School Daze

The teachers’ strike in Chicago in September brought into sharp relief many of the difficult issues surrounding one of the nation’s greatest social problems: the persistent failure of public education. Nowhere is that national failure more evident than in Chicago, with a drop-out rate of 40 percent.

Some of the proposals made by Mayor Rahm Emmanual that led to the strike represent positive steps. Nonetheless, the reaction of the teacher’s union was in its own right understandable and should have been better anticipated. The teachers’ union likewise shares some blame. Resorting to a strike when negotiations appeared close to an agreement was civically irresponsible.


Beyond the particulars and personalities in this dispute looms the larger problem of fixing public education nationwide. That matter cannot be addressed by continuing the vilification of public school teachers. These are the folks on the frontlines; public education cannot be “fixed” without their committed and creative participation.

Self-described education reformers persist in placing the lion’s share of the blame for the various failures of public education on classroom teachers. But the Chicago union asked a legitimate question: Is too much being demanded of teachers in responding to the economic, social and familial disarray suffered by many of the children they are asked to prepare for higher education and productive adulthood?

Chicago’s teachers, and teachers everywhere, are correct to demand greater support services and smaller class sizes, even as reform-minded boards of education are correct to seek longer school days, better accountability and improved performance. More should be expected of teachers (and more should be demanded of the higher education programs which purport to prepare them), but real reform cannot be achieved by focusing on just one aspect of the public system’s manifold failures. A cynic may wonder if the real goal of such “reform” is not an improved education for America’s schoolchildren but the political takedown of a powerful unionized workforce and the opening of a vast new arena for corporate profit-making.

Some of the Chicago Board of Education’s proposals, though hard for teachers to accept, like merit pay and reconstitution of the tenure system, are critical components of reform. Teachers have to show more flexibility. But even in a time of reduced resources, municipal, state and federal government must make realistic if unpopular assessments. It is a rhetorical commonplace that education cannot be fixed by throwing more money at it, but this is a policy apparently unknown in suburban school districts where per capita spending can greatly exceed spending in urban or rural communities. Rebuilding U.S. public education into a system that produces college graduates who can compete with the world’s elites and a competent workforce ready to take on the jobs of the future may mean spending more money in socioeconomically challenged districts, not less. It is a task that must be accepted nonetheless. It is inimical to a just and democratic society to maintain two separate, unequal systems, whether that dualism is based on race or on property tax bases.

Fixing education should be at the top of the nation’s priority list; our best minds and most creative thinkers should be assigned to this critical task. Instead, most of the energy surrounding the restoration of public education revolves around free-market fixes that create opportunities for charter school venture capitalists, even as the resources to pay for education continue to come from government. But in the real world, outside of conservative think tanks, privatization is not necessarily the most effective approach to improving school outcomes. In Finland, for instance, it was not charter schools or an emphasis on high-tech breakthroughs or individual excellence that led to globally envied improvements in student performance; it was an insistence on educational equity in resources and school capacity for all of Finland’s increasingly multicultural student body. That meant improving the system in place, not breaking it down into free-market chunks to be divvied up among campaign contributors who stand to gain the most from charter school experiments.

The church could play a greater role in responding to the crisis of education in America, were it allowed to; but secular forces suspicious of religion seem immovable, and the establishment of voucher systems that could relieve some of the pressure on public school systems seems ever more unlikely. Lay Catholics and church officials, all the same, are required to fulfill the church’s commitment to the common good. They have a responsibility to insist on an equitable and effective education for all of America’s children who, in public schools, will be taking first steps into what should be a lifetime of learning.

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C Walter Mattingly
6 years 3 months ago
This is a timely article. Our editors cite Finland's high student performance level contrasted with that of the US, going on to note that high tech has little to do with it, nor does individual student excellece. What does, however, have a great deal to do with it accords with what the Gates Foundation discovered: whereas class size has little impact on student results, the quality of the teacher has a great impact. In Finland, it is about as difficult to get into the post-graduate teacher training program as it is for a student to gain admission to a medical school in the US: in 2008 there were 6,600 applicants for 660 primary school training slots. The teachers are selected from the top 12% of all their fellow students by scores and academic performance. The teachers are an elite academic group, go through a severe winnowing out process, and are therefore respected as professionals.
In the US, public school teachers are drawn largely from the bottom half of students. In addition, Finnish teachers work about the same number of hours as US teachers, but make about 25% less than their US counterpart. So salaries are not a factor.
While graduate rates in US inner city parochial schools are substantially better, Finland does not have the "underclass," the poor and social ills, as the US does with their sharply higher failure to graduate rates in our public schools. It might serve well to compare our parochial schools with the Finnish schools.
Both have extensive religious/ethical education from 7 years all the way through 18 years of age. This likely provides social bonding and the discipline required to achieve. Both place less reliance, it seems, on standardized testing and have far less union influence that sometimes promotes teachers' and the union's interest at the expense of the students and the overall goals of the schools. And both US parochial and Finnish schools have relatively better teacher retention rates despite lower salaries than their US public school counterparts. In both cases, the input of the teachers in conjunction with the administration are the primary emphasis.
I personally wish America's editors were not so pessimistic about the prospect of help parochial schools can offer. Support for vouchers is growing even among Democrats such as Corey Booker and Michelle Rhee. 
The Cristo Rey experiment is a superb example; there are many others. I would hope America could see fit to become very active in the voucher movement, for the sake of the children and the long-term health of the country.
6 years 3 months ago
Thank you for this article.  A former high school teacher, a resident of and tax-payer in Chicago, I must strongly disagree with your conclusion that the strike was "civically irresponsible."  Public-sector unions are under immense attack.  We here in Chicago are very well aware of what has happened to the north in Wisconsin.  The Emmanuel administration is enamored with (and some would say economically beholden to) private, for-profit charter school reform, and has stacked the appointed-not elected-board of education with its advocates. There was-and even after the strike was resolved continued to be-a concerted, blatant effort to attack the teachers' union as greedy, lazy, incompetent, opposed to reform, and downright evil.  I wonder how much money the mayor spent on the most annoying television commercial in which his face appeared on my TV and he besmirched the union.  It ran incessantly last week.  A strike was the only serious and loud-enough action that Mayor Emmanuel and his profiteering board of ed members would understand.  It was necessary.  And it was effective.  The kids, and the teachers, and thus the public wins.  As the public, we are responsible for the just treatment of the teachers as our employees.  And of course we are responsible for the best possible education we can give our children, children way too often being brought up in the worst of conditions.  I participated in a march one day to show solidarity. The diversity of the marchers was an object lesson in civics, creativity, and good manners:  grade school kids, parents pushing carriages with infants, high school kids and high school bands, teachers of all ages and races, workers from other endangered unions.  I was moved to tears as I looked around during one particular call-and-response chant:  "Show me what democracy looks like!"  someone called out, insistently.  "THIS is what democracy looks like!" came the thunderous reply.  Indeed.  And thank God.  Students and teachers and the general public all learned something invaluable that week.  The strike as an unparalleled lesson in democracy, and as such was well worth any inconvenience it caused.  School, it should be remembered, is not just baby-sitting.
E.Patrick Mosman
6 years 3 months ago
?Who is to blame for the education crisis? To start the court decision that gave students rights that ended discipline in the schools and in the classroom and the end of dress codes both for students and teachers Next universities and colleges that churned out teachers with degrees who had little or no knowledge of basic subjects they would teach. Several examples;
-A young Miami U lecturer gave the incoming freshman class a general information quiz and was so disturbed by the lack of general knowledge that he shared the results with a reporter who wrote an article for a Miami newspaper. A few examples, a majority could not identify the President, did not know the number of States, did not know if Florida was on the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and the list went on and on. He was not tenured and was fired for embarrassing the University.
-1982 was the first year that  Florida required that college graduates with teaching degrees take an all purpose exam covering basic subjects English Math, History etc and more than 50 percent failed. This caused a mighty uproar in the teaching world with charges of racism and worse after the results were made public. The head of a private school in Miami gave the same test to his 8th  grade class and every student scored 100%.
Finally the education gurus who deemed that learning should be fun not hard and there went memorization, followed by those who deemed that 'self-esteem' is more important than correct answers and those who now deem testing as the problem. The end result has been a very large body of poorly educated or uneducated parents who are unable to help their children or are not involved in doing so.
A recent program on new math showed a classroom of students trying to solve 28 divided by seven. Teams were set up a different tables, pencils, papers, scissors, glue were provided and a inordinate amount of time was spent talking, giggling, drawing, cutting, pasting and questioning, more like romper room than a classroom. Of course my first eight years in the 1940s were spent in a school with only four classrooms, four nuns teaching eight grades with weekly quizzes and frequent spelling, geography, history and math bees. Written tests in all subjects were monthly and the Iowa tests were taken at the end of the year.We learned and were not harmed by testing and memorization.
And finally Money. Public service unions, including the teachers' unions, are major contributors to  politicians who,in turn, negotiate contracts with the unions. In some States public service union employees can retire after 30 years of service, many in their 50s,with a pension of 80% of their base pay and full health benefits for life for their family. They can also take a job at private or religious school without loss of pension or benefits.The pensions are not subject to State income tax in New York.

Patrick Veale
6 years 3 months ago
The level of education for a good 40% of American students is abismal.  I taught in Graduate School in the 1980's and had taught in Harlem as a substitue for two years during my Ph.D. studies.  Both the High School students and the Graduate students were completely unprepared.  I found the teachers in High School to be competent in general, but depressed.  In the classroom the worst students, those with absolutely no interest in education determined the climate in the room.  Try getting them out, you got lots of paper work and had your reasons turned over like angels on the head of a pin, and in the end , if successful, got a couple of new students just as bad as the one's you fired. Revolving door administrative solutions to keep as many students as possible on the rolls.  So I don't blame the teachers.  I do blame the neighborhood conditions and dysfuntional family life.  Let's face it.  The reproduction of society has not been the goal of married life for quite some time.  Poverty and our overall popular culture has eroded neighborhoods. It is very difficult for young people to grow up with a self-disciplined orientation to life in these circumstances.  No wonder 40% drop out.  I know I would, if I had to sit in a classroom with a few idiots destroying the environment, and live in fear of bullies most of the time.  Without major social, societal reform, I do not see any future for this population. As for nuns and priests running schools, i had them, and most were wonderful, and gave me a love of learning and reading, but where are they now?  Numerically I mean.  The nuns who have been so roundly criticized by the Vatican are doing a wonderful job, but they are no answer to the kind of problem that poverty represents in our society.
Mary Sweeney
6 years 3 months ago

It is also instructive to contrast the new salaries of the NFL referees - who referee... what 20 games max per year (each one lasting a few hours) - with that of teachers. After all, first things first... And apparently, according to the article, it was "the game" that shook things up. Exactly what will it take to shake things up in terms of the urgency of educational reform?

Robert O'Connell
6 years 3 months ago
Why politicize this article with the distracting nonsense that "A cynic may wonder if the real goal of such “reform” is not an improved education for America’s schoolchildren but the political takedown of a powerful unionized workforce and the opening of a vast new arena for corporate profit-making?" Before tagging that notion to Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at least get to know him well enough to spell his name correctly.  


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