Columns / Discourse / September 22, 2012

Chicago teachers’ strike: Knox students speak out

Last week, Chicago teachers went on strike, citing “compensation” issues as the putative reason for their walkout. It is very easy to portray these striking teachers as a self-interested and greedy bunch. While the rest of the nation still suffers from the 2008 financial crisis, it is hard to have sympathy for a group that demands more money from a cash-strapped school district. But the strike is about much more than pay.

Chicago teachers are objecting to reforms that focus solely on high-stakes standardized testing at the expense of the arts, student support services, libraries and other school functions.

On one side of the divide are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and many other political and business elites — both liberal and conservative — who believe that to fix public education, we need to impose corporate-style reforms. At the center of these reforms are teacher evaluation and merit pay. This group believes that student performance on standardized tests should determine teacher salaries and bonuses.

On the outset, evaluation and merit pay seem like reasonable ideas. Why shouldn’t teachers be held accountable for their performance? Nearly every other professional faces similar competitive forces. This model works especially well for CEOs and other business types, who must work to preserve shareholder value in the form of a company’s stock price — or else face termination.

This model only works if you believe that 1) standardized tests are truly objective measures of student performance, and 2) that the score received by a student is primarily a function of his or her teacher’s efforts. It is hard to imagine a world in which both of these would be absolutely true.

Test scores are important for evaluating a certain set of skills but nothing more. And we should not tie student test achievement to merit pay when there is such little empirical evidence that shows this model works. Standardized testing and merit pay are just two parts of a broader education reform movement that prizes two hallmarks of the American corporate sector: competition and efficiency.

Despite my neoliberal bent, I believe that market reforms are inappropriate in some sectors of society, especially in primary and secondary education. Market reforms are a problem because education does not work like business, where simple objective measures of performance (like share price, profit margins, etc.) do exist. Test scores are hardly comparable to these financial indicators.

A fiercely competitive atmosphere combined with accurate indicators of performance often makes for lean, efficient businesses. This works if your organization’s mission is making electronics, selling software, providing banking services or any one of the myriad things that corporations do. But should we treat primary and secondary education this way?

Cutting programs and decreasing class sizes is tantamount to a corporate leader “cutting the fat” to make his business more efficient. In this case, we are sacrificing potentially life-changing and immensely enriching subjects all for the goal of improving test scores.

I encourage you to look beyond the rhetoric and teacher-bashing to discern the broader debate occurring in Chicago. Unfortunately, this debate is taking place at the expense of students who are losing valuable instructional time, and parents who are struggling to find alternate accommodations while school is closed. Certainly there is a better, more civil way to hash out these issues.

The strike will have been a success if it encourages public debate about the course of education reform. The deal reached by union negotiators and the mayor will not fix Chicago schools. Public school districts around the country have been struggling with this issue for decades and it will be decades more before we solve the problems of public education, if ever. But we should not allow well-meaning, if more than a little misguided, reformers to impose hasty, unproven and potentially damaging reforms on public schoolchildren.

America’s students deserve nothing less than a reasoned debate based on empirical evidence, free of the vitriol and strong-arm tactics used last week in Chicago.

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