Author: Henry Dickmeyer
It would be unjust to dub the Chicago Teachers Union strike as an example of teachers, as Mitt Romney put it, “(making) plain that their interests conflict with those of our students.” If that were the case, they would acquiesce to increasing student performance factor in teacher evaluations, or they’d claim that a humid classroom doesn’t cripple learning. But when, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Chicago eighth-graders have a 21 percent reading proficiency below an already low 33 percent national average, a teacher strike isn’t just a paycheck kerfuffle. It’s about the uphill battle of a limping public system and the fight to fulfill its educational purpose.
Anti-unionists connect the dots and turn the dispute into an issue of monetary demand, which has been problematic for Chicago and its $665 billion deficit. The Chicago Board of Education told teachers that if they were to accept an extended school day, they would receive a 4 percent annual raise. The Board revoked the deal in June and instead offered a 16 percent raise over four years, sparking a summer debate that culminated in the CTU’s strike and leaving 350,000 students out of school until further notice. Teachers want drinking water from an empty well, and the struggle, according to Rahm Emanuel, has “students being used as pawns.”
Yet in a wider scope, pay is not the big issue at hand here.
The strike is emblematic of teachers’ pent-up frustration with a struggling institution. The economy has piled up lay-offs, sliced budgets, and put funding on the back burner. Small salaries and challenging classroom environments are driving forces behind those who end up exiting the profession, where, studies have found, most teachers cap out their effectiveness by the third year. The decrease in quality teachers and rise of student dropout rates are two unmistaken tendencies that the CTU is seeking to halt to the best of its ability.
In reality, Chicago teachers want public education to succeed. An initiative by the Chicago Public School in March that gave standardized testing a 40 percent weight in teacher evaluations, increasing by 5 percent each year thereafter, has been a focal point of the protests. Teachers and education experts (as well as any student applying for college today) know that standardization does not encapsulate a student in today’s world. To heavily rely on standardized testing means a student’s academic potential can reach a ceiling.
Yet with 3.2 million public school teachers for 49.4 million children, standardization is easy. Packing a classroom is easy. Both offer umbrella evaluations for and spatially efficient solutions to such a large system. What is difficult is finding the small classrooms that the teacher unions demand and providing them to every public school. The U.S. Department of Education estimated an $11,000 per public school pupil expenditure in 2011, yet the burdens of providing ideal conditions for millions of students has hampered public education’s value.
The CTU is also fully aware of the growing market for charter and private schools, which offer what a thirty-person classroom cannot. These schools create opportunity for the in-depth analyses, discussions, and teacher-student relationships that far too many public schools in significantly urbanized areas can’t provide.
The problem with looking to the private market for quality education, however, stems from the same economic inequality facing America. Teachers are drawn to better schools, which produce better students and offer higher salaries. The result is an eventual polarization of quality, and the low-income neighborhoods are left with children attending underfunded schools.
Politicians and education officials alike champion the charter school idea, which provide the ideal conditions that CTU strikers want for public school students. They admire an educational powerhouse like Finland, a country with zero private schools. Finland consistently ranks in the global upper-tier for education, as its taxpayers provide a child with a small classroom, short school day, and less homework. Quality education is ingrained in the culture.
While the CTU wants public education to succeed, teachers also know firsthand that a successful classroom starts with teacher-student and teacher-administrative collaboration. A successful school starts with a change in the way we respect and sympathize with educators. If officials allocate enough funding for public schools, if they allow personal growth and subjective evaluation to conquer standardized scores, and allot space in the budget for higher salaries, unions and students will begin believing in public education once more.
Consider Chicago a grandiose call to action. It’s nothing like the myriad goals of Occupy Wall Street, nor is it as ambiguous as the reaction to the Affordable Care Act. The CTU strike is a directional movement with a coherent goal: to educate students. The only thing standing in the way is the cooperation and willingness that is necessary to save public education.
Henry Dickmeyer is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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