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The Goal for CTU is Better Schools, Not Better Pay

AFT President Randi Weingarten’s op-ed for USA Today makes the overlooked point that Chicago teachers are striking, not necessarily for better pay as it has been claimed in most of the traditional media (complete with haughty stories about those lucky duckie rich teachers), but for better schools.

The issues that teachers are fighting for go to the heart of improving Chicago’s public schools. Chicago has had 15 years of mayoral control, and it hasn’t helped improve our schools. Today, 42% of neighborhood elementary schools are not funded for a full-time art or music teacher; 160 Chicago elementary schools don’t have libraries. Teachers report classes of more than 43 students and not even enough chairs for them all. And teachers often lack textbooks and other materials up to six weeks after the start of school.

Chicago teachers are calling for a better day, not just a longer day, by investing in art, music and libraries. They are calling for smaller class sizes, investments in neighborhood schools and health care, social workers, meal services and additional services for students.

They want to focus on teaching and learning, and have legitimately objected to the district’s fixation on high-stakes testing that is narrowing the curriculum and being used to sanction teachers. And they are calling for a fair evaluation process and additional professional development to help all teachers improve.

To the extent that pay and benefits have anything to do with it, that comes from the fact that Rahm Emanuel canceled a promised raise the moment he got into office, a deliberate act of antagonism that signaled a lack of respect. It’s about better schools, the theme emphasized consistently in this policy paper from the Chicago Teachers Union.

This CTU strike has been incredibly enlightening about the drift to the right on education policy, among the media, members of the elite and cultural establishment, and people who call themselves liberals. If teachers go on strike, it has to be because they’re greedy and thinking of themselves over their students. It simply cannot be because they see major issues with the way Chicago’s schools are being sapped of funding in favor of charters, the way that the lowest-income schools are being stripped bare and left to rot, and the way that education policy moves in the wrong direction for just about everyone but private interests that stand to make a profit.

There are actually other ways to go about this. In California, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a Democrat named Tom Torlakson, has joined with educators with classroom experience to put together Greatness by Design, a kind of sequel to the Master Plan for Education that made the Golden State the educational envy of the world. The plan calls for ongoing teacher training and collaboration on best practices, which assumes that great teachers don’t arrive on the job fully formed. And it includes student evaluations in teacher assessment. But as the executive summary says, “just as no attorney would be fairly judged by the outcome of a single case, and no doctor’s skills would be properly assessed by the results from a single patient, no teacher’s work should be gauged by how students perform on a single test taken on a single day.” Educators have given the study high marks for recognizing how to balance teacher assessment with ongoing efforts to create high-quality schools.

The report puts together many of the facts already widely known: teacher pay is uneven, there’s little help for beginning teachers and little to no professional development. Teachers get so discouraged that many are leaving the profession, or not considering it a career option at all […]

Although layoffs could create the impression that there’s a surplus of teachers, there’s a need for teachers in certain categories, the report reads: in math, in sciences, in special education.

Recognition of those facts is great, said Roger Dahl, a former Monterey Peninsula Unified School District principal and a teacher’s trainer with CSUMB. But it would be even greater to see specific recommendations.

The commission “did an excellent job laying down the case where the problems are, that’s always the first step,” he said.

While the report is a bit short on details, it represents the best practice for creating the best schools – involving teachers in the process, rather than forcing them to teach under siege of quantitative analysis.

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David Dayen

David Dayen