On Tuesday, for the first time in 25 years, a teachers union went on strike in this country. Thirty thousand people took the streets of Chicago in support of the Chicago Teachers Union, canceling the remainder of the school week for more than 350,000 public school students who had just returned from summer vacation.
The last “walk out” for Chicago teachers was in 1987 — that strike went on for 19 days. The issue at hand this time: a new teacher-evaluation system that relies almost entirely on student test scores. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel currently supports an evaluation system in which 25 percent of a teacher’s assessment is based on standardized test results. Recently however, Emanuel has been determined to increase this number so that nearly half of a teacher’s assessment is based on test results.
This may seem like a fair decision, that it’s a step towards funneling out the inadequate teachers and replacing them with good ones, but in practice it’s an ineffective measure that only hurts students.
Already, the 600-plus schools in the Chicago Public Schools system have crowded classrooms with not enough textbooks to go around. Extra-curricular activities like art, music, world languages and physical education have been cut. One hundred sixty schools don’t have libraries, and school nurses and social workers are virtually non-existent in an environment which desperately needs their presence.
Without this support at school, underprivileged students are left dealing with their troubled lives at home, all alone. In turn, this affects their progress in school, consequently stealing any sort of motivation to test positively. To Mayor Emanuel, this is simply a reading score that did not improve, and it’s the teacher’s fault, no matter how much effort he or she put in to aid in this student’s unsettling adversity.
Two faults come to mind when considering a test-driven evaluation — although there are a handful of them. Firstly, when a teacher’s evaluation is directly associated with student performance on testing, these test scores take ultimate priority in the basis of the curricula, extinguishing any sort of “well-balanced” or “creative” education.
Secondly, low-performing schools will maintain their low performance. There is no reason why the most skilled and qualified teachers would take a stab at rehabilitating a dying school system for the fear that they would get fired within the first year. Inevitably, this leads to a recurring cycle: substandard teacher moves in, substandard teacher gets replaced by another substandard teacher and school standards are lowered, worsening environments that were already at horrendous levels.
There has to be an incentive. Government’s job is to create incentives in places we need them. Similar to the shortage of doctors in veteran’s homes across the country, the public school sector needs well-qualified teachers who want to work in inner-city Chicago. The typical person would not choose to work at these places voluntarily. Create an incentive, though, and they will come.
Already this week, we have heard the classic anti-union arguments: These teachers are “greedy” and “selfish” and they are only harming the students by not being in the classroom all week.
First of all, the students who are now unsupervised after being away all summer are being harmed each and every day by the shortage and quality of the teachers who teach them. It’s nothing new to be unsupervised.
Also, we all want to get paid what we believe we deserve. Teachers, if anything, should retain ultimate collective bargaining rights because of their already obscenely undervalued salaries.
If “market value” in Maine assumes an average annual income per high school teacher of $45,110, one of two things is seriously unsound: primary and secondary education is not a highly valued asset; or, it’s “too” easy to become a teacher.
There is a wide range of paths that folks can take to become a teacher, and a specific state-issued certification will allow these people to take their skills into the classroom. In no way am I undermining a teacher’s effort, but it’s a simple fact that — overall — it’s easier to become a high school teacher than an engineer, and because of this, there’s a drastic difference in annual incomes. It doesn’t necessarily mean one profession is more “valued” from one person to another, but in economic terms, an engineer most certainly is.
We are facing a detrimental issue in this country right now: we undervalue teachers far too much. I’m not talking about the personnel per say, but the position itself. Because of harsh economic times and reduction in funding, schools across the state of Maine have been forced to totally cut positions out of their budgets, or fire teachers with credible and hard-earned experience, all to replace them with new, cheap and — most of the time — inadequate labor.
Despite the wrongheaded assumption that teaching is an “easy” job with short hours and multiple vacations, dedicated teachers work long hours with insufficient pay and insufficient support from leadership. To improve public schools in the United States, we must recruit more qualified candidates, train them better and pay them more. According to a study by “Education Weekly,” 60 to 70 percent of teachers in struggling schools are sent out the door or worn down until they leave. Just because there is distress, doesn’t mean everyone is broken.
If the fact that this strike is taking place in Chicago and Emanuel is at the head of it doesn’t hurt the Obama campaign and the administration is elected for a second term, the president is obligated to turn his attention toward our decrepit public school system nonetheless.
Neither high-stakes test taking nor false choices by charter schools will benefit our struggling schools. The solution is found in rebuilding local communities, enabling them to recommit a generational social compact where citizens are concerned for the care of our children.
It’s a compact that says “weren’t not going to leave our children’s fate in the hands of a lottery for scarce slots.” We have the wealth, we have the labor force and we have the potential. We can give every child a high quality education, but it starts with the teachers.
Again, all things point to money in politics in this era of “Citizens United.” With the decline of labor’s political influence, Emanuel’s campaign was given $12 million from education reform organizations. We should not be surprised this is happening, but all the power to the teachers who took a stand for their students.