Teachers in Chicago School Strike Deserve Respect

The situation in Chicago public schools is terrible, but teachers can't be blamed for factors they can't control.

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Members of the Chicago Teachers Union distribute strike signage.

Imagine you are in mid-level management at a huge company, one which employs many at your level. You are given certain goals to accomplish, profit margins to meet, and are told that your own salary—indeed, your very continued employment—depends on the performance of your group. That seems more or less fair, until you are told that you will have no control at all over the employees whose performance will dictate your worth to the company. Some will be deeply troubled, some are so poor they don't have breakfast before coming to work. Some will have emotional or mental impairments that will make it difficult for them to do the tasks at hand. Some may not show up to work at all—but that will be considered your fault. If you were a more compelling manager, the employee would come to work, even if there was no threat to the employee of being fired.

Not so appealing? OK, imagine you're a doctor. You care about people, and while you think you deserve to be compensated for your work and education, you are driven very much by the desire to help people lead longer and healthier lives. But your compensation will depend on how healthy your patients are—and that includes the ones with terminal illnesses and the ones who continue to smoke and eat fast food six times a day despite your exhortations to the contrary.

[See Photos of Chicago Teachers On Strike.]

That doesn't sound like a great gig either? Then do not become a public school teacher, because those are the conditions in which they are expected to work. And that's on top of the physical dangers some face at work, the helicopter parents and the neglectful parents, and schools which have no air conditioning in the hot months and windows that are unopenable for security reasons.

Yet, the Chicago Public Schools teachers are getting hammered all the way around for going on strike to protest some of those conditions. They rightly balk at the idea that their performances as teachers should be tied greatly to the test scores of their students—students who in many cases do not arrive at school ready to learn. Some of the classroom conditions make it even harder to teach—rooms that are suffocatingly hot; class sizes, in some cases, of 42 students. But teachers, at the bottom of the blame-chain, are made the scapegoats for children who, for myriad reasons, are not learning as they should.

You have those who simply blame unions. If that were the problem, then children schooled in non-union areas would be performing better than kids in unionized districts. But they're not. Others will rail against the salaries teachers make (and the "average" salary is not remotely what starting teachers make). But salary itself is not the issue in the Chicago teachers' strike. And what is often forgotten, in the resentment of public sector salaries, is that it has been unions that set the labor standards for all of us. The weekend? The 40-hour workweek? It was unions that got those established as a general standard. Cutting salaries for public-sector workers would indeed ease the pressure on government budgets, but it also lower the standard for the workforce as a whole. If public salaries go down, private sector compensation will follow.

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Things are bad in Chicago. Half the students do not graduate, and that's awful. And 80 percent are living in poverty, which is even more awful. Teachers can't be expected to solve that problem, which surely has an impact on kids' learning. There's a reason kids at private schools and charter schools do better on tests than children in big public school districts: chances are, they had a bowl of cereal that morning.

It's not that teachers, like anyone else, shouldn't be accountable. But how rational is it to judge their competence according to factors beyond their control? In the Buffalo city schools, teachers rejected the idea that they should be held responsible for the test scores of those students who missed 6-8 weeks of class every year. They pointed out, correctly, that you can't teach an empty seat. The state's response? They said if the teachers were better, kids would come to class. One can't imagine what school taught them that unrealistic lesson. No one wants bad teachers in schools. Good teachers, especially, do not want bad teachers in schools. But demonizing people who work under conditions many of us would reject is not the answer.

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Perhaps the strike was not the right thing to do; it is hard for any of us who has not been involved in the negotiations to make that judgment. It's disruptive, and affects not just the students, but parents who must find day care for the kids. Still, it's unfair to assume that the burden and blame should be entirely on those in the classroom, with officials piously claiming that teachers are punishing the kids. Does the other side bear no responsibility? And why is it that the city is allowed to be motivated by budgets and numbers, but teachers aren't allowed to be motivated by anything other than the grand cause of education? Newspaper reporters, who routinely work many hours of unpaid overtime out of commitment to the story, understand this. Many of us went through contract negotiations in which owners thought it was perfectly acceptable to be driven by money, but we were not supposed to care about money; we were supposed to be driven by The Cause.

Sit down and make a list of the half-dozen people who have inspired you in your life, encouraged you when it seemed no one else was. Chances are, at least one of those names belongs to a teacher. Yes, they need to be held to reasonable standards of accountability. But they also deserve our respect.

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