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Striking Neoliberalism in Chicago

Teachers and supporters rally in support of the Chicago Teachers' Union strike, September 10. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia)

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Teachers and supporters rally in support of the Chicago Teachers' Union strike, September 10.Teachers and supporters rally in support of the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike, September 10. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee/Chicago Indymedia)The strike currently being waged by the teachers’ union in Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago is quite remarkable. A critical underlying issue is how teachers’ performance is appraised. Under a new assessment system that strongly ties teacher evaluations to student test scores, the city is threatening to put “as many as one-third of Chicago’s teachers on track for termination.”[1]

In Chicago as in school districts across the country, the educational authorities have made students’ scores on standardized tests the sacred gauge of whether a teacher deserves to keep her job.

A big problem with this method of measurement is that teachers have no control over what serious researchers have long shown to be the primary determinant of students’ performance on such tests – those students’ home and neighborhood environments and socioeconomic (class) status.[2] As Gary Orfield of the Harvard Civil Rights Project noted eleven years ago, “When students come to class hungry, exhausted, or afraid, when they bounce from school to school as their families face eviction, where they have no one at home to wake them up for the bus, much less look over their homework, not even the best-equipped facilities, the strongest curriculum, and the best-paid teacher can ensure success.” [3]

“Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city,” education professor Jean Anyon noted in her 1997 book Ghetto Schooling, “is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door….Educational change in the inner city, to be successful, has to be part and parcel of more fundamental social change. An all-out attack on poverty and racial isolation that by necessity will affect not only the poor but the more affluent as well will be necessary…” [4]

Teachers also do not control the wildly divergent levels of per-student spending that schools receive under local and state funding formulas that provide more for kids situated in property-rich school districts and less for those stuck in districts with a weak tax base.

Blaming teachers for low test scores in under-funded urban schools with high proportions of poor and deeply disadvantaged students from broken neighborhoods and fragile families is like blaming a farmer for not having a bumper crop after a drought. It’s like blaming a bus-driver for being behind schedule when much of her route is closed by a flood. It is an especially noxious practice in the weak recovery wake of the Great Recession, which pushed U.S. poverty to its highest recorded levels while squeezing school budgets like no time in recent memory – a double whammy for student/teacher “performance” that can hardly be blamed on teachers (Wall Street and “the 1%” are more appropriately to blame, to say the least).

Another problem with the dominant teacher-assessment paradigm is that it incentivizes schools and teachers to gear instruction around the test. This turns the educational experience of many poor and minority children into little more than an authoritarian “drill and grill” exercise focused on repetitive answer-giving mechanics and repetition. That is a surefire way to turn kids off and squelch schools’ capacity to cultivate the many-sided and question-asking critical thinking that democracy requires. As the legendarily eloquent schools author and poor children’s advocate Jonathan Kozol has noted, test-targeted curriculum subordinates “critical consciousness” to “the goal of turning minority children into examination soldiers – unquestioning and docile followers of proto-military regulations.” Under its reign, the prolific left social critic and education expert Henry A. Giroux notes, “Teachers are prevented from taking risks and designing their own lessons as the pressure to achieve passing test scores produces highly scripted and regimented forms of teaching…worksheets become a substitute for critical teaching and rote memorization takes the place of in-depth thinking…Learning facts…becomes more important than genuine understanding.”[5]

This might seem to be a strictly “Republican” paradigm. In fact, however, the neo-Dickensian testing mania is richly bipartisan, like the vicious 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated funding and other federal penalties for schools that do not miraculously raise poor and minority children’s test scores and thereby contribute to the overcoming of the racial and ethnic “achievement gap.” The mania is enshrined in the Obama Education Department’s “Race to the Top” policy, which uses federal cash grants to encourage school districts to link teacher evaluations to student test performance and to increase their number of non-union charter schools. Obama’s former chief of staff and current leading Obama fundraiser and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is a firm proponent of the use of standardized tests without reference to socioeconomic context to assess the merit and performance of students, teachers, and public schools.

Why this preposterous and educationally counter-productive method of teacher and schools assessment in Chicago and indeed across the country? Partly it may reflect policy makers’ fatalistic sense that “social class differences are immutable and that only schools can improve the destinies of lower class children.” This, the liberal educational researcher and author and author Richard Rothstein noted eight years ago, “is a particularly American belief – that schools can be virtually the only instrument of social reform.” [6]

Another factor is racism. Behind the testing frenzy lurks the nasty assumption that predominantly black and Latino poor students do not merit anything more than Giroux’s “highly scripted and regimented” curriculum, which would produce major student and parent rebellions if introduced in affluent white suburban school districts.

At the same time, the test-based policy is a convenient level for the neoliberal rollback and elimination of public teachers’ unions and for the related movement to turn public schools over to private corporations. Along with Republicans and many top Democrats, Mayor Emmanuel and Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan are determined to advance the privatization/corporatization of American K-12 education. If they share the belief that “only schools can improve the destinies of lower-class children,” they also want to make sure that those schools are as private and authoritarian of possible, free from (among other things) pesky teachers unions, which hinder authorities’ cherished “flexibility” by insisting on irritating things like decent pay, resources and downtime for workers on the rugged instructional front lines. The sadistic game of blaming and shaming teachers for poor kids’ test scores is very useful for the politics and public relations of de-unionization and privatization, masquerading as “school reform.” Teachers unions and indeed public schools themselves become perfect foils for the corporate agenda of misdirecting legitimate popular anger over the failings of the educational system. The misdirection naturally ignores the deeper determinant role of the nation’s steep and savage class and related racial inequalities to advance the false undemocratic solution of corporatization, sold as “choice” and “the free market.”

It is fitting that the right wing Romney-Ryan campaign has gone out of its way to express bourgeois class solidarity with Rahm Emmanuel,[7] who received $12 million from anti-union charter school advocacy groups in his 2011 mayoral election.[8] The Obama campaign has predictably kept its distance from the Chicago conflict even as it advances the neoliberal testing and charter school agenda that lay very much of the heart of the strike.

National quadrennial electoral extravaganzas notwithstanding, the progressive Chicago Teachers Union has courageously drawn a line in the sand against the teacher-, student-, neighborhood- and public education-bashing schools agenda of the bipartisan and neoliberal elite. According to the progressive, Chicago-based historian Rick Perlstein on Salon, the fight the teachers have undertaken is a very big deal.” If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer,” Perlstein writes, “the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.” That’s no small praise. Whether Perlstein is right or not about that (I hope so), the Chicago teachers richly deserve our support and assistance. [9]

[1] Elizabeth Schulte, “Showdown in Chicago,” Socialist Worker (September 10, 2012), at “While the specific issues of the Chicago teachers’ strike are limited by [state] law[s that prohibit the union from striking over issues other than pay, benefits and certain workplace procedures],” Schulte writes, “everyone knows that this fight is about, as one local news anchor put it, how the schools are run.

[2] See Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005), “Chapter 4: the Deeper Inequality,” 107-151.

[3] Orfield was quoted in Stephanie Simon, “Schools a $2 Billion Study in Failure,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2001,

[4] Jean Anyon, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Education (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1997), 168,

[5] Kozol and Giroux are quoted in Street, Segregated Schools, 79.

[6] Richard Rothstein, Class and Schools (Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2004), 9.

[7] Chris Moody, “Paul Ryan on Chicago Teachers’ Strike: ‘We Stand with Ram Emmanuel,” Yahoo News (September 10, 2012) at—election.html

[8] Rick Perlstein, “Stand Against Rahm,” Salon (September 11, 2012) at Perlstein made an interesting comment on how important this strike is: ” If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer, the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.” I would give Preface status to the Chicago Republic Door and Window plant occupation of December 2008.

[9] Perlstein, “Stand Against Rahm.” Perlstein notes that “Chicago public schoolteachers don’t have a strike fund; the lost wages come straight out of their household budgets. One kindergarten teacher of my acquaintance took to Facebook to ask for bean recipes.” Here is a link to the CTU’s “Strike Central” link on its Web site: The CTU Strike Hotline phone number is 312-329-6209.

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