After more than a decade of top-down dictates, disruptive school closures, disregard of teachers’ and parents’ input, testing that squeezes out teaching, and cuts to the arts, physical education and libraries, educators in Chicago said “enough is enough.” With strong support from parents and many in the community, teachers challenged a flawed vision of education reform that has not helped schoolchildren in Chicago or around the country. It took a seven-day strike – something no one does without cause – but with it, educators in Chicago have changed the conversation about education reform.
These years of dictates imposed upon teachers left children in Chicago without the rich curriculum, facilities and social services they need. On picket lines, with their handmade signs, teachers provided first-person accounts of the challenges confronting students and educators. They made it impossible to turn a blind eye to the unacceptable conditions in many of the city’s public schools.
Teachers and parents were united in the frustration that led to the strike. Nearly nine out of ten students in Chicago Public Schools live in poverty, a shameful fact that so-called reformers too often ignore, yet most schools lack even one full-time nurse or social worker. The district has made cuts where it shouldn’t (in art, music, physical education and libraries), but hasn’t cut where it should (class sizes and excessive standardized testing and test prep). The tentative agreement reached in Chicago aims to address all these issues.
Chicago’s teachers see this as an opportunity to move past the random acts of “reform” that have failed to move the needle and toward actual systemic school improvement. The tentative agreement focuses on improving quality so that every public school in Chicago is a place where parents want to send their children and educators want to teach.
First, use time wisely. The proposed contract lengthens the school day and year. A key demand by educators during the strike was that the district focus not just on instituting a longer school day, but on making it a better school day. Additional seat time doesn’t constitute a good education. A well-rounded and rich curriculum, regular opportunities for teachers to plan and confer with colleagues, and time to engage students through discussions, group work and project-based learning – all these contribute to a high-quality education, and these should be priorities going forward.
Second, get evaluation right and don’t fixate on testing. Effective school systems use data to inform instruction, not as a “scarlet number” that does nothing to improve teaching and learning. One placard seen on Chicago’s picket lines captured the sentiment of countless educators: “I want to teach to the student, not to the test.” If implemented correctly, evaluations can help Chicago promote the continuous development of teachers’ skills and of students’ intellectual abilities (and not just their test-taking skills).
Third, fix – don’t close – struggling schools. Chicago’s teachers echoed the concerns of numerous parents and civil rights groups that the closing of struggling schools creates turmoil and instability but doesn’t improve achievement. Low-performing schools improve not only by instituting changes to academics and enrichment, but also by becoming centers of their communities.
Schools that provide wraparound services – medical and mental-health services, mentoring, enrichment programs and social services – create an environment in which kids are better able to learn and teachers can focus more on instruction, knowing their students’ needs are being met. Chicago, with an 87% child-poverty rate, should make these effective – and cost-effective – approaches broadly available.
Fourth, morale matters. Teachers who work with students in some of the most difficult environments deserve support and respect. Yet, they often pay for their dedication by enduring daily denigration for not single-handedly overcoming society’s shortcomings. These indignities and lack of trust risk making a great profession an impossible one.
In a period when many officials have sought to strip workers of any contractual rights or even a collective voice, the Chicago teachers strike showed that collective action is a powerful force for change and that collective bargaining is an effective tool to strengthen public schools. Chicago’s public-school teachers – backed by countless educators across the country – changed the conversation from the blaming and shaming of teachers to the promotion of strategies that parents and teachers believe are necessary to help children succeed.
It is a powerful example of solution-driven unionism and a reminder that when people come together to deal with matters affecting education, those who work in the schools need to be heard. When they are, students, parents and communities are better for it.
Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on September 24, 2012.