“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.” ― Jean Piaget
Chicago public school teachers are taking a collective deep breath and preparing for what may become their greatest challenge of all, saving public education in the city. While the corporate-owned Chicago media has focused on pay issues, the length of school days and the strike authorization vote, the media consistently ignores how public education is under relentless attack by corporate “reformers” who use their wealth and power to starve public education of funds, silence its advocates, sabotage its improvement and pursue privatization of schools.
One only has to enter the realm of Chicago corporate school reform to see what a grim and cheerless world it can be. Rows of mainly working class children are crowded into cramped classrooms doing hours of repetitive drills to prepare them for hours more of hi-stakes standardized testing.
Many of the children are deprived of art, music, and physical education. They can be housed in poorly maintained deteriorating buildings with falling plaster, balky heating systems, broken windows and leaky roofs. Their teachers, many of them excellent veteran educators, try to hide their anxiety as they worry about being replaced by cheaper inexperienced nonunion labor.
The parents will organize sit-ins and Occupy-style encampments, their faces anxious about the possibility of arrest as they press for building repairs, libraries, creative activities for their kids and the assurance that their neighborhood school will still be there in the fall.
Neighborhood public schools are deliberately starved for funding and resources which go to the proliferation of “turnaround” schools and charters, many of which perform no better and sometimes worse than their predecessors.
Corporate school reform is elitist and anti-democratic
Chicago corporate school reform is a world of educational scarcity for the many and educational plenty for the few, where social class and race count heavily. Here and there exist beautiful schools gleaming with the latest in educational technology and with catalogs of mind challenging programs. But to enter them requires passing through many obstacles and competing with numerous other families for coveted seats. Some have compared it with applying to Ivy League universities.
Highly motivated savvy working class parents can get their kids into this world of educational plenty with a lot of luck and perseverance, but children cannot choose their parents and luck is fickle.
All of this is overseen by powerful corporations, non-profits and unresponsive politicians. Before this latest wave of corporate “reform”, the Chicago schools were a morass of political corruption and racial segregation. Now there is even less public oversight than ever as the school privatization juggernaut continues, led by powerful families like the Gates, Pritzker and Walton empires.
Perhaps these dynasties have taken to heart research showing that parental income is one of the best predictors of school success, so why even bother wasting valuable resources on the low income population?
Perhaps it is better to simply push the poor into smaller and smaller areas of the city through gentrification of impoverished working class neighborhoods, which goes hand in hand with the dis-investment in neighborhood schools. Better yet, why not push them out of the city altogether, a pattern in many European urban areas?
Raising working class incomes would require a massive change in our repressive labor laws and public investment on a scale not seen since the heyday of the New Deal, neither of which are very appealing to the wealthy dynasties who are the political clout behind corporate school reform.
Hi-stakes testing with its rote learning, scripted curricula and forced memorization is a threat to democracy itself which requires skeptical, well informed citizens who can research complex public issues and make rational decisions. The mega-corporations behind this movement are organized in a topdown totalitarian manner and use their wealth to buy influence in politics. Nurturing democracy among working class young people is not high on their priority list.
Corporate school reform is a very large pot of gold for big business
Charter school companies, online education firms, textbook publishers, curriculum developers, consultants of all types, lobbying firms, public relations shops and others are rushing in, seeing a very large pot of gold at the end of the taxpayer rainbow.
Like the huge military contractors such as Boeing or Lockheed, they hope to profit off of crisis, and transform the nature of society itself, much like Naomi Klein describes in her book Disaster Capitalism. For the military contractors it was the bonanza of the permanent war economy. For the corporate school reformers, it’s a society where the public citizen is transformed into the unquestioning private consumer whose “freedom of choice” is confined to what is offered by society’s business elite as the social inequalities of American society continue to grow.
What education writer Jonathan Kozol once called America’s “savage inequalities” are now a gaping chasm. That chasm reaches deep into the classroom. Educators from as far back as Plato and Confucius understood the importance of joy in learning. The joy of learning is strictly rationed by corporate school reform when hi-stakes testing takes precedence and rote teaching to the test substitutes for the critical thinking and exploration that constitutes real education. The worst abuses of hi-stakes testing take place in low income working class communities, consistent with the elitism of the corporate school reformers. They would never tolerate that inflicted on their own children.
Corporate school reform is not the only answer
The corporate school reformers would have us believe that their privatization schemes are the only alternative to the racially segregated, politically corrupted Chicago school system inherited from the old Democratic Party political machine. They are wrong. There is an alternative and it is busy being born in Chicago right now. You may find a summary of its goals in the free booklet The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve (SCSD).
Within the SCSD report you will find a vision for the Chicago schools that makes the joy of teaching and learning a reality. It starts with smaller classes so that learning becomes a more personalized individual experience that alternates with group endeavors. Students and teachers need both individual and group experiences to succeed.
“A well-rounded, full curriculum is an essential part of the education all of our children deserve. Physical activity, appreciating and creating art or music, learning a new language, learning how things work by creating science experiments, solving mathematics problems with multiple approaches, reading and analyzing fiction and nonfiction books—all of these and more contribute to the development of a student who knows how to learn and how to think.”--- from the SCSD report
The SCSD vision would promote the arts as they have been seriously undervalued by corporate school reform. The arts promote creativity, imagination and self discipline, all of which spill over into other subject areas. Physicist Albert Einstein played the violin. Author J.R.R. Tolkien drew and painted. Astronaut Mae Jemison danced. Actor Hedy Lamarr was an inventor. Labor leader John L. Lewis was an actor who managed a theater. We often talk admiringly of the well rounded individual. We should be educating children to become those individuals.
The ancient Greeks knew the value of physical education and promoted the idea of the strong mind within a strong body. Periods of physical activity not only help to keep the body healthy, they also sharpen the mind when students go on to other learning experiences. Many Chicago schools lack even the most basic playground and PE equipment. Physical education should be a requirement for all Chicago students. This should also include health and nutritional education through such student projects as community gardens, scientific experiments and sociological investigation.
Recent research on how multilingualism rewires the brain for more intellectual complexity only proves what language teachers have known intuitively for years. Why shouldn’t children have English proficiency as well as proficiency in at least one other world language as the SCSD proposes? Multilingualism is simply a given in many parts of the world. Chicago is a city of many languages. That should be seen as a gift to our educational system and not a burden.
According to the SCSD report, 160 Chicago schools lack libraries. This is at time when the city government is cutting back on neighborhood libraries. Today’s students live in a world that is awash in information swirling within a mass of misinformation and outright disinformation. Learning how to navigate that means students need access to books, periodicals and the latest computer technology. But they also need guidance from trained librarians and teachers. A school without a library or one that lacks trained personnel, is major impediment to a student’s education. How can students possibly become independent learners without a library?
The savage inequalities of class, race and gender create a host of social problems that can defeat the efforts of Chicago students to stay focused on education. Domestic abuse, street violence, hunger, homelessness, poor health, ugly media misrepresentations and psychological damage from discrimination demand that support services be available to help students heal and move forward with their lives.
Yet Chicago schools are woefully short of counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. There are often underlying social causes for student distress the professionals cannot change, but they can relieve the worst symptoms and help bolster student emotional strength to endure. Sometimes just knowing someone cares enough to listen intelligently is enough. If the Chicago schools were to follow the recommendations of the professional organizations, they would need to double and even triple the numbers of these critical support staff.
Chicago’s long history of racial apartheid lies at the core of the crisis
Chicago has a racially segregated school system. According to the SCSD:
“The governing bodies and corporate interests that steer policy in our public schools have further enabled segregation, creating a two-tier education system based on racial and class status. Standardized testing is the primary ‘policy lever’ responsible for apartheid in Chicago schools. It has come to define the policies, operation, curricula, pedagogy, and survival of urban schools serving low-income students.”
Standardized testing is used as a weapon against people of color who live in low income neighborhoods. Test scores tend to be lower because of the social conditions of poverty, so this becomes an excuse to attack the neighborhood schools, fire all the teachers, ignore community groups, ignore parent organizations, and ignore the wishes of the students.
The SCSD proposes developing curricula and teaching methods that improve the situation, instead of having resources deliberately withheld from these schools to insure their “failure”. Not coincidently, some of these low income neighborhoods are slated for gentrification so that standardized tests also become a tool for ethnic and social cleansing.
“Only after disinvesting in neighborhood schools and shutting them down does CPS approach the community and offer a ‘choice’ of charters or other schools outside the immediate community. Often these schools offer their students no better environment than the school CPS closed. Charters and other private management organizations are subject to the same (and due to the profits involved often more heightened) pressures to emphasize standardized test performance, which illuminates the false nature of this choice.” from the SCSD report
Decades of corporate school reform have been a failure
In her definitive study School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000, Dorothy Shipps reflects on the failure of corporate school reform to address the disparities in race and class that are the underlying causes of Chicago’s educational crisis. She concludes that only a determined coalition of parents and teachers can reform the schools and that this will require teacher union participation in the process.
If parental income is the single most accurate predictor of school success, then it makes perfect sense for teachers to be part of the labor movement because raising the incomes of working class America is exactly what a labor movement is supposed to do.
Did I mention that The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve was published by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), so reviled by Mayor Emanuel and the business elite? And that the new progressive leadership of the CTU is now working to form a citywide parent-teacher coalition to defend and improve public education?
The CTU prepares to march in a community parade
Although the Board of Education refuses to bargain with the CTU over most of the critical classroom issues presented in The Schools Chicago's Children Deserve, the CTU is taking those ideas directly to the public in a well organized grassroots campaign. It is already having an effect. Groups are organizing around the city to support the teachers in their struggle for smaller classes, improved curricula, equalization of resources, an end to racial discrimination and an end to hi-stakes testing abuse.
Critics will point to the low income parents who have put their children into charter or ‘turnaround” schools as evidence that corporate school reform is successful and popular.
But as Pauline Lipman points out in her recent study of the Chicago schools, The New Political Economy of Urban Education, these parents do not necessarily support school privatization or even charters. Some of them feel that under the present conditions, they have no choice but to find the best school possible. There is resentment of the many years of racial segregation and neglect of low income neighborhood schools by city leaders, but also a recognition that corporate school reform is elitist and destructive of communities. There are parents who send their children to charters, but still strongly support the idea of public education.
Critics will also ask,”Where’s the money?” Illinois school funding is vastly unequal because it is funded mostly through local property taxes, which give an advantage to wealthy school districts. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in Chicago is supposed to encourage investment in low income neighborhoods, but it mostly goes to downtown development. There is even uncollected Chicago TIF money which could go to education. Money that is being diverted toward privatization could be re-channeled toward public education where it belongs.
Illinois has a very regressive tax structure which hits the working class the hardest, while wealthy people get off lightly. Large corporations are bestowed with subsidies and tax breaks while schools crumble. Given the importance of the finance industry in Illinois, a “Robin Hood Tax” on speculation as well as higher capital gains taxes could also bring in more money. Other Illinois school districts which are hurting financially would benefit from these measures.
A future for Chicago public schools?
“When you wage war on the public schools, you're attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You're not a conservative, you're a vandal.” ― Garrison Keillor
On May 23, 2012 thousands of CTU members poured into the streets of downtown Chicago in a joyful demonstration of their determination and pride. There are reports that the union had an unofficial agreement with the cops that they could march pretty much anywhere. The police have their own grievances with Mayor Emanuel and were in solidarity with the teachers.
The CTU marches past Chicago's financial center on May 23, 2012
The CTU took a strike authorization vote which passed overwhelmingly with 98% of those voting saying, "Yes!". Across the city, public workers, letter carriers, transit workers, cabbies, hospital workers and others facing downsizing and wage cuts talked among themselves and asked, “Why aren’t we doing what the teachers are doing?” A poll taken by the Chicago Tribune revealed that more Chicago residents trust the union’s efforts at improving public education over those of Mayor Emanuel. CTU negotiators noted a much warmer atmosphere in the talks with the Board of Education after the march and even the normally macho Mayor Emanuel seemed less belligerent.
Chicago is now Ground Zero in the defense of public education. This was made clear at a recent national labor conference held in Chicago where union teachers from across the nation emphatically made that point. As one longtime Chicago teacher activist told me recently,”It's going to be a very challenging year, since we are up against some of the ‘smartest,’ most powerful and wealthy people on earth, and they do not plan to ‘lose.’"
But then neither do we. For big city public education, another world is possible.
A Future for Teachers Unions, But Only with a Fight by James Cersonsky
School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000 by Dorothy Shipps
Neoliberal Education Restructuring by Pauline Lipman
How can the Chicago Teachers Union win? by Lee Sustar
Test-based Teacher Evaluation Earns an F, Again* by P.L. Thomas
Poll shows support for longer school day: But voters generally side with teachers union over Emanuel by Joel Hood and Rick Pearson
Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education,1929–1970, by John F. Lyons
The 1979 Financial Crisis: brought to CPS by some of the same people still running the schools by John Kugler, June 2012 Substance