I just witnessed the Chicago Teachers Union ratify the deal that ended the recent strike of the Chicago Public School’s educators against, the current Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. Well, I mean, I wasn’t technically there, but “witness” is such a loose term these days right? I’ve been reading “witness” billboards above Lebron James’ picture for years, but he only won a ring in June so I think I’m justified in my usage, right? (sorry, I had to). In all honesty, I just saw it pop up on Twitter news feed, which happens to be my most recent social media addiction. For the first time since the strike occurred, I started really contemplating what had happened. I’m currently a History-Education student at the University of Illinois, and after attending one of my classes you would understand my confusion/surprise/frustration with the issue at hand, and at both parties. Without getting too much into the details, the strike occurred due to three main issues: salary, health benefits, and job security. Surprisingly, the salary aspect was one of the first items to be negotiated, but the real issue was job security. The possible closings of unproductive schools, a program that evaluated teachers on merit that could affect their pay were some of the key issues debated, specifically the possibility of being fired over student’s standardized test scores.
I have tried to run this situation over and over in my mind from the lens of anyone who hasn’t had my educational and historical background, but escaping your own lens is difficult. Is a pay raise worth abandoning roughly 350, 000 students in the Chicago Public School system and exiling them to roam the streets of Chicago, which are notorious for violent crimes? Absolutely not. Though, is risking the CPS teachers to be judged, and possibly fired, by a system that evaluates teachers overwhelmingly through standardized tests, worth the short term delay in student education? I don’t know, but it’s sounding more convincing. I have no passionate feelings towards the politics of the strike and I don’t really even know who I support more on this issue. Like any political decision, I don’t agree with one side entirely and both are at fault in one way or the other. Hate to break it to the radical readers but yes, the other side has a point…hence, “the other side.” What I do know is I’ve studied history and I’ve studied education, and there are not many black and white arguments, just gray space full of fancy vocabulary, expansive curriculum, and passionate situations just like the one happening in Chicago. The term “situational” gets tossed around in my education classes more than a Vortex Nerf football would in a backyard football game between Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, where the winner wins a date with Brooklyn Decker. This is something that I feel many others outside these fields don’t have to deal with due to their own educational experiences or backgrounds. My burden results from my passion in the true reality that I cannot view texts or situations without a grain of salt. I am hesitant to truly succumb to any political idea, figure, or party, and there will always be a voice inside my head reasoning with the “other” side. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s beneficial to view both sides to an argument, but when one does so to the point where they are left indecisive and lost, the benefits are eradicated and you are left with playing devils advocate; however, your personal agenda tends to lean you to one side or the other after you have objectively (grain of salt with that term…) analyzed both arguments.
By viewing the current political and educational situation that is happening in Chicago, especially through the lens of someone like myself, the first thing you notice are the problems that both sides have caused in the situation. The obvious question that almost everyone asks is how could the teachers’ union abandon the students completely and not continue negotiations, especially considering how dangerous the city has become? The teachers then respond with how is it possible they wouldn’t do anything to avoid being judged and fired by an unreliable system such as merit based standards that use standardized tests as the lead determinant? Dissecting the problems with standardized tests and the infamous saying, “teaching to the test,” is a blog in itself, as is determining who is right and who is wrong in their proceedings throughout this entire process. The generations that could be negatively affected by a merit based salary system, focused on student performance of standardized tests, could be the death of wonderful, passionate teachers who either get fired because their students under perform, or the complete change of a teacher who begins to forget the important things that go along with real, quality education, and start to teach only for high test scores. In no way am I arguing for the release of 300,000 students to the streets for a week, but I am bringing up the point that there was a reason it happened. Many readers will understand this already and will plead to get five minutes of their life back, but for those that don’t, it’s important to view why something so drastic actually occurred, and, whether you agree with it or not, try and understand the importance of so many others fighting for a cause. The topic may be gray and situational, but comprehending the reality that it’s occurring can be more of a takeaway than arguing for one side or another. In no way am I justifying the abandonment of the Chicago students, but I’m not judging them for the decision that was made either. What’s more dangerous, the risk that came with the strike? Or the risk that our future students would be taught an education with no quality substance? I have no answer, but at least I’m aware of the question.
-Alec J. Heist, Associate Editor for Educational History