Why the Chicago Teachers Strike Matters

Chicago's educators have a lot more on their minds than money.

BY EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER POLITICS / CURRENT September 14, 2012

“If you think this is all about teachers wanting more money, you aren’t paying attention.”

That was one of the picket signs carried by 26,000 striking teachers this week in Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school system in the United States.

The teachers strike has closed schools across the city now for a full week, locking more than 400,000 students out of their classrooms. And it’s “all anybody is talking about” in the education reform community, National Council on Teacher Quality President Kate Walsh told the Chicago Sun-Times Thursday.

That’s because neither of the two issues Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel identified Tuesday at a press conference at one South Side Chicago school as “the crux here” were money, as attractive and easy-to-digest as the “greedy union” narrative is. Neither do they include Emanuel’s questionable taste in music. (A photo of one picket sign that went viral Tuesday said, “Rahm Emanuel likes Nickelback.” A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office later denied this to RedEye.)

Instead, both the mayor and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis have pointed to a complicated and controversial new teacher evaluation system, part of a nationwide education reform movement.

The evaluations also are part of an Illinois law that takes effect this school year that requires school districts not only to evaluate principals and teachers based on their performances, but also on their students.’ The principal piece kicks in this year; the teacher piece, for most districts, in 2016. Both still must be rated this year as excellent, proficient, needs improvement of unsatisfactory — even in those districts that have not yet designed and adopted new evaluations, a­­­ccording to the Illinois State Board of Education.

At least 300 CPS schools, however, are required by law to adopt those teacher evaluations this year, and the rest, next school year, according to the state board. And the system designed by CPS eventually would put more weight on student growth than the 30 percent required by law, the Sun-Times has reported.

At least 33 states have made changes to their teacher evaluation systems since 2009, when President Barack Obama announced his Race to the Top initiative, offering states money for reforms, according to a Hechinger Report analysis. Of those, about two dozen states have added students’ growth on test scores as a measure of teachers’ effectiveness, that analysis said.

Supporters—like Emanuel and the former head of CPS, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—have pointed to research that shows teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor that affects student performance. Critics—like Lewis—argue that places too much emphasis on out-of-school factors, like poverty.

A Social Justice Issue

To Kestelle Wiersma, it is “a social justice issue.” And she’s not the first to sound that note: Secretary Duncan, President Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and, most recently at the Republican National Convention late last month in Tampa, Fla., former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice all have called education “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Wiersma and I were sitting in Cafe Jumping Bean Tuesday night in her Pilsen neighborhood, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community, drinking lattes and Coke from glass bottles and talking about the strike consuming our lives and livelihoods. She’s been a teacher in CPS since 2006; in Louisiana, before that. I write about several suburban school districts for one of the Sun-Times’ publications, although, as Wiersma said, “Chicago makes its own rules.”

She teaches a special education classroom for students in kindergarten through grade three at Avalon Park Elementary School on the South Side of Chicago, which makes her part of the 70 percent of CPS teachers who reportedly do not teach a tested subject. Her classroom includes a student who suffers from seizures so severe, they’ve erased his short-term memory, she said. In the first few weeks of school, he’s made progressed in remembering the letters in his name, but that’s not progress a CPS-written performance tasks would show. By the end of the year, he still is not going to be able to read a story about a little owl and write a sentence describing its feelings, she said.

Up to 20 percent of Wiersma’s evaluation would be based on schoolwide test results, according to the original contract offer made by the district. Another at least 10 percent would be based on student growth on performance tasks. And a “needs improvement” rating would give her 90 days to improve performance or lose her job.

That “changes how you look at people,” she said, forcing teachers to focus on the students they know can make progress on tests from the beginning to the end of the school year.

But that’s not why Wiersma, who is white and grew up in Iowa, chose to teach students with special needs in a school that is “not my ethnicity, not my background, not my culture,” she said. Avalon Park students are 99.5 percent black and 97.8 percent low income, according to 2011 Illinois Interactive Report Card data. The percentage of students who transferred in and out of the school between the start and end of last school year is 40.3, more than three times the state average, according to that data. And the percentage of students considered “chronic truants,” those who are absent at least 10 percent of the school year, is 17.3, more than five times the state average. All are factors outside of school — and a teacher’s control — that impact student performance.

“It’s why I chose where I’m at,” she said. “I feel like it’s my calling from God. I really have to opportunity to love on others the way God loves us – to choose to love on others who may not be the easiest to love.”

Author Elora Ramirez taught high school for six years in Texas, but she told me this week she has similar concerns about tests determining students’ success.

“I considered it a success if my students knew the importance of story, believed in their own story, and knew how to tap into their creativity. If they found love for one poem – one poem – I knew I taught the unit well. If I could help them understand how literature will come alive under their fingertips, how there are other books outside of what’s required, then that was a success as well. Most importantly, if they left my classroom knowing there are other people outside the small bubble of where they lived, then I knew I did my job,” Ramirez said.

And no matter what people believe about strikes and unions and education reform and the current standoff in Chicago, she said, they should be concerned about education. It’s “what builds culture,” she said. It’s an opportunity to listen, to understand, to love others the way we have been loved, to engage with the culture.

“So many schools in America — too many, really — are lacking hope and the encouragement needed to really succeed …we have this opportunity to step along side and become involved: through mentoring or tutoring or any number of partnerships,” Ramirez said.

“The fact that so many teachers in Chicago were able to get to the point of such frustration is a little disheartening to me. I feel for them because I know where that frustration comes from. I’ve experienced it before. It’s the feeling that no one is listening, no one understands.”

Emily McFarlan Miller

EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER

Emily McFarlan Miller is an awards-winning education reporter and adventurer, a social media-er, a Christian, and Chicagoan. Mostly, she writes. Connect with her at http://www.emmillerwrites.com/

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