Chicago Teachers Strike: Who Is Responsible For Student Learning?

21 Sep

After more than a week on the picket line, Chicago teachers headed back to the classroom. According to the Huffington Post Chicago teachers will receive a 7 percent pay raise over three years with additional raises for experience and education; will only have 30 percent of their yearly evaluation based on student performance versus the previous 50 percent mandated; secured recall rights for laid-off teachers and negotiated provisions for better classroom conditions. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office was proud to report that “the new school day would be longer for many students” and under the new agreement students “would receive 2 ½ more years of instruction” by graduation. Though the vote was to end the strike leaving the contract itself to be ratified, it appears the dust is settling on this disturbing moment in public education.

While teachers are ecstatic to return to the classroom conceding that the current contract is a step in the right direction, in my mind, this strike boils to the surface an even more important discussion we should all have about our educational system: Who should be held accountable for student learning? Using the strike as a barometer for sentiments nationwide, it’s clear that too many teachers want to relinquish their responsibility to teach children who live in poverty and/or are lacking proficiency in critical subjects. They are sadly prepared to fight the point even to the detriment of their students.

There is overwhelming research that finds the relationship between teacher and student to be central to students’ achievement. Yes, parents must also do more to support their children’s educational attainment. While it is reasonably well understood that living in poverty undermines learning, teachers can’t be allowed to shirk their responsibility, even when early learning has been compromised. We need teachers who believe in children’s immutable capacity to learn no matter their zip code and who will not run from the challenges that may come with teaching children who aren’t as prepared to learn as we’d like them to be. The high expectations for every child often called for by reformers are predicated on this belief. Without it, as James Brown once said, “We’re just talking loud and saying nothing.”

What seems to be less understood is that school systems need to do more to support and invest in teachers’ learning and growth so they are better prepared to teach all children, especially those living in poverty. They must also invest in creating new partnerships with social service, youth development, and health organizations that can support the myriad of needs poor students face. The village necessary to rear and educate our children is needed now more than ever. Poor students who are underperforming can’t succeed if they attend schools that are islands unto themselves cut off from critical resources and the communities in which they reside. If we change our schools, we change our neighborhoods.

At the heart of the teachers strike we saw teachers fight to be appreciated and at the same time we saw the inherent conflict between teachers’ interests and those of our students. Teaching is a noble profession that deserves our highest regard, a fair wage, and continuous investment to ensure these professionals continue to be their best. In exchange, we need teachers to step up to their responsibility to teach armed with an unwavering belief that if they don’t give up, neither will their students.

Karen Lewis, Chicago teacher’s union president, said, “Teacher’s can’t be held responsible for learning when kids don’t have grocery stores in their neighborhoods.” In other words, Ms. Lewis and the teachers she represent believe that when children are battling much bigger problems at home, like their family’s socio-economic circumstances, they should be given a pass from their responsibility for student learning.

Well … I say, “Get real!

Bottom line, we need teachers in our nation’s schools who believe all children can learn and who are willing to assume responsibility for student learning or they need to find something else to do! It is of the highest honor to hold the promise of a life in your hands and have the responsibility for guiding it toward its purpose. For all its nobility, teaching isn’t an easy job. To be “called” to teach is to be called to serve. Serving mandates dedication, humility and passion for which it is reasonable to expect a fair wage and the opportunity to continue to learn. A teacher’s role in a young person’s life can be the difference between cook and Executive Chef: parolee and President.


11 Responses to “Chicago Teachers Strike: Who Is Responsible For Student Learning?”

  1. James Wood MD September 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Teachers see life in their communities thru the pupils they instruct. They know how important they are to the lives of their children as they spend much more time than most parents do with the child. It is critical that we do not take them for granted and the strike made us all listen.
    They know what they are charged to do.
    I hope that now they will feel empowered to do it!
    We are all watching.

    • cultureeffect September 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

      Teaching is a noble profession that deserves more respect and honor that is currently bestowed upon it. We are all watching and waiting for change.

  2. Jason Triche September 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    I truly appreciate you for taking time to write about the recent strike. However, there are parts of the article that I totally disagree with and feel compelled to write about before other readers make an opinion formed from one angle. You wrote, “it’s clear that too many teachers want to relinquish their responsibility to teach children who live in poverty and/or are lacking proficiency in critical subjects.” I’m going to doubt that is true for the vast majority of people who go into education, particularly in major cities and impoverished towns. I work for a not for profit in Chicago that deals directly with schools and have been a teacher in Atlanta, GA. I believe that the system that the past and current mayors of Chicago have used to do things such as appoint the school board rather than use a democratic system to elect officials that represent the various ideals of people is why the teachers felt it necessary to strike – to be heard. Also, the accountability measures that are proposed by so called reformers can lead to the adverse effects we saw in Atlanta, where the entire school system was investigated and reformed because a culture a cheating to get recognition and financial bonuses based on student test scores formed at the encouragement of administrators. I think Ms. Lewis’ statement regarding grocery stores isn’t about teachers not working, but how the mayor and others that represent communities that are willing to come down on teachers need to reform overall landscape of our neighborhoods along with schools, because school is a bridge in learning something new, practicing and articulating it. The child still needs to feel secure in their home environment to practice such academic related ideas. On another note, the board hasn’t been paying into the teacher’s pension fund, even though the teachers have it automatically extracted from their check. Besides, if the high level administrators are going to make final decisions about what teachers are prepared, what schools they are closing, etc., then they should also be prepared to foster proper, consistent education for the teachers, administer a well designed and practical curriculum for students, and then be fired when schools fail. After all, the teacher did not hire himself and did not structure their college curriculum. If their evaluations were good, then on paper they are doing their job. The teacher is given a curriculum map and the instructional manuals by the district – no matter if they are at PhD level or not, they didn’t pick those books out, set the budget or create curriculum standards. IT IS NOT FAIR TO CRITICIZE TEACHERS ALONE FOR DEMANDING FAIRNESS IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY WHEN THE BOARD AND POLITICIANS ARE THE ONES WHO PUT A LOT OF THE FAILING POLICIES IN PLACE.

    • cultureeffect September 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      I’m not in the blame game. There’s enough to go around to be sure and our doing so doesn’t solve the problem. I attempted to make three points, perhaps not very well – 1.Teachers need to take responsibility for teaching all of their students, regardless of the students’ SES; 2.Teachers need special training, and schools need to ally with outside agencies and resources; 3.Teaching is a noble profession that deserves respect and fair compensation. The unfortunate reality is that often teacher and student interests. I’m hopeful we’ll eliminate educational inequities that now undermine the promise of our children and our nation.

  3. Courtland Milloy September 21, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    This is a great commentary, Ms LeGrand. I was listening to NPR this morning and heard the same points being made about the importance of teachers. It is bipartisan recognition that either we improve the teaching corps and build successful schools–or we fail as a nation. Keep up the good work.

    Courtland Milloy
    Washington Post

    • cultureeffect September 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

      There are high performing schools we can learn from and great effort is being made to improve the craft of teaching, especially among new teachers.

  4. Lifelonglearner September 21, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Teaching is, itself, an act of learning. Endowing the system with accountability from all who hold any authority in the life of a child is the very heart of the matter. Polemics of poverty and professionalism pervade the problem of underachieving institutions within an affluent society where sports stadiums receive greater detailed attention and resourcing than students or teachers. Learning from the teacher complaints, the students’ needs and the parental predicaments requires a transcendent perspective that is unlikely in an election year, especially in Chicago! Where in the world are the voices of students and parents in all of this? At the margins when they should have been central…on a global scale of educational excellence, the U.S. is fast becoming the child left behind.

  5. Jewel September 23, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    You can hardly ignore or underestimate the profound role that parental support plays in a child’s education more than you do in this article. In so doing, you continue to perpetuate a conversation that side steps the central issue.

    Few people directly address the failure of parents in the poor rearing of problem children. Why? Because parents predominate the population of adults involved in school debates and all parents know that parenting is hard. The attack turns to teachers because the teachers can make a greater difference than anyone else–EXCEPT the parents, and only the teachers can speak to how difficult their job really is. Whittle that population to just teachers in low performing schools, and you have…
    well, we’ve come full circle, right? That is how we arrive at Culture Effect accusing teachers in low performing schools of ‘not wanting to work’ because they went on strike for…
    1. A 7% raise over 5 years–1.4% a year, who deserves such lavish bonuses!
    2. The recall of laid off teachers–more lazy fiends wanting to get rich by teaching.
    3. Improved workplace conditions– Smaller class sizes, like fewer than 40 plus kids in one class, and the right to write their own lesson plans.
    4. Clarity about upcoming school closures; because it is unfathomable that on the same side of the city where there are over 40 kids in one class, another school is half empty. Are school closures the solution? How much bigger are these classrooms going to get?

    We can compare high performing schools to low performing schools, and successful learners to failing students, and the trend will reveal a profound inequity in the value of education to the parents, and the parents’ willingness to support the teachers, the schools, and the child’s learning. This is the difference between families where students are learning and families where students are not.

    Why should anyone be held more accountable for his child’s success than the parent himself? It defies explanation.

    Do you think students in high performing schools in Chicago share a classroom with 39, or more, other students? You know why, too. It is unconscionable, and the parents would yank their kids out of that school.
    I have been on these curriculum committees where one team of four writes curriculum for scores of other teachers. That team of top teachers from top performing schools, often admittedly, cannot fathom the needs of teachers in these underperforming schools. (Which is why even satisfied teachers joined the strike; they’re a union, and a union is about solidarity.) Ultimately, these uniform teaching tools do not address vastly different deficits–in terms of preparation and resources.

    So, teachers striked, in large part, for the right to determine what their kids need and the means to provide it. Those who continue to reduce this matter to an issue of pay–a whopping percent and four tenths a year–illustrate our great social failure in caring more about that which can be quantified and monetized than the quality and character of our human value.

    I have been wondering for years, a curiosity that piques when you see a child beaten to death outside of a turn-around school on a viral Youtube clip, why the hell weren’t the parents protesting? These children came from their genes. Why the hell should the teacher care more than the parent? Yet, often, the teachers do. So why are we down on the teachers? Where is real talk about parenting–not spanking, not breastfeeding until he’s six–about helping your kid with homework, and family science projects, and quiet reading time? –about respecting yourself enough to learn how to do these things, if you can’t, for the well being of the child you made?

    I have worked with kindergarden children who cannot spell their own names, not because their names are hard to spell, but because no one bothered to teach her. I have gotten kids ready for school–during homeroom. I have fed them my lunch. I know that my after school detention is after school care for lots of parents, and summer school is the closest thing baby is ever going to get to summer camp. I had a mother explain to me that the reason her fourteen year old 8th grader was going right back on suspension after weeks of suspension was because he didn’t have a fresh hair cut; he always acts up when his hair isn’t cut.
    Factor that into your article. Factor that into your teaching evaluation. Or do you really believe that the influence of parents can be summed up in one sentence? I’m sure you cannot believe that not talking about it will improve parenting for the better.

    • cultureeffect September 23, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more that parents play a critical role in the educational attainment of their children. Research is clear that the involvement of parents makes a significant difference for students and the school. In this article I was making 3 points:
      1. Teachers need to take responsibility for teaching all of their students, regardless of the students’ SES;
      2. Teachers need special training, and schools need to ally with outside agencies and resources;
      3. Teaching is a noble profession that deserves respect and fair compensation.

      • Jewel September 24, 2012 at 1:07 am #

        I want to thank you for your willingness to engage in this exchange with me. I am enjoying this conversation with you despite my furious opposition to the position you stake in your article. You have my utmost respect and appreciation. 🙂

        I suppose the point that I did not communicate effectively is that plank one of your argument is hinged upon evidence that you cannot recover because of the undermining influence of uninvolved parents.

        Teachers cannot parent their students; they can try; they DO try, and the sacrifice is time spent educating other students.

        Because one cannot prove that teachers take responsibility for teaching all students, regardless of SES, it is easy to conclude that teachers do not. However, it is impossible to measure a teacher’s effort by test scores, or state wide standards, or any other standardized algorithm because too many factors determine those academic outcomes. How can a teacher prove her efforts to someone whose never seen her teach or met her students?

        No special training, no community based organization, no intervention is going to serve a child as well as a supportive family, and none will serve to reverse poor or neglectful parenting for wide swaths of children.

        Asking more commitment from teachers is not the ask that will produce real results. It’s a bandaid on a weeping wound; such is the unique and irreplicable nature of the relationship between the child and his family.

        So, to answer the question posed by the title of your article–parents are the primary people responsible for their children’s education, not Rahm Emmanuel and not the CTU.

        I hope that I make this situation sound hopeless because until parents start to step up and do more–despite their SES– it is; the evidence of that is borne out in our present reality.

        Thank you, again. You are very kind for engaging in this exchange. Thank you for your article, your insight, and your attention to my humble opinion. You have touched a nerve–a hallmark of ‘radically inspired, seriously educated’ journalism. 🙂

  6. cultureeffect September 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I did not intend in what I wrote to suggest that parents do not play a key role. They are as you write absolutely central to their child’s educational success. Regrettably, not all parents are prepared to play this critical role and this leaves too many children unprepared to learn. Teachers who are tasked to teach such children can respond by saying “I can’t be held responsible for teaching such children” (as the Chicago Teacher’s Union rep said) or they can respond by saying I accept my responsibility to teach all children and will do my best. This in the end, I think is a reasonable expectation. A teacher’s belief in a child’s capacity to learn, even one that’s not been afforded a great start, can make a big difference in how that child may see his or her own potential. Knowing that many children arrive at school with varying levels of preparedness, our schools need to invest more in teachers to help them meet this challenge, align themselves with partners who can support the myriad needs unprepared and poor children have, and all us can do a better job of supporting teachers who are doing the most important and hardest job I can imagine. At the same time, we need to do a better job of delaying parenting among those least prepared to parent and assisting more parents in creating a culture of learning in their homes. There is a great deal to be done on many fronts to meet our educational challenges, including connecting adults to work that allow them to better care for their families and rebuild their communities — the list and the road is long.

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