About a week ago, I had initially been excited when Chicago’s downtown was aglow with a flush of red T-shirts as the district’s teachers went on strike again for the first time in 25 years. Finally, it had seemed that public education’s core issues had been launched onto the national stage. Questions pertaining to teacher evaluations and compensation, the importance of standardized tests, and the privatization of schools were now at stake as the media centered on the showdown between union president Karen Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yet, unsurprisingly, now that tensions have abated and Chicago’s 350,000 students are back in the classrooms, I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact that this strike seemed to have amounted to nothing more than political cabaret. In the end, what has resulted are nothing more than tepid concessions that might appease teachers and the mayor, but still do very little for Chicago’s students, and most certainly do not adequately address the key issues facing education today.
So what were the results? Chiefly, the new contract, which still needs to be ratified over the next few weeks by the union’s 26,000 members, potentially gives teachers a roughly 17% pay raise over the next four years, thankfully reduces the amount that a new teacher evaluation system will depend on students’ standardized test results, promotes some better hiring practices for current and laid-off teachers, and gives Rahm Emanuel his coveted extended school day. These results are cute at best, but don’t warrant the symbolic status that this strike was given in the nation’s educational consciousness.
On the local level, we must still contend with the fact that around one-fifth of the students in Chicago’s top four public high schools are students that come from private schools, even though they only comprise about 12% of the testing pool. We must still deal with the fact that public schools in urban environments are still notoriously underfunded. Additionally, though it is wise that teacher evaluations won’t be so dependent on standardized test scores, we have yet to establish a system that effectively deals with mediocre teachers in a way that doesn’t just deride them or lay them off. Pay raises and longer school days will not effectively solve the intricate and complex problems plaguing Chicago Public Schools. The strike should have been a real opportunity to at least start this conversation in a meaningful way. Instead, it dissolved into dubious compromises that have satiated some of the most innocuous concerns that were brought to the table in the first place.
Of course, the strike has some merits. Its relative prominence speaks volumes about the contemporary relevancy of labor unions. And it was inspiring to see teachers rebut against the vitriolic and demonizing rhetoric that had spurred against them in the wake of anti-union, pro-charter documentaries like Waiting for Superman. The compromise also underscores the fact that successful education reform can only result from true collaboration between our political powers. But more movements like this will be needed if we are to truly make any headway. Everyone from the teachers, parents, students, academics, and policymakers must continue to work together in order to insure the real progress is made in this country for our Black and Brown students.
I am proud of the teachers for standing up against corporate and political elites. But in terms of the students, this strike was not a victory by any means. It has solved virtually none of the problems they face on a daily basis. The benefit to the students remains virtually lost amongst all the noise, and we are still left asking ourselves–what was really accomplished?