Friday, September 14, 2012


Which occupations in your opinion, are the most important to society? Nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, the people who keep us safe and healthy would certainly rank high on anybody's list. Judges, lawyers, yes even politicians, at least the honest ones, are the folks who keep the gears of society greased and well maintained. Then there are the jobs we take for granted, the ones that keep our communities moving, transportation and sanitation and other public sector workers whose impact is most deeply felt when they go out on strike.

I don't think we take teachers, members of a profession I would put at or near the top of that list, for granted. Most sensible people realize that while the other professions listed above deal mostly with the here and now, teachers are responsible for our future.

Right now parents in Chicago are forced to take notice of teachers more than usual as they have to scramble to figure out what to do with their children. Members of the Chicago Teacher's Union have gone on strike, keeping the 350,000 students (two of them mine) of the Chicago Public Schools home in mid-September for the first time in twenty five years. In this increasingly polarized society, people are taking strongly defined sides.

The notion that the Chicago Public Schools are failing to turn out successful students across the board, ready for the challenges of higher education and the increasing demands of employment in the 21st Century is a given. As a strike loomed over the summer, the finger pointers prepared to sharpen their weapon of choice.

On the one side are people who look at the mess in the city's public schools, the violence, the high drop out rate, the poor academic standards, and blame the schools and the teachers. It is the Teachers Union they say who is responsible for making bad teachers with seniority unaccountable and virtually untouchable at the expense of newer teachers who regardless of their energy, skill and dedication, are always the first to go in times of cutbacks.

On the other side are the supporters of the teachers, whose already difficult job is made worse they say by unfair wages, bad working conditions, high class sizes and the unfair practice of performance evaluations based upon student test scores. They blame the politicians and the school board.

Another issue of the teachers is the support of the Board of Education and the city government of putting money and energy into charter schools manned by non-union teachers. I've heard the following argument made by folks on both sides of the issue so many times it makes my head spin:
If they only put more money into the local neighborhood schools, we wouldn't have these problems.  
It would be truly nice if the problems faced in the public schools could be solved with more money. Unfortunately, like any social problem, they can't. Unlike charters or other public schools in the city with one kind of selective enrollment or other, local neighborhood schools have to take all children that come their way. They don't have the luxury of transferring out students who are disruptive to the student body because of behavioral problems. Unfortunately it's these students who demand the lion's share of time and resources of the school's staff, short changing the rest of the kids. In many schools across the city, a teacher's role is more babysitter than educator. In most cases, we're not talking about the one or two disruptive kids in a class that we all knew back when we went to school, but far more.

Then why not get rid of selective enrollment schools altogether and dilute the number of troubled kids per classroom? Well in a perfect world, that would be a nice solution. Even without the selective enrollment schools, there are a number of options for parents who take an involved role in the lives of their children. Unfortunately the most popular option is moving out of the city. The Chicago Public Schools have been hemorrhaging students with concerned parents for decades. In the sixties, I was one of them.

Despite working as a Chicago Public School teacher, my mother did not want me to go to one. After a two year stint in a parochial school which came after two years in a Chicago public school, we moved to the suburbs where I spent the rest of my school career in suburban public schools. Many of my friends had the same experience. By far the biggest reason given by middle class families for leaving the city in favor of the suburbs is the quality of education. Clearly it behooves the city and the Board of Education to create alternatives to neighborhood schools, it's a matter of survival.

Mayor Emanuel took the bull by the horns last spring when he declared the amount of time per day CPS students spent in school was far too short. He was right. In my son's school, the teachers complained non stop that there was no time in their five and three quarter hour school day to teach basic skills such as multiplication tables and writing in script. Many other subjects were skimmed over so quickly that it was almost pointless to go into them at all. The kids had a fifteen minute lunch break where they remained seated in their classrooms, forced to watch "educational" videos. And after the fourth grade, there was no recess. That last omission inspired a petition from parents to extend the school day by ten minutes, so the older kids could get a short recess. The principal put the issue to a vote by the teachers who rejected it nearly unanimously.

That all became moot when the mayor and the Board of Ed decreed that the school day had to be longer, in our school's case by an hour and fifteen minutes.

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that this action alone coming at contract time would set the wheels in motion for a strike. I know exactly how I'd feel being told I had to work an extra 6.25 hours per week with no extra pay, even if that included time for breaks. But since I don't have the privilege of collective bargaining where I work, I wouldn't have much of a choice, other than quitting.

One of the arguments put forth in the battle of rhetoric during this strike is that as professionals, teachers are paid much less than folks with comparable education working in the private sector. In the jingoistic world of social media, I've seen countless posts asking the question:
Who deserves more money, the people who are responsible for teaching our children, or the people working on Wall Street responsible for collapsing our economy?
That question while provocative, is utterly pointless. Whether it's just or not, public sector employees no matter what their worth to society, will never be compensated in the same way as people working in lucrative private sector jobs. As far as teaching jobs are concerned, public school teachers in fact do better than their counterparts in the private sector. The average public school teacher's salary in 2007 across the country according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics was $49.600 compared to $36,300 for private school teachers, a difference of almost 27 percent. As we've all heard this week, the average public school teacher salary in Chicago is around $75,000. Now that's certainly not a fortune and given the difficulty, many people wouldn't consider taking on a such a job for that kind of money. Still 75K is not bad given that teaching is in most cases a 9 1/2 month a year job.

The teachers in Chicago's public schools have many valid issues, most of the ones expressed by the CTU during this strike concern the children and their well being. I have no doubt the vast majority of the rank and file are entirely sincere about this.

That of course is why they became teachers in the first place. One certainly doesn't take the time and spend the money to go to college and beyond in the hopes of becoming an elementary or high school teacher, expecting to get rich.

One of the acts of the Union during this strike that rubbed me the wrong way was their decision to picket at the few schools that remained open as a service to parents who had no alternative means of daycare, and to fulfill their commitment to serving disadvantaged children breakfast and lunch. I've heard it pointed out that those two meals for some of these kids might be the only ones they'd get all day. This strike is adults feuding with adults, children shouldn't be forced to cross picket lines.

This brings up the difficult question of parental responsibility. If indeed the meals they receive from the Board of Ed are the only ones some children get all day, how it is possible for parents not to feed their children? Poverty is a terrible thing, I have never experienced it personally, but I am a parent and can't for the life of me believe that poverty can be used as an excuse to let your kids go hungry. If there are parents out there who are not responsible enough to provide even the most fundamental care of the children they brought into this world, they certainly can't be expected to do the slightly more involved tasks that prepare their kids for school such as reading to their children, or teaching basic skills like learning numbers and the alphabet. They can't be expected to teach their children values such as respect for others and respect for education. And no one God forbid, expects these parents to help their children with their homework. Small wonder so many children who are not prepared for school disrupt classes and make it hard for other students to learn properly, do well on achievement tests, and force schools to close and teachers to lose their jobs. It's a cruel and vicious cycle.

This problem is not unique to the poor. Far too many parents assume that schools are like factories that take raw material and turn it into a finely crafted product. They fail to see that a child's education begins at home and to effectively teach a child, parent(s) and teachers must work together as a team. Until that happens, schools, and more importantly children will fail.

The current strike has brought many important issues to the forefront and that alone makes it worthwhile to a degree. Many folks expect both sides will come to some kind of agreement this weekend. If that's the case, the teachers strike will have lasted one week and will not have disrupted life too significantly, no harm, no foul. However, if it lasts much longer, lives will be disrupted and the good will that exists now between the public and the teachers will not last. The union rhetoric that they're fighting big money and the powers that be, (aka The Man), resonates with many who themselves feel disenfranchised in our society. But the fact is it's the taxpayers who pay the teachers' salaries. In other words, you and I are The Man. There is not sufficient money in the public coffers to give the teachers everything they want, and even if there were, it would barely scratch the surface of all the problems facing public education in this city. On the flip side, achievement tests alone are an incomplete and unfair measure to judge the performance of schools and teachers. We need to find a better way.

Both the teachers and the city and its Board of Education have for the most part placed the interests of the children first. Both sides bring valid issues to the table, some I agree with, others not. I am a strong supporter of public education and refuse to support one side over the other. The teachers and their adversaries in this conflict are all professionals, trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. I honestly believe neither side is responsible for failing the children of Chicago.

As for the parents, well I'm not so sure.

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