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Education Fri Feb 12 2010

A Bad Year for Teachers, a Bad Year for Public Education

This is going to be a bad year for public education.

After the State of the Union address and GOP response, there was a lot of back and forth about different policy points and the challenge the President laid down and the people standing behind Bob McDonnell and the number of times the President used certain words. What nobody commented on was that the two men agreed enthusiastically on exactly one thing: the need to privatize public education.

The take away from that night is that the American political duopoly supports the privatization of public education. They honestly believe that injecting the profit motive into education is the way to make sure that all American children get a decent education. That is a major policy shift that is so harmonious with the corporate policy tune that no news operations expressed any surprise or outrage.

But, of course, it is an outrage. The privatization of schools is sold as "ingenuity" and as a way of "leveling the field" by offering that cornerstone of free market fundamentalist mythology, "choice". Give parents choice and all problems go away. Because education is like used cars.

Forget that there is exactly zero evidence that charter schools work. Forget that vouchers take as an assumption that children from more difficult backgrounds should be allowed to fail. Forget that the history of American education demonstrates that expansion of public schools and professionalization of the teaching profession--and civil service, collective bargaining protection for teachers--tracks perfectly to the improvement of American education.

Why are we making teachers the sole enemy? And why are we suddenly comfortable with the idea that less democracy is a good thing?

Chicagoans enjoy a precious democractic power we unfortunately flunk more often than we ace: local school councils and their power over school improvement and principals. Charter schools are exempt from rules that establish local school councils, and now the very concept of LSCs is under attack, because it places some democratic control over the bosses in the schools.

Yes, we need a system to get rid of bad teachers. Does that mean giving bosses absolute power over them? It is mind boggling to me that "liberals" and progressives would approve of a "reform" that would give bosses absolute authority over the schools and inject the profit motive into the system. It is seen as an easy way to be centrist--blame the teachers unions--but in reality it is an immensely dangerous way to think about school reform.

The schools, particularly public schools, were once dumping grounds of patronage. Teachers were little more than babysitters. It was impossible to attract well educated and dedicated people to the profession for exactly that reason. Unionization--and only unionization--changed that for the better.

Charter schools offer their employees no job security. The pay is terrible, no retirement security, and teachers are often forced to teach outside of their discipline. Ask yourself why you think other people should do a job you're not willing to do just for the good feeling it supposedly gives them? Bosses are always eager to make teachers--or nurses, or child care workers--seem cold and uncaring whenever they advocate for themselves in the workplace. Where are their pay cuts and sacrifices?

Why would anyone want to become a teacher, when masters degrees with a quick minute in the classroom are so quick to blame them for everything. Students ignore them, parents blame them, the editorial boards salivate at each annual budget, gleefully singling out the small percentage of teachers with high end salaries.

Charter schools do not hire better teachers. Their staffs tend to be bifurcated between well-paid long-time teachers who have moved over from the public sector and eager young kids who will burn out in a few years. What success charters have comes from their ability to skirt special ed and other "burdens" public schools need to deal with by law, and just skim the best students with the most engaged parents.

It's not just the federal war on public education. It's going to get nasty locally, thanks in no small part to the short-sighted and irresponsible bloviating from the Reverend James Meeks, who has led a thus-far admirable effort to draw real attention to the immoral inequalities in our school systems. He compared teachers unions to the Gangster Disciples. The GDs for the record are an on-going criminal enterprise built on an enormous drug, theft, and prostitution market enforced by violence and terror.

Mayor Daley faces an election campaign next year that he will probably win but that can become an opportunity for some brave soul to really degrade his power and establish an opposition power base from which to mount genuine opposition to the Mayor. I think he fears that more than he fears an outright loss.

Want to split progressives from one another and set various factions in the black community against each other? One municipal level issue will do that better than any other: schools.

Meeks' recent rightward turn on the issue of school privatization is sinister not only because it is bad policy, but also because it is indicative of a nasty form of power identity politics to come. Mayor Daley will be using the schools, and the teachers union in particular, as the centerpiece of his reelection bid because that's where he can find solace. His management of the budget, the police, the fleeing of jobs--he will only get beat up there. Education is where he can still be toasted by the 21st Century Lakefront Liberals with their childish obsession with "entrepreneurial social justice" and simultaneously hold the support of distributive justice activists like Reverend Meeks.

What will the result be? More hate whipped up against teachers, men and women who have dedicated their lives--their one spin, as an old mentor of mine used to say--to educating the next generation, of preparing them not just for servile employeeship but to be critical minded participants in our civic society. I hate the bad teachers, but I know they are only noticeable because of all the great teachers that are out there, working hard every day.

Americans have a unique obsession with self-esteem, yet no group has lower self-esteem than the American worker. We're taught from a young age that we should be grateful to ever even have a job, that we're lucky to be paid what we're paid. The same libertarians who unquestioningly site the labor market as a justification for outrageous CEO and banker bonuses and salaries (how else do you attract the best?) mewl and puke about an educator who makes 150% the median salary after five years in the workforce--with a pension to boot!

Because we're just the mud people at the bottom. We don't control the capital, and therefore whatever the bosses--the Johnny Jobseeds who "create jobs" out of pity for us--deem to let us lap up off their wingtips is our just desserts.

Yes, we need some personal responsibility--parents need to be involved, don't fail their opportunity to participate in democratic public education--but the problem is not "the culture". The problem is economic disparity, communities rent by the exact same scarcity that the free market fundamentalists treasure as the only way to keep "labor costs down" (i.e., rip you off).

And the teacher is not your enemy. Try to remember that when the Mayor hails the assembly line educator sweat shops propped up as "models" because they're run by non-educators. Remember that we want people who know the profession well to run the system. How would the Lakefront Liberal professionals take to having a city electrician or cop brought in to run their boutique firm? So why should investment bankers or real estate developers run our schools?

Public education. An equal education for every kid--standardizing the critical thinking skills that make democracy possible--is critical for having a real participatory democracy. That is freedom. The ability for some, already more likely to succeed, to get ahead on the backs of everybody else is not freedom, or liberty, or equality. It is might makes right--a principle that fits nicely with the world view of our friends at the top of Machine Lite.

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cpsteacher / February 12, 2010 9:31 AM

YES! YES! YES! Someone gets it! Thank you Ramsin and Gapers Block for saying what no one else is saying--the truth. Perspective is everything. I wish all those teacher-bashers would sit back and think for just a second about why we teachers do what we do.

This myth that teachers get paid so well and do so little is so far from the truth and frankly, so insane that I can't even begin to comprehend how people believe it. We work our butts off. We put our hearts and souls into our jobs in a way that people in very few other sectors could ever imagine. My work never leaves me. Every time I read in the news that a child has been killed in the city a little wave of fear passes over me and I pray that it isn't one of my students. I can't count the number of times I've cried myself all the way home from work because of something a child has told me about their homelife. I wish I could find a way to quantify how often I worry about my students, past and present.

Hopefully this story will let some of our haters see who we really are. We are not greedy monsters. We are professionals who care about your children and the future of this world. Come visit our classrooms. Talk to a teacher. Ask us what the real issues affecting education are. You will find that they are quite different than the nonsense pushed by the media and monsters like Rev. Meeks.

Nate Goldbaum / February 13, 2010 3:27 PM

I wonder if there might be a connection between Meeks' enthusiasm for School Vouchers in the African American community and his enthusiasm for the $4,150/yr Salem Christian Academy, which "was founded in 1990 by Reverend Senator James T. Meeks and the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago." Hmmm....

Arlene Gloria Hirsch / February 13, 2010 11:04 PM

CTU is not a gang, but CTU needs new leadership to advocate for the children and the teachers of Chicago Public Schools.

The constant mindless slandering of Chicago teachers makes as much sense as if we blamed the nurses for the failures of the health care system. Like nurses, teachers are the first responders, and like nurses, Chicago teachers include innumerable everyday heroes. The idea that anyone who is Not a teacher can do the job better than anyone who IS a teacher is just plain silly.

CTU truly does need new leadership. The candidate with the vision, brains and courage to do the job on the level Chicago has not seen since Jackie Vaughn is Karen Lewis of CORE Chicago Teachers (Caucus of Rank and File Educators).

Check Karen out for yourself in this video:

When you see how things are and how they Should be, go to the COREteachers website and get inspired again.

You don't have to be a teacher to step up to the plate for Chicago education. Join CORE and be part of the solution.

Arlene Gloria Hirsch / February 14, 2010 1:00 AM

Here's the link to the website for CORE Chicago Teachers (Caucus of Rank and File Educators)

Concerned parents and citizens can also join.


Endersdragon / February 16, 2010 1:26 AM

The problem I have with all of this is that the public school system had 100s of years to innovate. 100s of years to reform. Yet they for whatever reason kept doing business as usual.

How many public schools are there for special needs kids in the Chicagoland area. How about noncharter schools for the gifted, got any of those? Heck, lets make it easier, how many Montessori, Waldorf or the like public schools are the in the Chicagoland area.

Given my limited familitarity with the area (worked for a while at Access Living), I am willing to guess the number would be pretty close to 0 (and those that might exist are probably considered to be the very charter schools you are fighting). How many such schools existed before 2000... before this whole charter school craze. A city the size of Chicago has no excuse for not offering any sort of differentation amoung its schools.

I agree that charter schools are going way too far, but until public schools start to actually do these reforms its a risk work taking.

Ramsin / February 16, 2010 5:41 PM

Public schools have not had "hundreds of years", they've only existed for about a hundred, hundred fifty years in any large number.

And in that time, they have done a stupendous job. Do you think the average American--hell, the dumbest American--isn't more educated about the world than the average American in the 1850s, or 1920s? By literacy rate alone the answer is yes.

The decay of public schools tracks with the concentration of poverty in urban centers, which tracks, of course, with the slow erosion of a working class middle class with the advent of neoliberal economic policies.

Endersdragon / February 16, 2010 8:21 PM

Okay perhaps that was a bit unfair of me, but then again are you really going to compare the social economic climates of 1920 and 2010? Literacy rates being high as they are now is just as much because of the changes in society as the changes in the educational realm.

But let me tell you my story and see if you think its right that I didn't get any other options. I was a twice exceptional little kid who had severe social issues but was significantly advanced in all my classes and especcially advanced in math. While reading this keep in mind that the closest charter school to me growing up was probably 200 miles away (and that I am talking about the 90s-00s, not the 60s and 70s).

In fact by the time they were teaching long multiplication in my classroom I was ready for geometry... needless to say I didn't get it. They tried skipping me ahead a grade in math... but they weren't willing to pay to bus me to a middle school so I basically had to repeat a grade two years later after getting an incredibly high A in the class. Does that sound right to you?

Socially I was bullied severely but teachers either never knew (don't see how they could be that stupid) or didn't care (much more likely). My mom was always denied an IEP for me... or rather threatened with the ED/BD room if she tried fighting for it. So I was left to deal with all of this on my own. Because of this, I developed a pretty severe depression by the time I was in middle school, and was suicidal by the time I was in say... 8th grade. Does that sound right to you?

If I was talking about the 1960s I could believe that we have evolved past this, but we are talking about 2000 here and I see these stories, and work with kids that have these stories every day. I have a 15 year old friend whos mom decided she had enough and enrolled him in a private school for kids with special needs (something so few public schools do, I doubt you could tell me one in the Chicagoland area), but she has to pay an insane amount to educate him there (though much less then the public school spent on him). Does that sound right to you, because teachers unions in Georgia are fighting for that status quo right now. Its time to change I think... what about you?

P.S. I appolgise for the length, but I had a lot to say.

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