[I’m warning you now, this is probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written, but my passion on the issue requires it…]
The Chicago Teachers’ strike is compelling news to me for a number of reasons. [For example, why did the union not give parents and students more lead time that a strike might be authorized? Why did they authorize the strike for the SECOND WEEK OF CLASS and not start at the beginning of the year?] Some of the items of contention include lengthening the school day, introducing student performance on standardized tests as a principal indicator of teacher performance or effectiveness, and improving teacher job security by giving laid-off teachers first right of refusal to new positions opened up in the school district.
The debate about these items has renewed a national dialogue about some important questions in US public education. What is an effective teacher? What is an appropriate metric for student achievement? Does standardized testing stifle creativeness and innovation in classrooms? This notwithstanding, I think these items miss the point.
All of these questions might be critical if we first answered the most important question.
Before we get to that most important question, I have to say that I am utterly confused by some of the discussions taking place. For example, the supporters of the teachers cite research saying that testing student performance does not improve student performance. This should be obvious, just like a ruler does not make a man or woman taller. However, the question remains: “What does improve student performance?” While not 100% responsible, the teacher is surely a contributor to student development. This leaves the question, how much is the instructor responsible, and how do we hold them accountable to that responsibility?
The teachers’ supporters also like to say that the research suggests that having an effective teacher and that a good classroom environment is most important to student performance, so we must attract better teachers and stop antagonizing current teachers but invest in their professional development. But again, how do we define “good” teaching? How do we define student performance? You cannot make a claim on student “performance” if you are not willing to include their actual “performance” in evaluation. Moreover, if measured student performance is off the table (whether or not this performance is based on tests, projects, or other alternative measures) to what end are teachers being developed?
I cannot wait until the teachers’ proposals are reported, because then we can have a real discussion about the relative quality of the options on the table. Right now, all we can do is bash the union’s recalcitrance or the District’s unfairness because there is only one set of options under consideration. I am interested in how the union and their supporters suggest these things be addressed. Because the schools’ students don’t perform well, the District is losing money, the City is losing money, and something has to be done. It is, after all, a NEGOTIATION!
But, like I said, these things are beside the point. The teachers and their supporters are, in fact, correct in arguing that the reforms will fail and jeopardize their job security in vain if the underlying social and economic problems are not addressed. The question is now, what problems are they talking about, and how did we get these in the first place? This lead us to the most important question in the [overall] US public education debate: WHY ARE SCHOOLS FUNDED BY LOCAL PROPERTY TAXES????? [The second most important question is: WHY ARE SEGREGATED SCHOOLS ACCEPTABLE IN THE US?????]
If the teachers’ unions were asking, and striking based on, this question, I’d be supportive of them. Because that would address the problems the students face. Because the inequities of our current public school system are entirely the product of racist housing and segregation policies promulgated in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that are still bearing fruit today. But the types of policy advocacy I am suggesting be engaged are things done by professional societies, NGO’s, or community groups, not unions. Professional societies are in it to advance their PROFESSION; NGO’s and community groups are in it to advance SOCIETY or COMMUNITY; Unions exist to promote the interests of their MEMBERS.
Why aren’t the unions presenting statistical data correlating student achievement to local tax receipts per student? Why aren’t they presenting alongside this data per capita expenditures per student? This figure would then be broken down based on categories of receipts and expenditures. Why aren’t they showing this data displayed graphically with maps showing SES and neighborhood racial composition?
But it doesn’t even have to be this complicated. The teachers’ unions could just advocate for policy reforms that promote increased sharing of statewide property taxes for distribution to school districts through a statewide pool. They could also argue for equal salaries and benefits statewide But we all know how that might go.
The unions cannot push these policy reforms because they have nothing to do with THEIR CONTRACT and would jeopardize their goodwill with the voting public without returning any benefit to their MEMBERS. But you know who would benefit from this discussion? THE STUDENTS.
While redlining and residential segregation had the obvious “benefit” of legalized segregation, the more enduring, and in this context more important, legacy of these policies is the fact that these enclaves then made sure their taxes paid for benefits that exclude others. While this is true for many services, it is especially true for public education.
Any person who has recently home-shopped knows that I’m telling the truth, and there’s no getting around this issue. You have to answer this question to answer all of the questions raised above, and which are at the root of the teachers’ discontent. For example, why don’t teachers want their performance evaluations tied to student performance? They claim that the students’ issues are so complex that it is unfair. OK, let’s concede that for a moment. What do the teachers’ claim will improve the problem? More funding and more resources. So what mechanism has the union proposed for securing that funding while simultaneously addressing deficits?
In addition, why does testing students remove creativity? Does testing on the SAT make every high school in the country throw out their curriculum so that all their students will be prepared for the college entrance exams? No. Do students attending wealthy private schools or wealthy public schools worry about not passing the standardized exams? No. Are those students being taught to the test? No. If the students’ parents are the problem in districts of concentrated poverty or racial minority population, can we conclude that teachers have nothing to do with achievement in wealthy districts? If you are not willing to accept the conclusion that teachers don’t affect student performance, then you have to make proposals to deal with one of the following: a.) How can school diversity be increased in order to remove the confounding factors of SES and race in school population so that teachers can be evaluated for competence based on student performance? OR b.) What standards of practice ensure that students learn deeply enough for the standardized tests to be what they are intended to be–measuring sticks? The union and their supporters could write their counter proposals based on their answers to these questions, while actively promoting these policy reforms.
I am very curious about solutions to the concentrated poverty problem, not just because it would make the task of evaluating teachers much easier. It should be clear by now that I think concentrated poverty hurts the most vulnerable students the most, and that some degree of meaningful interaction with a more diverse student body would unquestionably be good for all students. Solving this problem will require quite a bit of creativity and resolve, because I see no easy answers to it. One way would be to assign students randomly to schools within a certain radius of their residence. This radius could be based on travel time or distance. Under this premise, suppose teachers proposed a system in which Chicago students were assigned to schools by lottery seeded by the objective of promoting SES and achievement diversity at certain levels in all schools so that all schools in the district have approximately the same composition. Now you have a situation in which the schools are generally equal on some important contextual scores, and you can use a standardized metric across these schools to evaluate performance in the district. While this might be a problem for small districts, this could conceivably work in large urban districts. The political and logistical obstacles to a proposal like this are daunting (OK, probably insurmountable) but this idea illustrates my point quite well. Union CONTRACTS do nothing to improve the lot of STUDENTS because the contracts do nothing to address the fundamental problems confronting students.
But, more importantly, in the frame of current events, the union by definition must be about its MEMBERS, not its STUDENTS, otherwise they’d be in classrooms right now and their influence limited to that of a PROFESSIONAL SOCIETY. Don’t be confused, folks.