The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the Purpose of Cities: Part I

As I write this, the Chicago Teachers’ Union appears to be close to negotiating a settlement of its strike against the city’s school system and, by extension, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (who has tried and failed to win an injunction to end the strike after losing soundly in the court of public opinion). Most accounts suggest that the teachers are likely to come out winners, though what they’ll win and why it matters are subject to some debate, which I’ll cover in Part II of this post.

The teachers’ strength is not coming from the treatment of their cause in the national media, where pundits and reporters have frequently misrepresented the issues at stake. This misrepresentation applies to the contemporary politics of the strike and, what concerns me most, what it says about big historical changes in how the American public and neoliberal political elites understand cities and their role and function in our society. To get at the big historical questions, though, we need to set the table a bit by exploring the “soft” and “hard” sides of neoliberal political arguments about the strike. The soft side tends to avoid punitive impulses and anti-teacher bloodlust, but nonetheless places teachers at the center of educational dysfunction in Chicago and America, and asserts that teachers’ foot-dragging is slowing a set of reforms that promise to fix everything (see links below for a list of readings that explain why these reforms are puffery).

Nick Kristof in the New York Times employs some pretzel logic to express the soft side of the neoliberal argument, leading with the sensible claim that the poor performance of Chicago’s schoolchildren is mostly due to poverty and inequality:

In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states.

See, he’s not blaming the teachers, honest! Once Kristof has put his non-teacher-blaming bona fides on the table, though, he gets down to the more important work of asserting the kind of  neoliberal boilerplate about education reform and poverty that, I’ve noted before, acknowledges selective parts of the problem (school dysfunction, family stress, deindustrialized and disinvested communities) to blunt consideration of changing a political-economic system that in its fundamental design produces and geographically concentrates poverty. Kristof tips his hand here:

The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.

Hey, anybody see where that Red Queen went? If we started talking poverty, why can’t we finish talking poverty? Tell you what, says Kristof: that poverty card’s really tough to follow, so why don’t you teachers post the first bet while the rest of us get our thinking caps on and polish our eyeglasses?

Still, some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved. There are steps we can take that would make some difference, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying some of them — yet the union is resisting.

Get back to work, teacher! We’ll find that Red Queen next time. Say, teacher, spot me a fin for some pencils? My hedge fund’s a little short this quarter….

Washington Post editorialist Charles Lane illustrates what it looks like to go all-in on the hard side of neoliberalism, setting the bar for teacher-bashing and credulous acceptance of corporate school reform claims–charters are the answer, testing measures teacher quality, long-serving career teachers are unproductive, what we need is constant evaluation and more metrics— that are largely bogus (h/t Corey Robin for this post and the Ravitch link roundup). Lane went further in race-baiting the teachers right off the bat, accusing them of depriving

85 percent of the roughly 400,000 public school students [who] are either African American or Latino

of their very futures (that racial equity interests might be served by allowing teaching to support middle-class professionals in black, Latino, and other minority communities is unmentionable–see Part II for more on that). If Kristof is naive about the ability of education to lift students out of poverty and the ability of educators to overcome the effects of poverty on children, Lane simply declares that these factors are irrelevant:

 Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis warns that “this is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator,” and she griped in a statement about the impact “poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control” can have on student performance.

I believe this is what a certain former president meant by “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Most people finding themselves making arguments from authority on the good name of George W. Bush might rethink their rhetorical strategy. But not Lane. He doubles down on the Shock and Awe strategy (a winner by any performance-based metric, rubric, deliverable, or Six-Sigma ninjitsu):

The real question is how things got to the point where the mayor isn’t legally free to drop one of his F-bombs on the Chicago Teachers Union and hang out a Help Wanted sign for new teachers — pay, benefits and work rules to be set by elected officials, in accordance with the public interest, period.

As Corey Robin notes, you can’t explain this kind of ideological idiocy and special pleading (teachers want too much and do too little, so we’ll fix the schools by firing all of them and paying their replacements what we think they deserve, since education is unique among all professions in that monetary rewards retard performance–and see here for an illustration of how stupid this really is) without understanding the general contempt for teachers in American culture.

Oh, did I mention that a standardized test prep and for-profit education corporation pays Lane’s salary? That probably has nothing to do with his published opinions….

To be fair, I’ve held up Lane for more than his share of ridicule here. He certainly deserves it, but he’s not alone. Unfortunately, his viewpoint represents a remarkable and historically significant shift in consensus about what our cities and urban institutions are supposed to do, and for whom.  That’ll be the subject of Part II later this week.

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3 comments on “The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the Purpose of Cities: Part I

  1. deatmorgan says:

    Reblogged this on letmeteachyourkidsplease and commented:
    I think that with the economy in its current state and the Presidential election just around the corner, it is extremely important to be aware of the issues that are happening within the realm of education.

  2. […] Part I, I discussed two poles of debate in the national media, which, despite differences in tone and […]

  3. […] runoff. Garcia’s support from the teachers’ union is a big factor, but as I wrote here and here at the height of the teachers’ strike in 2012, the bigger problem with Rahm’s […]

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