Monday, September 10, 2012

It's Time To Reward The Critical Thinkers

Chicago public school teachers have voted to go on strike. Nearly 90 percent of all the teachers, not just 90 percent of those who voted, but 90 percent of all teachers in the district voted "yes." This was to overcome the 75 percent strike threshold put in place by the mayor, state legislature, and corporate education reformers last year to make teacher strikes "impossible" in Chicago. Ninety percent voted to put their lives and careers on the line for this, doing the impossible.

The centerpiece in the conflict are working hours and pay. The unelected Chicago School Board, with the support of the same mayor, President Obama's former chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, backed by the well-funded corporate education lobbying group Stand For Children, have their PR machine in high gear, going with the general meme that teachers are lazy, greedy, selfish thugs. The union is responding in kind. This is a preview of the stand-off we can expect to see more of in the coming years. Even me, a blogger located all the way out here in Seattle, who has often taken the side of unions and teachers, has been contacted several times in the past few days by interested parties asking me to publicly weigh in.

I don't want to get into arguing the details here, but as it's playing out in the media right now, the mayor is framing his side of the argument as a 2 percent pay raise for 10 percent more work. The union is accepting the longer school days, but asking for a 24 percent pay increase.  Doesn't it seem obvious that the two sides have staked out extreme negotiating positions? The mayor's offer is pathetic, the union's counter-offer looks like an over-reach. Normal humans, then, in a non-toxic environment will work their way toward some middle point, right? That's the path of fairness.

But we have a toxic environment. And it's in the midst of this nasty brew that we are trying to educate children. Really? It's hard for me to not notice that this new age of ugliness coincides with the introduction of Wall Street types into the mix: these are people who've demonstrated in the past couple decades that they will do anything to turn a buck (or a billion) and school budgets represent a big pot of gold. But admittedly that's my bias, one I've repeatedly made clear here on this blog which is why certain interests want me to chime in. My point here isn't to get into a debate over Chicago, but rather to point out that both sides are intentionally making this into a simplistic black and white, us vs. them, chose-your-side kind of proposition. The teachers have overwhelmingly staked out their side, the entrenched political and corporate interests theirs, so ultimately, they're both targeting parents, attempting to pit them against one another in the cage-match of public opinion. 

Don't let them do it! This issue is far, far more nuanced than greedy unions versus greedy corporate-types. We do live in tough economic times requiring tough choices. We do need to improve our educational outcomes. And while we all agree that a teacher's job is vitally important, most people don't understand how hard, complex, and emotionally demanding the job is (statistically teaching has the highest turnover rate of any profession: the average tenure being less than 5 years). This is not only about greed: in fact, I believe that most people on both sides have children and education at heart, even if we personally think they are misguided. It is admittedly unfair when I paint all "reformers" as bad guys, just as it's unfair to portray all teachers as lazy. And speaking for myself in this particular stand-off, I think both sides are agreeing upon the wrong thing: there is no connection between longer school days and longer school years and better education. Nothing is ever as simple as the stories spun by PR departments. If we need anything else from our public education it is citizens with critical thinking skills, not simply knee-jerk partisan ones. Yet if all you do is read the press reports, which is where this conflict is now being played out, then you'll feel you have to choose sides.

(And all that said, just because "both sides do it," that doesn't mean it's symmetrical. I have no problem, for instance, in identifying Rahm Emmanuel as a bad actor in this: he has a long history of catering to corporate interests and creating toxic environments everywhere he goes. The pretend journalists who play the "both sides do it" game don't helping matters.)

The right answer is in the middle somewhere. That's what we need to be demanding: good faith negotiation. We need to make it clear that the first side to move toward the middle, if even a little, is who we will applaud. And then turn to the other side and demand a step from them. Being immovable is not an option. Bare-knuckled politics is bad for children and it's bad for education. And frankly, it's bad for America. It's time to reward the critical thinkers.

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tchrpegn said...

The issues in the CTU strike are about so much more than pay or longer hours. Class size, comprehensive curriculum, classroom conditions, school closings, teacher evaluation; all of the harm of corporate-based reform is on the line here. Portraying this as mainly about wages/hours is misleading. LOVE your blog, but couldn't let that stand. :)

Teacher Tom said...

Absolutely! Understood tchrpegn!