Commentator Ron Litke worries disputes with teachers will affect new school year

August 1, 2011

Ron Litke

Download Story
(Flickr/bethany8183)
Chicago Public Schools are gearing up for the new school year.

For many, reorganization at Chicago Public Schools is not just an internal issue: Every year parents wonder if the school their kids left at the start of the summer will be the same one students return to come fall. Writer Ron Litke is one of those parents. He's also a writer in Chicago and a frequent commentator for Eight Forty-Eight. He brought his thoughts on the state of education in Chicaogo:

Sitting at our recent Local School Council meeting, I could not have been more pleased; the preliminary ISAT scores were in, and they were good from nearly every angle. A pattern of growth good enough, in fact, for the principal to be visiting the White House this coming November to be honored by the federal Department of Education, along with only one other Chicago public school.

And test scores are up 4.3 percent in CPS overall, which the administration is positioning as merely desultory progress and saying more is needed – and a longer school day is an essential element to that progress.   As a public school parent, it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment, and in fact Mayor Emanuel’s unrelenting emphasis on improving the schools is cheered by every parent I know. The length of the Chicago public school day is an unequivocal embarrassment. It is, of course, another part of the increasingly depressing Daley legacy that Emanuel is trying to rebalance – perhaps the most awkward pas de deux we have ever seen in local politics.

To Emanuel, when he’s looking at the union situation throughout city government, it must look like a civil war is coming. And for public school parents, the fall is coming too soon, because we have no idea how the battle lines between the teachers union, and CPS administration, are being drawn. As one who watched a teacher strike from the vantage point of City Hall, I can see the teachers union president, Karen Lewis, is ready. 

“The shock doctrine is here. Shock and awe is here. And many of our members are paralyzed. And they don’t know which way to go. They know that it feels bad. It feels bad to be scapegoated for policies they did not create,“ Lewis said.

That’s a bit disingenuous on Ms. Lewis’s part. The teachers union may not have created the school day policy, but, at least at my kids’ school and many others,
teachers’ representatives are adamant against extending the day. And that’s just one proposal.

Teachers are indeed facing a tough time. Bill Gates and other wealthy philanthropists want to reevaluate their performance through corporate metrics. In Washington, D.C., more than 200 teachers were recently fired for poor performance, based significantly on a controversial evaluation system that uses classroom observations along with broad standards.

In Atlanta, test scores that were rising significantly for a decade have now been shown to be the result of cheating by the teachers – especially in schools with low-income minority students. The fortunately former superintendant may soon be talking with the FBI as part of a fraud investigation.

Back here in Chicago, the Tribune laid out data that showed only 37 percent of college students, who intend to be elementary schoolteachers, passed a recently revamped basic skills test in math, reading, writing and language arts.  Maybe we should actually be happy that more than a third of applicants did pass.  Like any other parent I want exceptional teachers in the schools. Is it too much to expect?

Public service is not an easy career, no matter where or how it is entered… unless, perhaps, you’re an alderman. But I have seen alderman actually working. Hard. And honestly. Even if your job is the result of patronage, it is reasonable for taxpayers to expect performance that justifies the salary and the benefits one is paid. These employees also have the right to expect dignity and respect for their work. I never saw people working harder than when I was in City Hall. Equivalently [what about another word here-this seems semi awkward], I never
saw some people who were actually supposed to be working. But that’s another story.

The profit of public service, however, is not in the bottom line, no matter how academics, policy wonks, or business associations try to measure it. Public service has an intrinsic benefit that is rarely talked about but is essential to success. It is a satisfaction of contributing to the common good. Of course it’s quixotic, but that’s why Don Quixote is such an endearing character: he believes in his purpose, no matter how crazy he seems.

The current weather may be fit only for lizards, but the fall is coming. And as the teachers and CPS administrators come to the table, perhaps they will somehow reconcile the greater good each professes to represent. Us parents may be busy  trying to contain and entertain our children for now; but come fall, we want to sustain some optimism for their future. Perhaps the teachers and CPS can see this as a teaching moment for all of us.

Music Button: Von Freeman & Frank Catalano, "You Talkin' To Me?!", from the CD You Talkin' To Me?!, (Delmark)