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Op-Ed Fri Sep 07 2012

What's At Stake for Chicago Public Educators?

By David Stieber

You have undoubtedly heard the news reports, radio attack ads, CPS representatives, the "CEO" of Chicago Public Schools, and the Mayor saying how teachers are walking out on the students if we strike. Parents, students, residents of this city, as a teacher let me tell you, comments like that rip teachers to our core. As cliché as it sounds teaching is a calling. It's not as if one day we just said, "I guess I'll just be a teacher." It takes skill and dedication to stand in front of 30 (sometimes more) young people in a classroom and truly care and be able to teach every one of them. It is not possible to just be mediocre when it comes to teaching students. A young person is the first to let you know if you aren't doing a good job at teaching the lesson, not getting graded work passed back quickly enough, heck, they will even let you know if you look bad that day.

Teachers just can't punch in, start thinking about kids then punch out and stop. Teachers are always trying to improve our lesson plans, grade, figure out ways to reach the students who are withdrawn, quiet, confrontational or disrupting class. We just can't shut our students out of our lives when the bell rings.

Unless you are a teacher you have no idea the pain, frustration and intrinsic anger we feel when some paid radio ad claims, that "teachers are walking out on students." Some days after teaching, I honestly wish I could walk out on my students and never come back. But no matter how frustrating our day may have been, it is the kids that always bring us back. Teachers spend our lunch periods, before and after school helping, coaching, and listening to our students.

After days of teaching, we spend nights in grad school, trying to make ourselves better teachers. We raise children and think about how we want our own child to be like __(insert name here)__ who we taught a few years back.

There is nothing about our careers, our schools, and our students that we take lightly.
So please understand, teachers are trying to teach you that our careers and professions are under attack. Please understand we are trying to teach you about how your child's education is under attack.

You may find this dramatic, but education is at a crossroads in our country and our neighborhood, our city is right at the intersection of these crossroads. There is an attempt to make schooling privatized, charter-ized, and more inequitable than it already is. There is an attempt to get rid of experienced teachers who have built relationships with families, who truly know how to teach and replace them with less expensive, inexperienced teachers who likely will only be at the school for two years.

There is an attempt to teach through testing, to make your child so bored in school from over-standardized testing that students aren't excited for school anymore. There is an attempt to further cut librarians, counselors, nurses, PE, World Language, Art and now classroom teachers, in order to "save" money. A budget is a political document, not a financial one, it's about priorities. Some priorities obviously need to be re-evaluated.

Teachers in no way shape or form want to strike, we want to be working with and educating your children. The CTU, which represents and is elected by 26,000 educators across this city has had over 50 negotiation meetings with CPS since November 2011. In all of that time "CEO" Brizard has attended zero of those meetings, which means there was no one from CPS at the bargaining table with any educational experience.

So I ask, how do you bargain on what is best for students with people who have never taught students?

At stake is way more than pay. At stake for us is doing what is right for our community, our city, and yes our students, because as teachers it is always about the kids.


David Stieber is a CPS teacher, and is currently completing a Masters degree in Urban Education Policy Studies.

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Sarah-Ji / September 7, 2012 10:50 AM

As a CPS parent, thank you to all the teachers who are holding strong and fighting for schools that ALL students deserve. My daughter and I will be honored to walk the picket lines with you.

Fred Klonsky / September 7, 2012 10:54 AM

In 2003 my teacher union local walked out on strike. I was President of the local at the time. I know that for me and many my colleagues it was the most difficult and the most important thing we ever did in our professional lives. It changed us forever for the better. It made our schools better places for students. The idea of it frightened many of us. It made us all smarter and stronger. My best wishes to all Chicago teacher friends, family and (I am proud to say) colleagues.

CL / September 7, 2012 1:20 PM

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the upcoming strike. I wish you the best of luck. A lot of people unfortunately have internalized negative propaganda about unions, and they resent unions because they don't have the same rights and benefits. I hope you all don't take the vitriol too personally. Many members of the community are behind you.

Josh / September 7, 2012 4:50 PM

Stay strong, brothers and sisters! As the president of a local in another state who has almost been on strike twice in the past 6 years, I and my fellow teachers are intimately aware of what's at stake for you in your current struggle, and we know precisely what's at stake for education in general. If you lose this pitched battle you are currently fighting, the consequences will be much farther reaching than just Chicago as politicans across the country will feel emboldened to do the same or worse in their states and cities. Thank you for standing up for ALL of us in this fight.

Mike K. / September 8, 2012 6:50 AM

Thanks for writing this, David. I'm making copies to give out to my DePaul students. See you on the picket line.

Rachel / September 8, 2012 10:04 AM

I appreciate the passion of this particular writer, but the following facts remain...
11th graders meeting college readiness benchmarks: 21% in reading, 19% in math, 11% in science, 38% in English. Arguably, the benchmark is set quite low. The most recent statistic on graduation rates is 60.6%. With the average teacher salary at above $70K a year, I'm trying to square the poor results with the demand for higher salaries.

Jason B. / September 8, 2012 10:08 AM

Well said! I am a teacher in California and I am spreading the word. Teachers never turn their backs on do.

Courtney / September 8, 2012 10:25 AM

@rachel I don't believe there is any true correlation between salary and test scores. They simply don't go together. The reason test scores are low is mostly due to class sizes being too big, schools need more money for educational resources and professional development, and schools need to stop being run like businesses. When our country was being developed we needed to educate our children to be workers. That is not the case anymore. In today's world we need to teach creativity, insight, critical thinking, and problem solving. We need our students to think outside the box. In order to reform schools to do this we can't listen to millionaires and politics. We need to pay our teachers to do the research on new and innovative ways of teaching and allow them to change their instructional practice. Teachers are the experts. Let them do the work not businessmen who do not understand education.

Leah / September 8, 2012 11:35 AM

As a CPS teacher who loves her students, colleagues and city, THANK YOU!

Taxpayer #197592 / September 8, 2012 11:58 AM

As a random tax payer in this fine city, I welcome more money being awarded to our schools here. A book teaches more and prevents crime 1000x more effectively than any police force.

Robin / September 8, 2012 12:14 PM

We'll stated.

Damaris velazquez / September 8, 2012 3:54 PM

I agree 100% with the writer. As a mental health Clinicial working in a district I've observed 1st hand the long hours put in by teachers preparing for the week(as late as 7pm). Additionally not only are they teaching a class full of children , they are forced to follow standards that have interfered with relationship building and creative teaching . I have a new respect for teachers. It's not the easy 8-3 profession that society claims.

Tonja Harris / September 8, 2012 7:15 PM

I am a parent of two, a community activist and about a year ago, I founded a not-for-profit in North Lawndale. I stand by teachers because what you all are ASKING for isn't far's WELL DESERVED, and our kids deserve a world class education! If it's GOOD for our suburban neighbors, then it should BE GOOD for our babies too! #Solidarity!!!!!

David Stieber / September 8, 2012 11:26 PM

Thank you all for the comments. It is important that people understand teachers are not taking the decision to strike lightly. We don't want to strike, but we will do what it takes to make Chicago Public Schools be as good as we all know they can be.

Maria / September 9, 2012 8:31 AM

Steve, thanks for putting into words how most of us are feeling. For 25 years teachers have been hopeful that the people running the school system would include us in the important day to day decisions. We have tried to bend over backwards to comply with their demands even though we are in disagreements. Rachel, let us talk about test scores a minute. Do you know that we have a highly diverse student body, a large number of students whose first language is not English? We also have students' mobility also is high? How about children coming to school from financial deprived families which first on their list is where their next meal will come from? Lastly, students who have diverse learning and physical disabilities who have to come to schools where there ree not sufficient resources to assist their needs. So, the so called tests, which are given to all students without taking any if the above into consideration, give flaw information. I believe we have to assess students to document their growth and find out their needs, but we cannot use a cookie cutter for all and then want to evaluate teachers from flaw data.

Theresa / September 9, 2012 9:00 AM

Those who equate workplace incentives such as merit pay with improved academic performance are buying into the business model for public schooling that has been promoted by the very business industry that is looking to profit form public education. If we look at colleges and universities, they are run by educators for educators. Why would elementary and high schools be any different? Part of the reason is that public education is now being viewed as a lucrative business opportunity to further privatization of public schools. Unfortunately these businesses have deep pockets and nealy limitless resources at their disposal. They have done a good job of convincing the public that teachers' unions are the cause of the current state of public education. Of course they do not want to review the bulk of the research out there that very consistently states that what makes an impact on student performance is teacher experience and small class sizes. What business folks will never understand is that schools are not businesses and our children are not commodities to be made profit from.

Paul / September 9, 2012 9:20 AM

"There is nothing about our careers, our schools, and our students that we take lightly."--then why does CPS have a 10% high school graduation rate? (as in, a 90% FAIL rate) You are already paid 2-4x more than private schools. I give you guys a lot of credit for being in some very poor school districts, but Karen Lewis is a horrible representative. You need to vote her out. Teacher pay raises are not the answer to CPS's troubles. More teachers that care about the well-being of their students, are.

Therese / September 9, 2012 9:40 AM

Paul, you have incorrect information about CPS grad rates; correct stats are easily found online, as here:

While much higher than you state, of course the rate could be improved, and as you should be able to tell from the essay here teachers are at the front of the struggle to improve schooling all around. The CTU and Karen Lewis have been calling for a rich curriculum for every child. Can't fault that request!

Emily Dyson / September 9, 2012 8:27 PM

As great as it would be if the union were in fact holding up our children's education to ensure more art, music, and P.E. teachers and extra-curriculars, the truth is that the main sticking points in the negotiation are increases in teacher salary, ability to rehire previously fired teachers (presumably fired because they were bad teachers) and haggles over the rising cost of health care (which we're all experiencing). If the teachers were to get their demands met, the end result wouldn't be either beneficial or detrimental to the students, but soley applicable to the teachers. In my opinion, how much a teacher makes, or pays for health care, do not/ should not impact educational quality, at all (with the exception of keeping on bad teachers-really bad idea). I completely agree with Rachel - for a price tag of more than $50k-$70k/teacher, our "educational experts" ought to be producing better results. Since the union's primary demand is better pay, you can safely call it a "for profit" organization, a business of sorts. No other business or industry demands better pay, using the (poor) quality of the product they're responsible for producing, as a leveraging tool. It's a terrible business model - and one could assume should lead to bankruptcy because no one in their right mind wouldn't simply hire someone cheaper for a better product, displacing the failing "business". This is how it should be, and such is the nature of capitalism. Back to our original topic then - who are we really kidding? This strike is not at all about the children.

NoUnions / September 9, 2012 11:00 PM

The essay expertly and passionately states the case that teachers care about their students. I don't think that case needs to be argued. But for all of the feelings, I want to know why they are striking. I keep hearing it's about fairness. What about common sense? The city has no money. Daley left with huge deficits and made promises that he knew were impossible to keep. There is no money for the teachers. So why are they asking for more? What's not fair about $70k/yr? That's doing pretty well for 9 months of work. I don't care if you stay after work a couple hours. Then you're only working the average 9 hr day that the rest of us work. At a time when so many Chicagoans are still looking for work, it does seem a little selfish. And get rid of tenure. The union wanted it, and now they pay the price by having teacher's fired before they reach it. I don't blame the city. No one should be guaranteed a job regardless of performance, no one. I know of younger teachers that complain that older, tenured teachers, are abusing the system. They don't take classes on new educational philosophy, technology integration, or teaching strategies. And why would they? Their job is guaranteed.

My sister is a teacher and I have great respect for the job they do. But I do not have respect for Karen Lewis, or the union asking for money when there isn't any.

Jim / September 10, 2012 12:32 AM

I'll never understand why folks like @NoUnions are so threatened by others' success, as if the teachers union is taking money out of your pocket. If you're struggling, if many in Chicago are struggling these days, why do you want to keep someone else from getting ahead? Their achievement, their middle-class lifestyle doesn't hurt you; it helps us all. Why hate on them because so many others have it rough? Let's all pull together.

Elsewhere, @EmilyDyson invokes "the nature of capitalism" and uses test scores and graduation rates as the primary measure of a teacher's success, as if a) a society's efforts to educate its children should be prisoner to The Market; and b) the performance and dedication of a teacher is the lone factor in producing those test and graduation stats.

It's easy to find anecdotes about old, lazy teachers who don't care anymore. These people are a small minority of public school teachers. They're the exception, not the rule, and it's wildly illogical and off-base to structure a contract and an educational system around their small group.

DeJordy / September 10, 2012 9:55 AM

Jim, They are taking money out of my pocket! My school property taxes went up $600 this year, just ... because.

Paul / September 10, 2012 10:58 AM

Im sorry Therese, what I meant was that 6% of CPS graduates go on to receive a bachelors degree. Either they don't care, aren't prepared enough, or both. You guys must be doing an amazing job motivating these kids to succeed at life. Sarcasm intended. Take your 14+ weeks of vacation, 30% greater salary and still shorter work day than the rest of the USA's public school teachers, and go back to work. If you want to get paid and not work hard, Greece might have a better alternative lifestyle for you.

Rich / September 10, 2012 11:53 AM

For those who think there isn't enough money to pay CPS teachers adequately, then you haven't been paying attention to the Mayoral Slush Fund (aka TIF funds) which cost the city hundreds of millions a year. This year alone they're estimated to be at $454 million.

Michael / September 10, 2012 2:13 PM

As they say here in Chile (former Chicago resident), el profe luchando también está enseñando... or the teacher who is fighting is also teaching.

Solidarity, don't let Chicago's Public Schools be gutting into a half-charter system.

Fulfill your responsibilities / September 10, 2012 2:59 PM

I don't blame you for fighting for a better salary. I don't feel you deserve it relative to what the rest of the nation's teachers receive but you have the right to ask for it.

I understand you want job security. Everyone does but the rest of us keep our jobs by proving our value to our employer everyday and get evaluated on performance on a regular basis.

I applaud your efforts to improve the classroom for the students and I'm right there with you. That's why I give extra funds to my kids' school through the PTA and provide time and support when asked.

But as a parent of 2 CPS students, I find this strike disgraceful and an example of the self-centered, victimized mentality that Karen Lewis, CTU and this op-ed articulates. You want us to believe the teachers are the helpless victims and the CPS is the malevolent bureaucrat machine. We're not so naive to believe such a simplistic fairy tale but I fear that's what you truly believe to justify to yourself your actions. All I've seen is an "us against them" mentality from the CTU when what we, the parents, are demanding from both the CTU and CPS is to get to a deal that neither will like but will keep the kids in school.

What I find most disgusting is a strike on our schools needs to be the last possible option when all other options and discussion is over. This strike will create tremendous collateral damage starting with the students' education and safety, creating stress and challenges for already struggling families, threatening parents' jobs and their employers' businesses, and bringing additional disgrace to the city of chicago as we try to attract tourists and businesses in a challenging economy and competition. But none of this is accounted for by the actions and words of the CTU, i.e. Karen Lewis. Even as the CPS tries to provide alternative resources for parents during the strike, Karen Lewis is bad-mouthing it and suggesting it's unsafe. What would the CTU suggest parents and students do? How is the CTU compensating for not fulfilling the responsibilities of the teachers? Oh well, I guess the parents, the students and everyone else affected are S.O.L.

So why do these issues only come up when the contract is being negotiated? I welcome school reform and will fully support the teachers to make the school a better place of learning and development. I will gladly march with the CTU to fight for these improvements and work to elect the public officials to make it happen. But calling a strike is not the right way to fight for these issues. Teachers chose to take on the responsibility of being in the classroom and making themselves available for the students. By going on strike, you are not living up to your responsibilities and I won't reward that by providing my support to your cause.

As for the parents who support the teachers' strike - let's see how long that lasts. This is only the beginning and the longer this strike goes on, supporting the strike will be a luxury that no parent can afford. As parents, taking sides does not help the situation. We need to put pressure on both sides to resolve this as quickly as possible and get our kids into the classroom. Once that is accomplished, we can continue the ongoing effort to give our kids the best education possible. And we need to do what we can to dissuade anybody in the future from thinking a strike on our schools is a reasonable and acceptable option.

Rachel / September 10, 2012 7:33 PM

To those who are questioning why market- or business-related goals and measurements should not be applied to public education, note that outcomes-based education is practiced the world over, including in countries that just happen to have the highest-achieving students (eg, Korea, Japan and China). That the US is still arguing over this point is indicative of why our students rank so poorly globally.

To those who complain about class size, class size in the US is comparable with the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Israel, France and Germany (all countries in which students scored MUCH higher on math and reading tests than US students). That was according to the OECD (2007).

Micah / September 10, 2012 9:10 PM

@Rachel: You are comparing our students to countries across the world based on standardized test scores. Tell me what career that you walk into and your entire performance is based on answering a multiple choice question? If I go to the doctor and do not follow his instructions, then his pay or job is not in question. Until we begin requiring our students to think critically and incorporating project-based learning assesments into our growth data models, we will continue to fall behind.

Teachers are expected to motivate students who might be homeless, who did not have dinner, who are acting as parents to other siblings, etc. A standardized test is the last thing on their mind, and I can't say that I blame them.

I teach in a different state, which just had an overhaul of the teacher evaluation system. Once again, a system based on a standardized test. Instead of analyzing 'learning' on pencil and paper, let's incorporate an assessment that may actually require more than an A, B, C, or D answer.

Lastly, I am a fourth year teacher and make less than a fast-food restaurant manager across the street from my school. Oh, and by the way, that salary includes teaching summer school too. Not to mention, we are expected to have equal or more stringent morals and values than a leader in a church. There is no question that we should be held to those standards, but please, we are professionals and believe we should be treated as such.

Beth / September 11, 2012 12:02 AM

The teachers of CPS have said that they strike for the students, for a better quality of education. The issues are entirely about teacher evaluation, compensation, and job security, not about education, student performance and success. Unfortunately, job security does not exist anymore, anywhere, and I don't understand why CPS teachers think they should be different from the rest of the population. Principals need to be able to do their jobs, part of which is to hire quality teachers for their schools, and then everyone must be held accountable. This is how it works everywhere else, both in school districts and in business. Teachers give a lot of un-clocked hours. I know this because I am a teacher. Long hours at school, turn into long hours at home, grading and planning. CPS teachers are paid quite well, better than most teachers in large, urban school districts, with significantly less time spent IN the classroom. So, again, I don't understand why CPS teachers think they are different from the rest of us, teachers, that is.

I agree that standardized tests are not a good way to evaluate teachers, or students for that fact. They are a snap shot of one moment, on one day in a child's entire academic year. It's ludicrous, really. With that said, we need to see how our schools stack up, her and home and internationally. Teachers should NOT teach to these tests, but they are not going away any time soon. Should teachers be evaluated based on them? Why not, our students, schools and districts are? Is it fair? That is a complicated question, and an irrelevant one at the moment. This is how it will be until something better comes along, and it catches on. I know in my heart that a teacher will come up with a better evaluation system, not a politician. Politicians have no place in this decision, they have a way of making a mess of education, as is evidenced. Unfortunately, we like to keep them around by contributing to their campaigns.

Teachers need more money to be able to teach students... spent wisely in our schools and classrooms. We will not lower class sizes through higher teacher salaries. We will not be able to keep neighborhood schools open, and successful, with higher teacher salaries. We cannot bring new technologies and curriculum into the classrooms by paying teachers more. There is only so much money, and yes, it does need be prioritized... for the kids.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

Mark / September 11, 2012 1:08 AM

You teachers are all crazy. Go out in the the real Corporate world and see how long you last. Your pay is based on Productivity and Crativity which leads to profitablility. 2 weeks vacation and 3 percent raises if your lucky. Quit your crying and get back to school. You already had plenty of off time to settle this. I don't want to hear this Look what I am doing. I thought teachers are to teach from the Heart. Sounds like they are all worried about how much money they make to me. I have been in the school systems and have plenty of friends who are teachers. Nobody feels sorry for me everyday because I lost the sale and didn't get paid for it. Let's get some merrit and pride and work while trying to settle this.
In my opinion, along with many other people around the United States, I am tired of the continued tax levy's for schools districts. I continue to pay in for teachers retirements while most people don't even have enough to retire at age 65. Most teachers are retired at 55-60 and get 80 percent of their pay. Now tell me people, who in their right mind should get this? The country is going bankrupt with this in place.

55% graduation rate / September 11, 2012 1:30 AM

We continue to hear the argument that just because a student is failing that doesn't mean it's the teachers fault due to the student's social challenges. Fair enough but does that explain why 45% of students are failing high school? Are we to believe 45% of CPS students are either homeless, come from a broken home or have some other problem that prevents them from learning? If a student is not achieving at academics, it needs to be asked why not and one of the considerations needs to be perhaps that particular teacher is not effective. Even a good, well qualified teacher can be unsuccessful in some situations and if that's the case than the teacher needs to be replaced with someone who might be able to succeed. As well, let's face the truth, there are some people who should not be teachers and they need to be weeded out. Please stop protecting them.

At the end of the day, the success of our students need to be the sole measure of how effective our entire school system is. How you measure the student's success is a different discussion but that is what the teachers and the CPS need to be held accountable for.

Unfortunately, our expectations of our school system has been lowered over the years to such an extent that when a student just meets the standardized requirements, it's considered a victory. This is absurd. But it's why a 45% failure rate and the excuses to try to justify it are tolerated with embarassment.

Kenyatta / September 11, 2012 8:41 AM

I guess none of the parents that have spoken out here in disgust send their children to schools in low income areas. I have two children. One in elementary school and one in high school; it's a shame when your child comes home without homework because the schools budget doesn't cover the required materials and teachers do what they can out of their pockets. How many of you have volunteered to help our teachers out? I have and their jobs are no walk in the park. 30+ children a high percentage of these children need more direction then others and some are there just for attention; doing whatever it takes to get it. Our communities lack the mental health facilities that are needed and many of the children that need therapy are sitting amongst the masses in overcrowded classrooms.
I have a family member that started out as a teacher at a rather nice high school but decided to tackle a principal position at a rather high risk high school is the job easy no. But he answered the call and implemented change, that's what teaching is about. It's not lackluster and glamorous I appreciate my educators; I'm a full time student as well.

Beth / September 11, 2012 9:43 AM

Kenyatta, I have taught in a low income area in Chicago, my first job after finishing college. I completely agree with you. I spent a lot of my own money, which wasn't much as I worked for the State Pre-K program, on supplies for my classroom. I relied on recycled goods from parents and donations from local businesses as well. This is why I believe so strongly that the available money for pay increases needs to get into the classrooms instead. Lets lower the number of students in a classroom. Lets get the supplies needed to send home work for extra practice of skills. Lets research and purchase technologies and curriculum that exceed standards for our students. Lets put money into hiring more social workers for our kids. (One social worker for 5 schools is NOT enough.) Higher teacher salaries and a diminished evaluation system for teachers and students are not going to solve the problems at hand. Also, I truly believe that smaller class sizes, more supplies and technology, stronger curriculum, and more support for teachers and students will lessen teacher stress. Even marginally, that will mean happier, better supported teachers, students and parents. Of course, for more money to help, it needs to be spent responsibly.

CPS Parent / September 11, 2012 9:47 AM

kenyatta - so how does increased job security and rehire guarantees help the disadvantaged student to succeed in the classrom? And if schools are already under-funded, how does guaranteed raises -regardless of performance and financial constraints of the city - help provide the schools with additonal resources? By the way all schools, regardless of location, are funded the same amount per student. I appreciate that teachers have a difficult job but none of the CTU demands are going to change the social conditions that challenged students come from. And right now, by calling a strike, they are only hurting those students by taking away their classrooms. Students need to be in the classroom and the teachers need to resolve their professional and personal issues without calling a strike. This strike is not justified.

Michael / September 11, 2012 3:55 PM

Sorry, CTU backers. Add my voice to those who think you should go back to work. No one else gets guaranteed job security and guaranteed raises.

Oh, and fire Karen Lewis. She's doing you uncountable harm every time she opens her entitled mouth. Seriously.

A "liberal"

LUCERITO / September 12, 2012 4:49 PM


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