Rahm Emanual, as he is spoken of in some circles, may be the biggest asshole in this city and the worse Mayor Chicago has ever had. I don’t know because I don’t know him. I’m sure he’s made his share of mistakes and told his share of political lies. Be mad at him for that if you want to. Don’t vote for him in the next Mayoral election if you don’t want to but stop acting like he broke the Chicago public School system. He didn’t. It was broke before he was born. And, like so many school systems across the United States, Chicago’s system is staying broke because too many people at all levels are more invested in protecting the brokenness than they are in doing what needs to be done to fix it.
Systemically, CPS has been a disorganized mess for decades in spite of the fact that its classrooms are and always has been graced by some highly qualified, extremely talented, deeply committed people who are not only teachers but also educators. For years, CPS had no formal professional development requirements for every teacher in the system. Consequently a teacher could teach for years with no education beyond undergraduate school. The primary motivation for an advance degree, for far too many teachers, was getting to the next pay lane. Some of these teachers got degrees in guidance and counseling so they could “guide” and “counsel” the same students they didn’t want to be bothered with in the classroom.
In far too many instances, becoming a principal or another school administrator had more to do with who you knew rather than what you knew. Sometimes horrible teachers became even worse principals. Just as with teachers, there were principals and other school administrators who were highly qualified, extremely talented, deeply committed people who understood what it means to educate students within the context of their race, culture and community. But CPS didn’t seem to care about leadership ability and if it did, principals were too often treated like the oldest child left with the responsibility of caring for the younger children but without the necessary authority. So, Rahm Emanual and company shouldn’t be wounded because some Union members, some teachers, parents and a portion of the general public are suspicious of their willingness to act in the best interest of children, especially Black children.
Historically, the Chicago Teachers’ Union has protected teachers at the expense of children. If teachers knew nothing else, they knew CTU had their backs. This includes teachers who didn’t know how to teach, teachers who didn’t want to teach and teachers of all colors who showed blatant disregard for students. For years, principals who dared to give a teacher a “bad evaluation,” had to jump through so many of the Union’s justification hoops, some felt it wasn’t worth the trouble. If a principal “did this” to the wrong teacher, her or his job might be in jeopardy. If after a few years a persistent principal succeeded in getting “rid” of a low or in some cases, a no performing teacher, the Union in conjunction with CPS, employed the Roman Catholic Church strategy and simply transferred that teacher to another school. So Karen Lewis and company shouldn’t be wounded because some members of the CPS leadership team, some Union members, teachers, parents and a portion of the general public are suspicious of its “children come first” mantra.
CPS on one side! CTU on the other side! Based on the reputations they’ve earned over the years, there’s no reason for anyone to trust either of them to do what’s best for those in the middle: The students. In spite of this, people are asking and attempting to answer critical questions such as, what is a good school? What is a good education? What does a “good education” mean for Black students who are attending schools that are failing to educate them and then failing them because they’re not educated? These questions mean things are changing. But, in order for change efforts to pay off, we have to stop pretending.
Lets’ stop pretending like Rahm Emanual’s decision to close 54 schools came after he consult the Ouija Board. Conversations about attendance, student achievement, the physical conditions of these schools and teacher performance have been happening for years. CEO Byrd-Bennett simply did what the previous administration didn’t have the guts to do. Did she get everything 100% right? I don’t know but here’s the deal, the person who has the gut to make the hard decisions will also make the most meaningful mistakes and as a result, create the greatest opportunity for meaningful change. CEO Bennett might mess around and turn CPS into what Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) calls a learning organization.
Let’s stop pretending like black students in low-performing school were doing just fine academically until all those white teachers who are scared of black kids were sent to replace “good” black teachers who knew how to teach black kids. That’s not true. There are from what I hear, white teachers who are deathly afraid of black kids and expect very little from them. They need to be gone immediately but so do the black teachers who are not afraid of black kids but have equally low expectations. Highly qualified, extremely talented, deeply committed people, who are not only teachers but also educators, come in all colors. And, kids don’t care about a teacher’s color when they’re respected as individuals and as learners.
The cover story in the December 1991 U.S. News & World Report: The Exodus – Many parents view the public schools as ineffective and dangerous, and are exploring other options states, “The nation’s faith in its public school is fading fast. A steady stream of reports from the nation’s classrooms about drugs, violence, bureaucratic bloat and ill-educated students is eroding public confidence in American tradition of “common” schooling that reaches back to the early 19th century.” That was 23 years ago. So, Anti-charter school people need to stop pretending like public schools would be just fine were it not for these educational interlopers. The anti-public school people need to stop pretending like all charter schools are superior to public schools when we all know some of them are just bad public schools by another name. Charter schools aren’t intended to be the only solution. They are an option. When we have a public school, that has only 55% of its students performing at grade level, after six years of turn around efforts, those parents and students need an option because as sung by the Rolling Stones, “Time waits for no one, no favor has he.”
Because the Rolling Stone’s lyric applies to individuals and organizations, CPS and CTU need to work together to create a system where academic excellence is the norm. However a major challenge is that current school improvement efforts are pushing against an organizational culture that is as rooted as a fifty year old Oak tree. Organizational culture is an invisible but powerful force that dictates, among other things, workplace values, attitudes toward work, and assumptions about the work. The OPF/CTU culture has fostered assumptions about teachers and teachings that are difficult to change. These include: (1) Anyone can be a teacher. (2) A teacher never has to worry about being laid off (3) A teacher only works nine months out of a year. (4) This is my classroom. These are old deeply embedded assumptions that factor into what it means to be a teacher. For some teachers, their professional esteem might be tied more closely to these assumptions than to student success. Proposed changes such as length of the school day, year-round school and teacher performance and evaluation are meeting with resistance partly because teachers (not all of them of course) are feeling as if that to which they’re entitled is being taken away.
So, What to do? There’s no single or easy answer. After all, we’re talking about a culture that has nurtured these assumptions for generation after generation of teachers. But to start, we can stop pretending. CTU can stop pretending like everything suggested or implemented by CPS is laced with racism and is therefore intended to rob Black students of educational opportunities or put them in harms ways or slap Black parents and the Black community in the face. This isn’t to suggest that CTU doesn’t need to be concerns with racist policies that influence the distributions of resources, curriculum content and student outcomes. It doesn’t mean CTU needs to rubber stamp proposed changes that will surely impact teachers professionally and personally. Nor does it mean CTU’s “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” philosophy is completely flawed. It does mean CTU needs to meet CEO Byrd-Bennett and her team, at least half way, because without teachers, there’s no chance of changing people minds, fixing the system and beginning the process of re-creating the culture.
American Skips School: Why we talk so much about Education and do so little? This question was posed on the cover of Harper’s Magazine in November 1993. The author, Benjamin R. Barber identified issues that threatened our children’s education: aging buildings, budget battles, length of the school year, teacher’s pay, professional respect, violence, school dropout, prison for young black males, gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, etc. – that was nearly 21 years ago. The bad news is these are still threats. The good news, at least in Chicago is we’re not just talking a lot about education, we’re also doing more than just a little. People are having tough conversations and making even tougher decisions. Teachers are participating in professional development opportunities that enable them to prepare children for the world, as it will be when they come of age rather than the world as it was and is now. Principals are facilitating the development of learning environments that are student, teacher, parent and community friendly. And more and more black kids are engaged in educational experiences that are designed for students who are expected to learn, achieved academic excellence and succeed in life. This is progress. To build upon it, we have to stop name-calling. We have to stop taking sides. We have to stop being against someone rather than being for something. We have to stop pretending something is worse than it is or better than it can possibly be just because we’re more interested in being right than in sharing responsibility for what’s wrong. We have to stop this unless we’re just pretending to care about the kids.