The Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time: Lessons from Chicago
The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.
First, the teachers’ strike demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors.
Yet from my perspective from the front lines as a teacher and now as a professor of history and education, I can be critical of unions. I am, moreover, sympathetic to the sentiment contained in the tweet of the preeminent NYU education professor and sociologist, Pedro Noguera, who stated, “Support Chicago teachers but end the strike now!” The unions protect all teachers, which includes an unacceptable amount of mediocre ones. The policy of automatic tenure often promotes a degree of inertia at the mid-point of a teacher’s career. To be sure, reforms are needed to the tenure system that has been central to the teachers’ contracts. Yet the idea of linking student test scores to teachers’ job security is extremely misguided. There is both an art and science to teaching and any evaluation system needs to account for that complexity. Evaluations should have a range of criteria: administrative classroom observation, student feedback, parent’s commentary, and student test scores. In short, the Chicago teachers are right to strike when one element of a proposed contract includes up to 40 percent of their job evaluations to be tied to testing scores.
This brings us to students and parents in Chicago who are largely work-class African-American and Latino. Often it’s the voices of students who get lost in the political machinations in what amounts to a story of the Rahm Emmanuel vs. Karen Lewis and the union. The word crisis is used so much to describe the state of public education that most have become inured to its use. Unfortunately, it is an appropriate word because it is true. There is system-wide poor attendance, overcrowding, low standardized test scores, high dropout rates, which are compounded by parent dissatisfaction with the state of public education. Charter schools remedy the issue for a tiny percentage of highly motivated parents and students, but do not address the problems for the vast majority of students who remain in the public system. These students and parents must be invested deeply in creating a system where they can be successful.
Solving educational inequality remains the great unfinished civil rights struggle of our time. In the years since Brown v. Board of Education education decision of 1954, schools still remain separate and profoundly unequal. The public school system, however, is the one vehicle of uplift that is guaranteed too all students, regardless of background. It remains a means of social mobility for many poor, working class, and those in communities of color. The students and parents interests are largely aligned with the union. The broken system needs a massive and sustained intervention to fix it.