Rejoice! The NFL’s referee lockout has ended! But remember there was another strike, one that will affect our lives as students and future parents more directly — the Chicago Teachers Union strike. For seven days, 350,000 students stayed home as Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and thousands of teachers faced off on opposite sides of a debate that is by no means unique to Chicago and provides lessons for states facing austerity measures, like California.

One issue at the heart of the strike is teacher compensation. Conservatives and proponents of neoliberalism point to soaring deficits and today’s economic climate to justifying cuts to social services such as education. However, mitigating fiscal woes by further cutting pay for teachers brave enough to work in the nation’s toughest schools, like Chicago’s, fixes nothing. The best teachers then chase higher pay into suburbs, giving privileged kids another leg up on those in poorer urban areas. Furthermore, firing those who fail in difficult schools and refusing to hire them back elsewhere helps no one. This discourages teachers from trying in the first place and causes classrooms to get more crowded as the workforce thins. A more holistic policy would encourage proven teachers to move to underperforming schools by offering them competitive pay and attractive benefits, but that’s not what Emanuel and other proponents of neoliberal school reform would have.

Another debate is the process of teacher evaluation. Certainly teachers must be evaluated on their performance — their ability to impart knowledge to youths. Test scores, Emanuel’s yardstick in measuring this ability, are inadequate because they neglect many factors that determine a student’s performance on standardized tests. Students who have to wake up earlier to catch the bus, who are fed less nutritious breakfasts, whose parents are not available to review material the night before an exam and who are then made to sit in 95 degree classrooms probably will not perform as well on tests as those children who sleep well in the suburbs, eat hearty breakfasts, ride to air-conditioned schools in mommy’s BMW and benefit from more instruction at home. Pegging funding to test scores, as both Bush Jr. and Obama have done, widens such disparities.

These disadvantages exist because of the larger socioeconomic context in which schools are set, and disinvesting in education only broadens inequality. Few have been courageous enough to note that cutting schools disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic children because schools and neighborhoods are still widely segregated in this country, and those relegated to the poorest, most crime-ridden and unstable neighborhoods are often people of color. Given that, in addition to test scores, school funding is largely derived from a neighborhood’s property value, there’s no wonder that schools in poor neighborhoods end up failing. This is a problem far too acute for any of the blondes on Fox News or the brunettes on CNN to address because we live in a “post-racial society.” Far easier is the demonization of the teachers and their union. For God’s sake, think of the children!

 Michael Dean doesn’t care about the politics, he cares about the children.


Rebuttal from Jeffrey Robin:

If students are prevented from entering failing schools in order that their failure might be addressed, then so be it. Everyone’s best interest lies in improving education policy. Do not conflate “caring for the children” with privatizing their education (have we no experience in this matter?).

As with other industries in which labor is divided, the withdrawal of that labor is a means to beget conditions that allow workers their humanity and also develops atmospheres whereby ends are met through more holistic means. Any reasonable teacher expects to be evaluated on their performance, but standardized testing results means further alienation of students and teachers, and is not an adequate measure of a teacher’s ability any more than it is an adequate measure of a student’s intelligence.

Lastly, my counterpart’s critique of this issue fails to recognize the broader economic and societal context of the problem. Always, always, always remember the inequality.


To read the “Right Said” column for this topic, click here.