers. Many see them as 
standing up for teachers and their right to bargain collectively, a 
right that was settled—or so it seemed—during the Depression with the 
passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the right of workers 
to join unions. Education researchers, who have been concerned about the 
overuse and misuse of standardized testing, may fear to see issues 
settled politically instead of by reference to evidence. If the mayor 
wins, it will be perceived as a victory for a continued assault on 
teachers and their unions and an endorsement of school closings and 
privatized charters. If the teachers win, which is a long shot, the 
children of Chicago might get smaller classes and a better curriculum. 
The best outcome would be an amicable settlement, one that assures not 
more testing but better education.

September 12, 2012, 5:45 p.m.

More information about the Marxism mailing list