Teachers Strike Out in Chicago

Three hundred and fifty thousand students out of school. A 16 percent wage increase over the next four years rejected by the union. Complaints about a longer school day. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Teachers’ Union president Karen Lewis engaged in a personality clash.

The eight-day Chicago Teachers’ Union strike captured national headlines for all of these reasons. Teachers in the nation’s third largest city went on strike on September 10, and left 350,000 students out of school over the next week and a half.

The New York Times editorial board observed: “Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.” Severe grievances have to be felt by teachers to even justify a strike, as the public, particularly parents, can become easily frustrated with an unwarranted strike.

So, why did the Chicago teachers strike? CNN reported that different teachers had very different reasons. The complaints of many of the teachers were never going to be resolved by the strike, such as a 30 percent pay raise. Numerous teachers used the strike mainly to send a message. Suspending school for over a week to “send a message” is unnecessary, and speaks volumes about the problems of America’s educational system.

America is falling behind, particularly in math and science education. According to a 2009 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, American teenagers ranked 25th out of 34 countries in science and math. Scores were better in reading, but American teenagers still ranked 14th out of 34. There is no doubt our education system needs serious reform.

Teaching is a lifestyle, and if our education system has any chance of improving, teachers that are effective should have the upper hand in hiring and promotions. A teacher’s quality can be determined by routine performance-based evaluations with standardized tests scores as a significant portion of the assessment.

Teachers’ unions, however, are scared of performance-based evaluations, as these are a threat to the union’s power. With these evaluations, teachers with poor records are not protected from being fired. While it is true that standardized assessment tests are not perfect, the tests help guide the curriculum and are an important indicator when looking at teacher performance. In the classroom, teachers have to keep students engaged despite outside distractions. A good teacher has that ability.

In Chicago, the union and the city fought over the percentage the tests counted for in teacher evaluations for raises, promotions and job transfers. The union argued that neighborhood violence and other factors outside the teachers’ control could impact test results, but at least tests hold teachers somewhat accountable for what goes on in the classroom. In the end, the union was able to prevent standardized tests from becoming the largest factor in teacher evaluations, benefitting the status quo and allowing the union to maintain authority.

Another battle in the strike was the extension of the school day by one hour. This would keep the students off the streets for another hour of the day, and help improve the very standardized test scores teachers were concerned about in their performance assessments.

Our education system is in dire need of reform behind extended school days and standardized testing to evaluate teachers. All teachers should be required to obtain full bachelor’s degrees in a specific subject, not general “Education” degrees. These degrees provide practical knowledge of how to deal with students individually and in a classroom, but limit teachers to teaching specific curricula in subjects where they have minimal, if any, expertise in.

Swarthmore’s own Educational Studies program requires students to complete a major in another discipline in addition to taking education classes. This gives students the opportunity to specialize while still acquiring necessary teaching skills. A science teacher should always have a degree in a natural science just as a history teacher should always have a degree in history, no matter if the teacher is teaching elementary, middle or high school students.

Each of these reforms could contribute to a better education system in America, without raising the cost of education per student by significant amounts. When reforms are initiated, however, teachers’ unions demand concessions and education of young people is subjected to stagnation.

Now, I want to tell a personal story. The most inspirational teacher (and mentor) in my life was my eighth grade science teacher. He went above and beyond the call of duty, spending significant time with me on extracurricular projects even while I was in high school. For him, teachers’ unions get in the way of a passion for teaching. Education becomes about small pay raises and tenure rather than about the actual students. Becoming a teacher is a life decision that you make because you will enjoy the experience, and feel like you are making a real difference in people’s lives. This is how my teacher saw things.

When his name was mentioned to other teachers, many rolled their eyes and acted as though he was doing something wrong. But what he was doing was just beyond the comprehension of those who teach for the paycheck, and refuse to act as mentors and teachers outside a one hour class.

The Chicago strike made me feel that necessary reforms in our education system are near-impossible to achieve. If teachers in the nation’s third largest city are willing to skip class for a week, leaving 350,000 children without a place to learn then any reform attempted has the potential to cause debilitating strikes.

The education of America’s youth should be our utmost priority, but unnecessary strikes like this one cause me to wonder the extent to which teachers’ unions really care about education. Our education system is in peril. I am concerned unwarranted opposition from teachers’ unions will prevent its repair.

1 Comment

  1. As you said, teaching is a LIFESTYLE. It’s a profession that can take up an inordinate amount of your time, especially if you do go ‘above and beyond’ – and here you’re suggesting that it’s ridiculous that teachers receive fair compensation for their work! You demand each teacher be certified in their specialty subject and I agree, it makes sense. But if I’m demanding a specialized skill set of my teachers, I would not DREAM of then denying them the rights to a workplace where they can put those skills to good use. “A good teacher has that ability.” Blegh. You dismiss environmental factors like it’s no big deal, and frankly, it sickens me to see you then hold individual teachers accountable to those conditions. You think they’re just not trying hard enough? This much-vaunted teacher of yours – yeah, it sounds like it was really tough working on extra-curricular projects with a Swarthmore-bound student. Nope. If he’s in such a privileged position, he might think about supporting actions like walkouts so that other teachers may enjoy his same luxuries, and so that their STUDENTS may as well. This is not a matter of whether a strike is good for kids and families or not; I think we can all agree that it’s not. For the teachers and students in Chicago, however, the alternative – a dysfunctional educational system – is worse.

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