Lessons from the Chicago Teachers Strike: An unpublished letter from Paula Parnagian

To the Editor of the Standard Times:

What are the lessons to be learned from the hard-fought, recently settled Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike?

Both sides are striving to put forward the answer to that question, and the message that is heard most clearly above the fray could powerfully influence future education reform battles around the country.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel contended the work stoppage was “unnecessary and a strike of choice.” CTU President Karen Lewis argued that teachers should not be browbeaten by teacher evaluations based significantly on students’ standardized test scores—what CTU Board member Jay Rehak referred to as “data-driven madness”—when so many factors influence those scores.

During the strike, combatants from management and the teachers union stated their positions in television interviews on CNN, as hundreds of thousands of students were locked out of their classrooms. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted that the impasse could have “reverberations nationally.” She added, “No one wants a strike, (but) teachers are on strike because they are trying to get the tools they need to help educate kids and they are trying to get the resources that kids need.”

Conventional wisdom, as espoused by the Chicago schools’ administration and often echoed by the media, says that teachers walked out because of money, layoff/recall policies, and a longer school day. They charge that those on the picket line simply wanted to protect themselves and promote their own special interests to the detriment of the kids.

“There is only so much money in the system,” said Chicago School Board President David Vitale, “and there are are only so many things we can do that are available to us that we actually believe will not hurt the education agenda—that we think is best for our children.”

Among those agenda items is the power to unilaterally grant autonomy to school principals in assembling school staffs.

“Giving the autonomy, unfettering them to make the best decisions for the schools,” said Chicago School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz, “puts them on the front lines of school reform… and we have to give them that autonomy to hire the best, qualified teachers.”

But that autonomy is being questioned by the CTU when thousands of teachers are placed in recall pools because of  rampant school closings in which the entire staff is laid off.

“Our school system [like others] around the country [has] a lot of schools,” said Jay Rehak of CTU, “that I think are unfairly labeled as failures when the determination [is made on the basis] of standardized test scores that do not take into consideration economic factors that actually impact those schools. And it’s really a fundamental issue, the idea that somehow standardized test scores can drive all decision-making.

Even more difficult to rescue from the barrage of administrative misinformation are the attempts by teachers to advocate for quality education. Thoughtful, comprehensive feedback in the form of an effective evaluation instrument is a bargaining point worth fighting for, according to CTU President Lewis.

“Too much of the new [teacher] evaluations will be based upon [students’] standardized test scores which is no way to evaluate teacher effectiveness at all, because there are too many factors beyond our control which will affect how our students perform on these standardized tests,” she said.

Ms. Lewis decried the low priority placed on social issues such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness and hunger – issues she said “no one wants to talk about” but which are all relevant to students’ ability to learn.

However, her assertion that “no one wants to talk” about these issues may, in fact, be wrong. The willingness of the Chicago Teachers Union to take on unfair practices and to strike for policies that will meet students’ needs is organized labor at its best. It has fueled a debate that has been a long time coming. Chicago teachers have forced management to the collective bargaining table, exactly where the issue of quality education belongs. Teacher unions across the land should follow suit, elevate the discussion, and create the reverberations nationwide that will improve learning for all students.

Sincerely yours,

Paula Parnagian,

Board Member and Former President of Citizens for Public Schools