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Chicago strike reveals a broken system

The Chicago Teachers Union agreed on Tuesday to end its strike, allowing 350,000 students to return to classes on Wednesday and ending a tense standoff. However, the contract still requires ratification by the union's 26,000 members. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.


CHICAGO – Now that the Chicago teachers strike has ended, it is inevitable that people will try to figure out who won and who lost. But more might be gained if we went beyond that.

What if more time were spent thinking about what students and the country gained from this strike, because it focused attention on the debate over teacher evaluations, the weight that is given to standardized tests and the growing demand for education reform?

Broken system
A lot has been said about the need to get rid of bad teachers and the union that protects them. The truth is union leaders will tell you they don’t like bad teachers, either. But the union would argue that it’s not their job to weed out bad teachers. Rather, they say, school leaders should do a better job identifying bad teachers and weeding them out.

In Chicago, according to a 2009 report by the New Teachers Project, 91 percent of teachers were rated “superior” or “excellent” by school principals. Out of the nearly 30,000 teachers in the city public school system, only a small fraction received an “unsatisfactory” rating. But with student achievement at such a low level, clearly something must be wrong with how the evaluations were being done.

So this is a good time to consider who’s responsible, in addition to teachers, for what happens in school. I spoke with several teachers on the picket line over the past few days who were concerned that they didn’t have books to start the school year. Why isn’t everyone up in arms about that? 

Other teachers told me that they were assigned to classrooms outside of their area of expertise. One woman on the picket line told me she had taught English last year but she was trained to be a gym teacher. “I just tried to help out where there was a need,” she said. 

Biggest losers of Chicago's teachers strike? The students, critic says

Does anyone really believe she is the best English teacher for Chicago kids?  

Should those students and that teacher be judged on how well she’s able to prepare them to take a standardized test?

And don’t think this is an isolated, one-of-a-kind situation.  It’s not.  You will find similar stories in schools all across this nation.

In Finland, where students far out perform American kids, they don’t take standardized tests at all. Students are measured by how well they do on their classroom work and drills.

There is a collective national will in Finland to educate all students, and there’s a plan to succeed. Finland starts by hiring the best and the brightest to teach. Finnish teachers are required to have a master’s degree and teachers come from the top 10 percent of college graduates. Compare that to the U.S., where 47 percent of America’s teachers come from the bottom third of their class, according to a 2010 McKinsey report.

Chicago teachers agree to end strike, classes to resume Wednesday

Big issue: poverty
Then there’s the issue of poverty and safety and how it affects teaching and learning.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to court this week seeking an injunction to force an end to the strike claiming, in part, the walkout was a threat to “public health and safety.”

As many as 87 percent of the public school children come from low-income families, according to figures from Chicago Public Schools.   

More than 90 percent of them qualify for the free or reduced breakfast and lunch program.  For many, school is where they go, not just for an education, but for food. 

It’s also where many children go to feel safe in a city stricken by far too much violence.

The teachers hit the picket line demanding money, a fair evaluation system and job security but, they also wanted more social workers in the schools to help them help children who have been traumatized living in broken homes and broken neighborhoods.

According to the Chicago Public Schools Employee Roster, there are 382 social workers in the school district that serves 350,000 students.  If my math is correct, that amounts to about one social worker for every 916 students. 

“That means social workers are doing paper work because they don’t have time to do much of anything else,” said Lorraine Forte of Catalyst Chicago, an independent newsmagazine dedicated to reporting on urban education.  

Education Nation: Get involved in our 2012 summit, Sept. 23-25

Not unique
Chicago’s school problems are not unique.  Poverty, crime and lack of resources affect schools all across the country.

Experts are quick to point out that none of these issues should be used as an excuse for failing to educate America’s children. Teachers, city leaders, policy makers and education reform advocates all agree that these factors also shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. And in fact, they aren’t – but real solutions need to be found.

Chicago has presented an opportunity for the nation to take a closer, more thoughtful look at a multitude of reasons why schools and test scores and graduation rates are lacking.  It might also inspire us to look at schools that are working to see if they could be replicated. 

That’s what we will be doing starting this Sunday when NBC launches its Third Annual Education Nation Summit.  But what’s wrong with America’s schools won’t be fixed if too much time is spent adding up winners and losers from one strike.

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