The Strike—and the Stakes

I can’t get enough of the Chicago teachers’ union strike. Leave it to the Windy City to provide educators and education pundits with drama worthy of a reality TV series: interesting protagonists, things to fight over, edge-of-your-seat drama.

We thought it would be over in time to open schools Monday morning. But a 3 a.m. email blast from Whitney Tilson had the bad news:

In an astonishing development, the Chicago Teachers Union today voted to continue its strike until at least the middle of this coming week.

Tilson said his “first thought” was sympathy for the parents and children. But his second thought?

…that the outrageous, selfish, greedy behavior by the union is an absolute godsend to we reformers. Parents in Chicago – and everyone else who’s paying attention across the country – are so mad that they can’t see straight – and it’s now 100% directed at the union. This will benefit us in Chicago and nationally for years to come.

Will it?

By coincidence, while I was reading Tilson’s email, NPR’s Morning Edition was broadcasting a feature about the University of Virginia’s Bob Pianta and his work on teacher training—specifically his finding, according to NPR’s Alix Spiegel, that the better the teacher, the higher his or her expectation for student learning. The higher the expectation, the more students learn. As the headline of Laura Logerfo’s 2006 Education Next paper put it, “teachers who think they should make a difference…do!” And how do you get them to think they should—or even could? Teach them how to be good teachers. At a deeper level, as my sister-in-law would say, “Nothin’ to it but to do it.” Or, as Chris Cerf once told me, in explaining that it’s sometimes necessary to tell people what to do, “sometimes exhortation is not enough.” The UVA’s Pianta puts it this way, “It’s really tough for anybody to police their own beliefs.” Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century philosopher of the mind (and who, it should be noted, was baptized “Emanuel”), believed that we don’t choose a lifestyle based on beliefs, we come upon our beliefs based on our lifestyles. Thus, practice not only makes perfect, it actually changes our hard-to-police belief system. “To change beliefs,” said NPR’s Spiegel this morning, “you have to change behavior.”

What does all this have to do with Chicago?

It is the narrative playing out there, the events on the ground, which may indeed change our beliefs about education “for years to come.” The number of hours in a school day and the number of days in a school year will dramatically change the behavior of the system; as will giving principals the option of hiring teachers they want to hire; as will evaluating teachers based on student performance. And these practices will, indeed, change our beliefs about what is possible.

The reason we are so transfixed by Chicago is that the deal being hammered out now will be, as Tilson suggests, a game-changer. The contract will change behavior, which will, eventually, change beliefs.

Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union gets it. The other Emanuel, Mayor Rahm, gets it. In the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Conversation,” David Feith gives the mayor a harder time than David Brooks did in his New York Times column on Friday. Feith thinks that Emanuel, “his generation’s most noted political pugilist,” has gone soft:

What Mr. Emanuel doesn’t note [in his defense of the current offers on the table] is the bankrupt status quo: 99.7% of Chicago teachers are rated satisfactory while the graduation rate is just 60%, only 20% of eighth-graders are proficient in reading and less than 8% of 11th-graders are college-ready on state tests. Fixing such a system is a moral imperative, and Chicago’s mayor might have encouraged parents and taxpayers to see it that way.

Emanuel disputes that take and gives a good defense of what he and his education reform team have done—admittedly, mostly out of public sight—these last sixteen months (he assumed office in May of 2011). It’s the political realist Emanuel, negotiating. The teacher-evaluation system, which Kathleen Porter-Magee says is at the heart of the strike, “was actually over a year developed in collaboration with 2,000 teachers,” Emanuel tells Feith, “so they have their thumbprints all over the design of this. . . . I can’t think of anything more respectful to the profession.”

With news Monday that there’s a glitch in negotiations, the pugilist Emanuel may have to reassert himself: He has promised to take the CTU to court for conducting an illegal strike. Great drama. But as an editor of mine once told me (as he slashed away at a paragraph), “the best dramatic sentence must have an idea in it.” You might call this the counter-Kant.

What is the idea at the heart of the Chicago strike? Well, that’s what all the chattering is about—trying to figure it out, as it’s happening. I would suggest that part of the significance of the strike is the historic challenge it poses to Democrats like Emanuel, a close associate of Barack Obama. And this is why Whitney Tilson—a co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, which “aims to return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America’s public education systems,” according to its website—is right to trumpet the significance of the fight. Writes Tilson:

[S]o many teachers unions in cities and states all over the country are so disconnected from reality, so arrogant, and so used to bullying everyone that they do self-destructive things like this regularly, greatly diminishing whatever public support they might have. It may well be the greatest asset we reformers have.

The irony, of course, is that Tilson sounds a lot like Douglas Feith, who sees Emanuel’s duty here as a “moral imperative,” predicting that the only outcome of this labor dispute that will matter is whether Chicago gets better schools. “His report card will depend on student results.”

If this is a strange-bedfellow’s moment, it’s a welcome one for education reformers. And if our policymakers can continue to see student outcomes as the most important imperative, then we educators may show the way to true bi-partisanship.

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.

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