Several good friends of mine work as Chicago Public School teachers, and as the strike continues this week, I can’t help but point out it seems like Chicago’s great at coughing up money for Olympic bids, NATO summits, and TIFF slush funds, but pay a public school teacher for the extra time she’s being asked to work? There’s just no money in the budget! Times are hard!
Yet more importantly Chicago’s situation speaks to the systemic failure of American education, the bipartisan de-revolution, which is totally obvious, empirically proven, and taboo to speak of.
From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top, there has been consensus that we need to introduce innovation into education, that if schools are failing, it's the fault of the educators, and that we should introduce reforms such as merit pay to make sure teachers don’t suck. Charter schools, Chicago is told, are the answer.
Now take the example of my friend Jenna (not her real name), who teaches at a Chicago public elementary school where she has 32 kids in a class. Another teacher in her school has 40 students, yet the school board is still thinking of eliminating a teaching position because the school is three kids short of its enrollment goal, at which point, a month into school, they’ll have to reorganize every classroom with even larger class sizes. Jenna is a general ed teacher who spends basically the entire day overseeing her class. There’s no librarian at this school, no music teacher, and only a part-time art teacher, a part-time social worker, and a part-time nurse. Jenna has a kid with severe allergies, to whom she’s expected to administer an epi pen even though she’s not certified for this.
“This is a huge liability,” she said. “People think this is about money, it’s not about money. We’re being asked to teach a longer school day, but it’s the quality of the school day, not the length. It’s the learning conditions. You have kids sitting around in 110 degree classrooms. We have kids with speech disabilities who see a speech pathologist fifteen minutes a week. I mean, that’s how much time they spend walking to class.”
Yet the nearby charter school has what’s called “selective enrollment,” which means if a kid misbehaves they can kick him out and off he goes to Jenna’s school. Public schools, of course, have to accept every student. Every time you hear of a charter school touting its unbelievable results, just remember this: Their primary “innovation” is that they don’t have to take the kids who can’t hack it. It’s that simple.
“If I could hand select my kids, of course it would make me look like a fantastic teacher,” said Jenna. “But that’s not public education."
So our public schools with the fewest resources, under constant attack from even the Democratic Party, are then burdened by carrying the city’s entire load of troubled, at-risk youth. The hardest kids to teach, who need the most help, who sometimes don’t even show up to their un-air conditioned school with a bowl of cereal in their stomachs, all end up in the same pool. You don’t need to be George Akerlof to understand that this kind of selection will produce fairly terrible educational results in the schools getting all of the most troubled kids.
Meanwhile, the suggested improvements range from the well-meaning to the totally insipid. Organizations like Teach for America, which attempt to get bright college grads to teach in the toughest communities, are merely stop-gap measures. Researchers keep screaming that merit pay, based on teaching evaluations that rely on test scores, is basically about as scientific as alchemy. If you have 32 kids in a classroom, as Jenna does, wouldn’t it make far more sense to spend the money you’re going to blow on the 95th standardized test of the year on—oh, I don’t know—a second goddamned teacher?
However, this phenomenon extends across the country. It turns out “competition” in education inevitably means a good-quality education for some and a race to the bottom for the rest. Wealthy parents spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools and tutors. Middle class parents flee to the suburbs to get their kids into a good school district. And as soon as that happens to a neighborhood or city, public education collapses (property tax-funded education being a very obvious way to perpetuate inequality and keep a robust underclass).