It’s interesting watching reactions to the strike of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU). Our society is so divorced from labor issues, most of the media is at a loss. In its pre-mature editorial on the strike, The New York Times, in very serious fashion, sides with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), spouting management’s argument. Yesterday, Ed Shultz on The Ed Show was force-feeding talking points to a nervous, hapless strike captain. The guy seemed to agree with Shultz, but didn’t seem to know exactly what to say. Shultz knew what he wanted out of the guy, but I think we’d all rather get things straight from the source.
The appropriate question, the question rarely asked, is do, teachers interests conflict with student interests? The fact is, much, much less than most people think. In many cases, the interests of students and teachers overlap. In others instances, the benefits to teachers are less direct, but tangible. In future posts, I’ll address the less direct benefits for students. For this post, however, I’ll focus on three negotiating issues in which teachers and students interests completely correspond: textbooks; class size; and air-conditioning.
The CTU has already successfully negotiated on text books: the CPS will provide new textbooks on the first day of school rather than six weeks into the year. It sounds kind of funny that teachers would have to negotiate for something that is clearly and directly beneficial to students. Why is this something that teachers are negotiating? Anti-unionists blindly assume that school administrators and municipal governments know and have at heart the best interests of students. If the CPS cares more for students more than teachers do, why do teachers need to negotiate for some something so simple as getting text books on time?
The CTU has also been negotiating for “smaller class sizes, more libraries, air-conditioned schools, and more social workers and counselors to address the increasing needs of students surrounded by violence.” Class size has been shown to have a positive effect on academic achievement. But it is costly because it requires more teachers. When the numbers are extremely high, it’s impossible to give the students individualized attention. It can also be difficult to correct work, meaning less is assigned. It’s hard to get solid numbers on class size in Chicago. Various, mostly conservative, news sources are reporting that student-teacher ratios are as low as 16 kids per teacher. However, “teachers have reported having as many as 42 students in one classroom.” The CPS website lists schools with student-teacher ratios as low as 16 to 1; it lists others at 20 to 1. These figures shouldn’t be taken literally, however. My own school system’s ratio, for example, is 14 to 1, but for in the last 20 years, I have had at least one class of 30 kids. Last year, I had a class of 32 kids. These ratios are averages, and we don’t even know who is being counted as a student or teacher. In other words, student-teacher ratios should not be confused with class size. My guess is that the student-teacher ratio of CPS schools exaggerates class size by 20-40%. The CPS can stick a teacher in huge classes, and she will do her best, but it’s not the optimum learning environment for students.
I was just talking with one of my colleagues who used to teach in Springfield’s best public high school. What he found the most disturbing and draining about working there was the fact that he was often the only adult many students could talk to. There was no one at home. Chicago’s students have at least as many problems as Springfield’s kids, many of them just aren’t mentally or emotionally available for learning. They lack role models. They are subjected to gangs. In Chicago, there’s a murder every day of the year. (There is nothing like the death of a student, violent or otherwise, to upset learning). Their families and friends face all the ills associated with poverty. Yet we expect them to come to school as ready to learn as their suburban counterparts. It’s wonderful that so many of these kids do learn and graduate from high school. But many others need more support that a regular education can provide. That’s why the CTU is negotiating for social workers and counselors. For the kids.
Many schools in the CPS district have students through the summer when temperatures reach 95 degrees. Recall one of this summer’s heat waves and picture 30 or 35 kids in a classroom without air conditioning. I can tell you from experience that students become very unproductive when the temperature rises to 90 degrees. We manage here in the New England because we don’t have many days that approach 98 degrees during the school year. The CPS has some year-round schools, but refuses to negotiate a schedule for putting air-conditioning buildings. The air-conditioning will certainly benefit teachers, but it’s a benefit that is shared by many more students.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike. One hundred years after the last Progressive Era, attitudes toward teachers, education, unions, workers, and democracy are all being exposed. The issues I’ve discussed here related to teacher negotiations that have a direct bearing on student learning, which is supposed to be reflected in student test scores, and upon which teachers are supposed to be evaluated.