Thursday, September 13, 2012

Report From The Picket Line ...

A friend called me tonight. He's a Chicago Public School teacher. So he, of course, is on strike.

We don't speak on the phone too often but when we do, when he talks about work, he almost always talks about his kids. His students. His reasons to report to his classroom every day. He, like so many teachers, teaches because he cares.

Quentin, I'll call him because I don't want him to face any problems for speaking out, is, more than anything, frustrated.

He did not get into teaching to teach to a test, but that is what he is required to do. But not just one test, many tests. But not just one narrow curriculum, many narrow curriculums, none of which ever have the chance to take hold. "The cement's not even dry on the last one," he says, before he and his fellow teachers are being told, the next year, to do something entirely different.

He is frustrated by the bureaucratic restraints – and there are so, so many restraints – but he is frustrated, too, by the lip service that is paid to the children. " 'Oh, the poor kids,' everyone says, but do they volunteer with the kids? Do they mentor a kid? Do they coach a kid?", he asks. No, they don't. Most don't. Many could. But most don't.

He is frustrated that those who have most likely never set foot in a classroom are setting the agenda for how he and his fellow teachers must teach. He is frustrated that budgets are slashed to the bone and the casualties are music and art and physical education, aspects of school days that are vital to turning out well-rounded kids. He is frustrated that a billionaire board member said, "They get science and reading and math. That's all they need."

"She sneered when she said it," he says. He is more than a little prone to hyperbole but in this case, I can hear the sneer in the billionaire's words. Can you imagine what she'd do if she had her way with school lunches?

He is frustrated that he and his fellow teachers are held accountable for test results even though they cannot control so much of what goes on in the lives of their kids. So many come from unstable homes or homes where parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some simply don't have homes.

If he is going to be held to standards based on test data, he says, he wants his attendance records to be a factor in the results. His first- and last-period classes of the day are almost never fully attended. Some kids can't get to school on time. Some kids don't try to get to school on time. Some kids get to the penultimate period and think, "Yeah, I'm done for the day" and cut his class.

He is frustrated that Mayor Emanuel scoffs at their request for air conditioning. "You try teaching in a 97-degree classroom on the fourth floor of an old building," he says. I cannot imagine how any teacher can be expected to teach any class in such circumstances. And our weather is only going to get worse.

But air conditioning is expensive, you may be saying.

Yes, yes, it is.

And the schools are so strapped for funds, you may be saying.

Oh, wait just a minute right there.

Do you know what I learned tonight? I learned something tonight that literally left me slack-jawed, that literally left me feeling a bit like I'd just been socked in the gut.

The ACT is mandatory for every Chicago Public School student and CPS picks up the tab. CPS sends all that money to ACT, millions of dollars a year.

It's a very cozy arrangement.

Think about that for a moment: Every Chicago Public School junior is required to take the ACT, regardless of his or her intention to go to college. Now think about all the students who have no intention of going to college. They put no effort into studying for a test that will have no bearing on whether they get into college because they have no intention of going to college.

But their scores are averaged in to the scores of all the juniors who are required to take the test, college-bound or no. And down, down, down the average goes.

And guess what? Teachers are gauged on those results.

So teachers must teach to a mandatory test that a good portion of the students do not want to take but whose results are factored into the average which brings down the average for the school and do you know who wins in that situation?


Perhaps CPS receives a volume discount, but let's run the numbers based on the fees listed on ACT's site.

ACT (No Writing): $35.

ACT Plus Writing: $50.50

CPS 2011-2012 enrollment: 404,151 divided by 12 (1/12th of the enrollment; juniors take the test): 33,680

$35 x 33,680 = $1,178,800

$50.50 x 33,680 = $1,700,840

Per year. No matter what.

Something tells me that $1.7 million would pay for an air-conditioning retrofit for a school, don't you think? Or pay for more teachers' salaries so class sizes could shrink to a manageable 25 from the current 36 that Quentin tries to teach.

Moreover, think of the funding decisions that are made based on those test scores.

Giving every student the chance to take the ACT? I think that's a fine idea. But mandating it? That makes no sense to me. Especially if poor outcomes are used against the teachers and the schools.

Quentin thinks that they'll be back in their classrooms on Monday and that soon, this will all have been forgotten. People have short memories, he says. And he's right.

But he'll be there, as he's been there for years, trying to expose his kids to more than just answers on a standardized test.

And he would appreciate your understanding.

And your help.


Anonymous Anne Louise Bannon said...

Yep. Sadly, this sounds about right. For all those who say they value education and kids, I see precious few acting on it. What? Pay more taxes so teachers can make decent money? God forbid. Here in California, Michael and I have decided to vote down any school bond measure that does not provide money for teacher salaries. Teachers do NOT work part-time - there are an enormous number of hours of prep and grading papers that happen outside of the classroom, not to mention endless meetings that take time away from the important stuff. How do I know? I was raised by a teacher who worked longer hours than my computer engineer father. And my mom made only 40 percent of what he did. If you believe in education, volunteer, quit bitching about your taxes and effen step up.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

Hear hear, Anne!

Years ago, there was a referendum in my mom's town about building a new high school. So many people opposed it. People were going door to door, trying to convince others to vote it down.

The person who came to my mom's door was shocked that she was going to vote for it. My mom is older. She has no kids in school.

"But I have grandchildren," my mom said. "And even if I didn't, I want the kids in this community to have a good school. If that means I pay a little more in taxes each year, that's OK."

The school was built. It's already too small. Lots of people want to live in her town because of the good schools.

Good schools are the root of solid communities. No one on the house-hunting shows says, "We want to live somewhere with crappy schools."

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lewis said...

Your friend is speaking the ugly truth. Until wealthy, white politicians start dealing with the true causes of "failing schools" - poverty, crime, shattered families- nothing will change. And that's the way they want it. What's their solution? Blame the teachers. It's easy. That's why so many are leaving this once valued profession. That's why I left. They don't want teachers; they want scapegoats.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

So sorry you were driven out of the profession, Jim. We certainly need more teachers who care, not fewer. But your use of "scapegoats" stopped me in my tracks. That's exactly the gist of what Quentin was saying last night, that all of this seems to be leading toward a Peace Corps model of kids getting out of college, teaching for five or six years until they can't take the crap anymore, never earning much of a salary, and moving on to another career.

I shudder to think of a country that would operate that way. But that certainly appears to be the direction we're headed.

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it's true. I am a retired CPS teacher. The people with the true power to change the lives of many kids just don't care. Why? Because they're black or brown. All they offer is band aid initiatives which truly do nothing.

3:28 PM  
Anonymous jim said...

They don't care about the kids urban schools serve, and that's why this is happening. They don't consider them to be true stakeholders in America's future.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

I've been having that conversation with folks, too, Jim.

So disheartening, the consensus I'm hearing.

There is much we need to make better.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Anon, just saw your comment, out of sequence. Blogger can be strange.

But indeed, I'm hearing "Band-Aid" a lot in discussions about CPS. But the wounds are deep and are going to require a lot of effort to heal. Let's hope this new contract is a reasonable first step.

9:25 AM  

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