ideology in the Chicago teachers’ strike

I understand–from personal contacts and from articles like this one by The Nation‘s Matthew Cunningham-Cook–that teachers who share a pretty strong ideological orientation took over the Chicago teachers’ union by democratic means. Offering a systematic critique of current trends in education, they wanted to confront a prominent representative of those trends, such as their own combative mayor, Rahm Emanuel. In other words, they were looking for a fight. They wanted (writes Cunningham-Cook) “a union founded on the principles of member-directed communal action, mutual solidarity and systemic analysis.” Their analysis yielded this nicely written, 55-page manifesto. Their “communal action” took the form of a strike.

I am for systematic analysis and a revived left, at least as a counterweight to other forces. Sometimes a public struggle over core principles is worth the costs. So the fact that the union is ideological does not bother me.

But we’re entitled to ask whether their systematic analysis is right. I would say: only in part. I am moved and persuaded by the teachers’ attack on the criminalization of youth and the whole punitive disciplinary system. I share their endorsement of a broader curriculum, although I wish they had mentioned civics and democratic education as well as arts and physical education. Most of their recommendations would cost money, and that is a reasonable thing for a union to demand. Chicago Public Schools say that they spent $13,078 per student in FY2010–not a small amount, but Rondout Elementary School, near Lake Forest IL, spends $24,244 per child for a much more privileged student body. Middle-class families who move out to Lake Forest think it’s worth spending $11,000 more per kid than Chicago spends, and the union ought to challenge that.

But what bothers me is the very broad and simplistic ideological framework. A whole range of reforms uncomfortable to teachers are lumped together as “neoliberalism,” and the union’s goal is to resist them all. The result is a basically conservative vision, predicated on protecting schools against rapid change, even though the authors are angry at those same schools for being segregated and oppressive. Not only is the analysis defensive, but it is unclear because it names too many disparate ideas with one label.

For instance, is Rahm Emanuel neoliberal because he wants a longer school day? Neoliberals wants less government; longer school days mean more government. Is he a neoliberal because he wants to use standardized tests for teacher assessment? Neoliberals want to take decisions away from centralized government bureaucracies. Classically, social democrats and left-liberals are the ones who want to measure and assess government performance in the name of equity. The Chicago teachers write, “Standardized testing as a tool to segregate educational opportunities is not new. Standardized testing grew
out of the American tradition of using ‘intelligence quotient’ (IQ) as a pretext for racist and exclusionary policies.” I do not disagree with the literal content of those sentences, but they don’t tell the whole story. Standardized testing is also a means to make sure that poor and minority kids are getting the education they need. Although the national civil rights groups now take complex positions regarding the federal testing requirements of NCLB, they were originally among the strongest proponents of those requirements. As recently as 2007, people like Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, and Peter Zamora, a regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, were involved in efforts like this:

As the Senate stalls debate on the future of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of high-profile civil rights organizations, will present a case for protecting and strengthening the accountability contained in NCLB through a series of briefings and roundtables titled, “A Stronger NCLB in 2008: Critical for High Schools and Students of Color.” The first briefing in this series, “High School Accountability and Equity in NCLB,” will propose strategies for ensuring that high schools are held accountable for preparing students of color for success in college and work.

Finally, is Rahm Emanuel a man of the right because he is pushing a union to give up some benefits and protections? Or is he a man of the left because he is pushing a group of middle-class professionals to provide more services to low-income, minority youth?

I am basically on the teachers’ side, but that is because I share many of their substantive views of testing, funding, and the curriculum. I do not find it helpful to describe them as progressive and the mayor as neoliberal and to read the strike as a showdown between those two movements. The questions should be taken one at a time: How should we assess teachers? How long should the school day be? How much do we need to spend per student? And how is the available money being allocated?

Ideology has a place; it’s about big ideas and core principles. But ideological analysis must be valid and insightful. Better than a sloppy ideology is a pragmatic investigation of what works, for whom, at what cost.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.