Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chicago school strike: What's in it for Rahm?

Full Disclosure: I approach the CPS-CTU contretemps (now entering Day Three) without personal knowledge of the inner workings of Chicago's public schools. I sent all my kids to Catholic schools -- just like a lot of CPS teachers and administrators do. On the other hand, the largest chunk of my real estate tax goes to support CPS; I am a stakeholder.

So let me try and answer some questions that some of you outside Chicago may have.

Was this strike inevitable? Probably. The Chicago Teachers Union had a contract that called for teachers to get a 4% raise last year -- but the School Board reneged, citing the sad truth that the City is broke and couldn't afford it. This was apparently something that CPS had a right to do under its contract.

CTU President Karen Lewis
Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel started campaigning to lengthen the school day in Chicago. He wanted a 7½ hour school day at first (up from 5¾ hours in many cases) and started 'finding' extra money for individual schools that would go along. (Wait... weren't the schools broke?) Eventually the Mayor settled for a 7 hour school day and promised to hire all sorts of new teachers and staff to help existing teachers cope. (Wait... weren't the schools broke?)

In the run-up to the strike the relationship between Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis became incredibly toxic. At one point she openly called him a liar -- and said that he had dropped an f-bomb on her in the course of suggesting how she might spend her spare time. (Rahm Emanuel cursing? I'm sure that will come as a shock to the national press....) And it wasn't just the union leadership that came to doubt Rahm's word. The rank and file teachers began to doubt anything Rahm said -- and they began to resent Rahm's insinuations that they were underworked and overpaid.

Are Chicago teachers overpaid? No... and maybe. I'll come to the "maybe" part later on; here's the "no" part of the answer.

Long Suffering Spouse, as you know, teaches in the Catholic school system. She's been teaching 16 years, full-time for the past decade, and her current salary is not quite two-thirds of what a freshly minted college graduate gets to start in the Chicago Public Schools. If my wife continues to teach middle school kids in the Chicago Archdiocesan system, she will never make as much as a first-year teacher in CPS.

On the other hand, my wife's school can... and has, on rare occasion... turned down a prospective student, or kicked a misbehaving kid out. If my wife needs to reach out to a student's parents because of behavioral or academic concerns, she will find them (maybe at two different addresses, even in the Catholic schools, but this is, sadly, the modern world) and they will be concerned. They may even support her -- not always -- but often. Maybe even usually. Parents are highly motivated to have their kids succeed in school; they are paying a high price to send them (much higher now than I could have afforded, were my kids still young).

CPS has to deal with everyone else. There are gang problems and drug problems and babies having babies. There are kids whose parents have never held a job. There are kids who don't know who their fathers are. There are kids who are homeless, who speak no English, who arrive hungry (one of the things Chicago schools are continuing to do, during the strike, are feeding breakfast and lunch to kids at some locations). Some parents are highly, deeply motivated, many despite problems of joblessness or homelessness. But all too many don't give a hang. Others might be concerned but simply don't know how to be helpful.

Don't tell Long Suffering Spouse -- but I don't necessarily begrudge the CPS teachers for making more than she does. Whoever employs them, teachers are all artisans with similar techniques, but the Catholic school teachers have better-quality, more consistent clay with which to work.

So we just write off the public school kids, is that it? No, we can't. As a society, we can't afford to. As a city, we can't afford to have a sizable population that is simply not suited for work in the 21st Century.

Isn't that what school reform is all about? In theory, yes. We need to improve the education our public school kids receive, despite the disadvantages faced by so many.

One of the ways Chicago ramped up public school education was separating out the wheat from the chaff -- in magnet schools and gifted schools and other 'selective enrollment' settings. Kids apply to get in to these schools and graduates of these schools place in elite colleges and universities.

One of the first of these was opening when Oldest Son was choosing high schools -- and (thinking of the tuition I could save) I was all in favor of him checking this out thoroughly. Problem was, the building was not built when he was looking -- and there was no football team.

He was accepted, but chose not to attend. If he were applying now I doubt that he'd be as fortunate: Admission is carefully rationed among zip codes now -- although there are always rumors that the offspring of the politically connected somehow manage to get into their first choice. If Oldest Son were 13 now, I'd guess that his best chance would be at Whitney Young, not at the magnet school closest to our home.

But there was a price to pay with these new magnet schools: As some schools got better, others got much worse.

And then came "No Child Left Behind." The idea is wonderful. The standardized testing that comes with it is much more controversial.

Under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program we tried to measure a school's success or failure with kids' test scores. Under President Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative, we're trying to measure a teacher's success or failure with kids' test scores.

Striking Chicago teachers fear that they may lose their jobs over test scores. They argue that as many as 28% of all CPS teachers may go on the chopping block as a result of the current proposal to tie continued employment with test scores. The school administration stoutly denies that this would happen and insists it wants to work cooperatively with teachers to develop a fair system.

Here is where the teachers don't believe the administrators -- and I understand and sympathize with them in this. The administrators are not all pols, but they are beholden to politicians. Whatever agreement is eventually reached, it will be more than the already financially-strapped school system can afford, so there will be immediate pressure to cut costs. And what better ways to cut costs than to close 'unproductive' schools and to fire 'unproductive' teachers?

On the other hand, I don't necessarily believe that the teachers -- as a group -- want any meaningful evaluation system. Many teachers -- and, I believe, most teachers -- are dedicated, caring professionals that want their students to succeed and who toil away nights and weekends, just like my Long Suffering Spouse, to do their jobs the right way. As I said earlier, these teachers are not overpaid.

But, because the good teachers don't trust administrators or principals to separate good teachers from bad, the good teachers might rather see the deadwood carried along with them lest some of the good teachers be unfairly cut down. The deadwood teachers are certainly overpaid, whatever they get, but the so-far insoluble problem is how to fairly identify and remove the bad teachers from the good. And all teachers, good or bad, would want a way to stay employed if their schools close. That's understandable. And good teachers, even from bad (underperforming, low-test-score) schools, should be the first ones hired by principals at surviving schools.

Should principals be able to pick their own teachers? Yes, absolutely. The union wants laid off teachers from closed schools to be recalled first, but if principals are really to be accountable to the school system for the performance of their schools -- test scores, you know -- they have to have the flexibility to choose their own teachers.

The reason that many good teachers resist this is not because they have a featherbedding, assembly line mentality, though I can see where this might be the perception -- but because they don't trust principals to pick good teachers. Bad principals may favor friends and cronies over quality teachers. But if the principal is sufficiently connected, however the test scores go, he or she won't be 'left behind.' Again, it's a matter of trust.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
So, what's in this for Rahm? It is everywhere reported that Rahm harbors ambitions far beyond being Chicago's mayor. He's worked in the White House a couple of times now; supposedly, he wants to live there, too.

But no Democrat is going to get far in the primaries by alienating public employee unions. And "school reform" is a loaded phrase for the nation's largest teachers' unions. I guess trust issues may exist even outside Chicago.

Rahm can't be happy. Republicans are praising him (tongues firmly in cheek, of course) and exhorting him to stay strong. Meanwhile, he's alienating his base.

And police and fire negotiations are still to come. And Rahm has alienated them, too.

That popping sound you hear may be Rahm's presidential balloon bursting.

1 comment:

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

very interesting. and i sure hope you are right about that 'POP'

smiles, bee