The Teachers Strike May Be Over But The Crisis Continues

The Chicago strike is at the epicenter of many the critical problems in American society — profound issues aggravated by the recession — and the increasing threat of global competition.

These are:

  • The deteriorating prospects and stability of the middle class and civil servants
  • The long term stagnation of the underclass,
  • Issues of income inequality,
  • The unfairness of the tax system,
  • The decreasing power of labor unions,
  • And the quality of education of all children that is necessary for a nation to compete.

Increasingly, the wealth of a nation will lie in public education of all of its children. And the U.S. is failing miserably, compared to many other industrialized countries. One million American children drop out of school every year, according to PEW research. A black male student in Chicago has a 3 percent chance of graduating from college.

This is why the Chicago teacher’s strike and the broader dilemma of education reform — getting better teachers to more poor kids — is so important to our national survival.

A prison of poverty traps millions of poor kids in a permanent underclass. They have no shot in life. There is no way out.

To continually neglect the education of so many poor people is to commit national suicide.

The U.S. lags other countries in social mobility and a big reason has been the collapse of public education of our lower classes. “Upward mobility from the bottom” is significantly lower in the United States than in most major European countries, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark, concluded a comprehensive study last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Other data shows that the U.S. also lags behind Australia, Canada, and France.

Once upon a time the U.S. led the world in the public education of all of its children, but not any longer. U.S. mobility has decreased significantly in the last few decades, according to another study published in 2006.

And this failure is especially critical in today’s global economy in which education — human capital — is tied to jobs and prosperity.

Poverty and culture, of course, are the biggest structural issues creating a permanent underclass, as the teachers unions rightly claim.

But good teachers can make a significant difference in the long term outcomes for poor kids, as every teacher knows.

Even in the context of grinding poverty, serious studies have shown that teachers have a huge positive or negative impact on the lives of their students. Nicholas Kristof cited several such studies in his argument for “Students Over Unions” in the New York Times.

Students lucky enough to be in a class with a good or even average teacher will collectively make $1.4 million more on average over the course of a lifetime than a classroom of students who get stuck with a bad teacher, according to a recent Harvard study. The study also concludes that having a good teacher for one elementary school year leaves students less likely to become teenage mothers, more likely to go to college, and more likely to earn more money at age 28.

Another study showed that black students who have a good teacher for four years are likely to erase the black-white testing gap.

The problem is you can’t fire a bad teacher. More than 97 percent of teachers in Chicago are rated effective in their evaluations. It’s like Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average. Teachers can’t police themselves. They’re not alone. Most professionals — lawyers, doctors, investment bankers — also have a hard time with self evaluations and accountability.

But worldwide, quantifiable accountability is powering staggering improvements in productivity in all fields.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Teachers, like other professionals, don’t want to be evaluated.
Why are Chicago teachers flexing their muscles? In part, because Rahm Emanuel wants to base more of a teacher’s evaluation on standardized testing of student achievement (25 percent rising to 40 percent in five years). Teachers say that this rating system will not work, claiming that teaching is more nuanced than getting kids to fill in bubbles. But there are other ways to judge teachers.

One technological solution: put a nanny cam in every classroom.

And not just to trap teachers doing something wrong.

Have union teachers judged by a panel of their peers. Use these accurate video evaluations, along with standardized tests, to help bad teachers re-educate and fire those who don’t improve. Cameras will also lead to better behavior and assessment of struggling students, who will know that their good or bad behavior will be recorded and appraised.

The teachers unions will howl at this intrusion of privacy. But cameras are now commonplace (and cheap), not only in classrooms, but also in lobbies, stores, casinos, and in other public venues.

Politicians, actors, tennis players, and football teams all use videos of their speeches, performances and games to improve. Why not teachers?

People who take care of other people’s kids should be monitored.

This will not solve all the problems in education — that’s crazy — but it might be a first, simple step toward more effective teaching.

Charter schools and teacher evaluations look very attractive to cash strapped cities because they seemingly yield better results on standardized tests for 33 percent less teacher pay. No wonder parents are clamoring to get their kids in charter school.

Many politicians and education advocates support charter schools for this very reason. They would rather put money towards schools that value accountable results and cultivate the best teaching practices.

In the last decade, there has been a mass exodus of nearly 100,000 from Chicago public schools. Many parents have fled to the suburbs and 50,000 students have enrolled in charter schools. The elephant in the negotiating room is that up to 120 Chicago schools are slated to close next year, which would likely result in massive teacher layoffs. Forty percent of Chicago teachers send their own kids to private schools.

Neither side in the dispute really has the sole interests of the students in mind.

Teachers unions claim to speak for students, but they put their own priorities first and have turned out to be to be a force for protecting the unacceptable status quo. Meanwhile, Chicago teachers have gained raises of 67 percent in the last ten years.

But Rahm Emanuel, and the city of Chicago, do not only have the students’ interests solely at heart either. They are reckoning with red ink and a massive $700 million budget deficit. That leaves them no choice. They have to go after the low-hanging fruit. They need school closures and teacher layoffs in a dysfunctional broken system that can’t police itself.

These are some of the most at-risk kids in the country — 87 percent low-income — and parents are understandably going crazy as the strike continues.

What happens in the classroom — especially at a time when education is in crisis — is everyone’s concern.

Evaluations based on standardized testing and other quantifiable measures are the future.

It is futile to fight this wave of educational reform that is sweeping the country and the globe. And if teachers want their public schools, and their jobs, to survive, they better figure out a way of embracing accountability solutions that will allow them to compete in a fast changing world.

 

 

 

Write to: jfleetwood@aol.com. /an earlier version of this blog was posted on Huffington Post
Follow Blake Fleetwood on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Blakefleet

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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at jfleetwood@aol.com.
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