The School Reform Showdown in the Chicago Arne Duncan Left Behind

The teachers strike in Obama's hometown is an uncomfortable referendum on his education agenda

By Julianne Hing Sep 14, 2012

It’s not mere coincidence that the school reform showdown of the year, which has become an uncomfortable referendum on President Obama’s education policy agenda, is happening in his adopted hometown.

Rather, it’s an arc come full circle in the raging national debate on school reform policies. Chicago Public Schools, the testing ground for decades of market-based reform schemes, is also the district where Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as CPS CEO, cut his teeth as an test-driven education reformer, and it’s the district now run by Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chicago Public Schools also happens to be home to a progressive caucus of the local teachers union who’ve led 26,000 teachers in the nation’s third largest district to stand up to Emanuel, and those very many years of reforms, which they say have wreaked havoc on the city’s schools, teachers and students.

By Thursday, negotiators began spreading word of the hopeful end of the weeklong strike. But the fight has been a long time coming, and the issues which gave rise to the strike in the first place will not be resolved with the strike alone. 

What’s happening in Chicago is rather unlike most strikes, which typically hinge on conflicts over compensation and benefits. Both sides have repeatedly said that those are not the issues  district and union negotiators are getting snagged on. The city’s teachers have decided to take on, instead, Chicago’s unrelenting market-driven school reform policies, which have targeted the city’s black and Latino students, and in the process, made teacher’s work lives untenable. 

Chicago’s teachers have called for more student support services and smaller class sizes and protection from the market-driven policies which are taking over Chicago schools, and which are spreading across the country under the direction of Arne Duncan, who’s brought to the federal level the policies he implemented while he headed Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009.

President Obama is now walking a fine line; the teachers strike is a bad look for his administration. Obama is reliant on labor’s support to win re-election, yet many teachers and their unions despise his education policies. Duncan’s short, empty statement this week reflected that tension. "I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table — as teachers and school districts have done all over the country — to reach a solution that puts kids first," Duncan said in a statement. 

When the GOP vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, criticized striking teachers and announced his support for Emanuel this week, it was reflective of just how twisted the education reform debate’s become; championing market-based reforms while vilifying public school teachers is a bipartisan issue these days. 

And that’s where Karen Lewis and the new progressive leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union have centered their fight. "This fight is not about Karen Lewis," Lewis said on Sunday night announcing the strike, the NY Times reported. "Let’s be clear — this fight is for the very soul of public education, not just only Chicago but everywhere."

In order to understand how Chicago arrived at this moment, it’s worth a look back at Chicago’s central role in the national school reform discourse, and Arne Duncan’s legacy in the city schools he used to run. To hear community activists tell it, the fight in Chicago today is 15 years in the making, going all the way back to 1995 when then Mayor Richard Daley was handed control over the city’s schools. With that power Daley oversaw the beginning of an era of targeting schools with low test scores for closure. When Duncan came on board as Chicago Public Schools’ CEO in 2001, he carried forward Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan to shut down 60 failing schools and replace them with 100 new ones. Over the course of his tenure Duncan employed a series of measures besides the complete shuttering of a school, the replacement of a failing neighborhood school with a charter-run school, or the total replacement of a school’s teaching staff.

Shutting down a poorly performing factory, for instance, may work for a large corporation whose bottom line is based on cranking out widgets. But schools are not factories, Jitu Brown, an education organizer at Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago argues, they’re public institutions and essential anchors of communities. School closures have wreaked havoc on Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, where struggling schools tend to be located. Students get sent to schools across town, which often aren’t given extra resources to help integrate the new students. Just the commute can be a risk; students cross dangerous neighborhood boundaries on a daily basis.

As it is, more than 80 percent of CPS students qualify for free school lunches. The measure is a widely-used proxy for gauging poverty levels. More than 85 percent of CPS students are black or Latino, and school closures are concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods.

"It’s hard for students, when they keep seeing these transitions it seems like they’re not good enough for this one school and they’re not good enough for this other school, and then there’s another high school and they’re not good enough and so it’s like that," said Darius Anderson, a CPS high school junior who’s been transferred four times in just the last handful of years while his neighborhood schools have gotten shut down and he’s been bounced around the district.

School closures have a destabilizing effect on communities, critics argue. And researchers have found that Chicago students didn’t see much of an academic boost by school closures either. "Ten years after Renaissance 2010 what do we see? We see that schools are not improving, but schools that are struggling most are still in the worst shape," said Kevin Kumashiro, a professor of ethnic studies and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There are fewer resources, less retention of teachers, more violence in them as students are crossing gang lines."

"There’s no accountability," Brown said. "This is what we mean by destabilization. And this is happening In neighborhoods where you need good schools more than anything." Talk of a hundred more school closures under Emanuel had teachers up in arms this week. On Wednesday, district officials didn’t deny that more school closures are planned, but Emanuel said he’s not yet sure how many are slated for closure the AP reported.

"Chicago Public Schools is becoming used schools salesmen," Brown said. "They’re gutting neighborhood schools and selling them to private operators."

Test scores are not just being used to decide whether or not a school’s doors should be kept open. They’re also increasingly being used to measure how proficient a teacher is, and used to inform personnel decisions like whether a teacher should be fired or not. In March Kumashiro and 87 other researchers and academics penned Emanuel a letter (PDF), urging him to put the brakes on a plan to fast-track the implementation of value-added measures, a teacher evaluation system which gauges teacher quality by measuring computer-projected student test score growth against student’s actual gains. Testing experts say standardized test scores are extremely blunt tools for measuring how much students learn and how proficient a teacher is, and looking too far into such numbers is a risky move with serious real-life consequences on teachers and students. Kumashiro has misgivings about not just the scope of how test scores are being used–under the plan Emanuel’s looking to implement, these scores would come to account for 40 percent of a teacher’s job evaluation–he’s concerned about their validity.

"Do test scores tell us what students learn and how well teachers teach or are scores to standardized tests correlated to other factors, like race or cultural background, previous educational experiences before you even walked into that teacher’s classroom, a student’s social and economic capital?" Kumashiro said.

"What’s great about the strike is it has shown the national debate in stark terms," said Bill Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They can say, of course, teachers should be evaluated. But one click closer and the question is: But should they be evaluated by their students’ test scores?"

These test-driven, market-based policies now form the foundation of Duncan’s federal school reform agenda, and became the central flashpoint in this week’s strike. On the campaign trail in 2008 President Obama won easy points for criticizing the cumbersome and unpopular No Child Left Behind of his predecessor, yet when he became president, Duncan, as secretary of education, kicked off Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion federal competitive grants program that traded money for promises that states would go even further than NCLB toward tying high stakes to test scores. In a bid for the money, cash-strapped and reform-frenzied states rewrote their education laws to drop the caps on charter schools; allow students from struggling neighborhood schools to transfer out of them and tie educators’ job security to student test scores. States were rewarded for promising to reproduce, on a state level, the same plan Duncan implemented in Chicago.

"For carrying forward a reform that has failed Duncan got promoted," Brown said. "There has got to be some accountability."

And that’s how it comes back to Chicago.

"That’s why so many people are watching," said Kumashiro. "I think teachers are waiting to see: if we were to organize and push back in the way Chicago is doing, would it make some difference?"