What Are the Lessons of the Chicago Teachers Strike?

After its seven-day strike ended last week, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis urged unions and administrators everywhere to “learn the lessons we have learned” in the struggle to protect public education from damaging, top-down policy changes.

“The strike was the first phase in our long struggle for the soul of public education in the U.S.,” said Lewis at an American Federation of Teachers meeting. “Hopefully, the leaders of this country will understand that public education belongs to the public!”

Now that the dust has settled and Chicago’s kids are back at their desks, all stakeholders can take stock of what happened and reflect on the teachable moments.

Lesson One – Address the Problem, Not the Symptoms

The strike wasn’t about teachers or the teachers’ union. It wasn’t about administrators and education policy makers either. At the heart of the disagreement was the frustration and hopelessness felt by an education system expected to help kids plagued by poverty and violence without the tools to do so.

“Along with teachers’ complaints about inadequate facilities for themselves, and inadequate services for their students, another, perhaps bigger, issue bubbled up during the strike. It’s one that Chicago’s teachers share with others and it’s probably the most daunting for the nation’s schools,” writes Stephen Franklin in The American Prospect. “It’s a sense of unfairness and blindness to the reality the teachers say they face.”

Franklin points out that Chicago’s teachers – like teachers in many cities — work in schools isolated by race and economic class, where most students are minorities and many have limited English skills, where parents work two or more jobs, or are absent from their children’s lives altogether.

The strike in Chicago could have been in Detroit or East Los Angeles or any disadvantaged community where schools are asked to overcome the crippling effects of poverty and are simply not able to do so without the necessary supports or funding.

Lesson Two – Stop the Name and Blame Game

Derisive name calling exacerbates the problem. Calling teachers who spend their days (and evenings and weekends) working with and for our children “greedy” and “selfish” for trying to negotiate a fair contract is not only preposterous, it’s damaging.

“By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation’s politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a single group. It’s called scapegoating. And scapegoating should never be a substitute for leadership,” writes Amy Dean, a fellow at The Century Foundation, in a Huffington Post op-ed.

The name and blame game is played all over the country, and the MVP would most likely be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who even attacked educators in front of a classroom of students in Trenton.

“There’s a lot of really great teachers in the state,” said Christie. “But their union cares more about how much they get paid than they care about how well you learn.”

The average starting salary for a teacher in New Jersey is $50,000 a year, which the New Jersey Education Association has had to fight for. The average starting salary for a New Jersey lawyer – who completes the same amount of post-graduate work that a teacher must complete – is $100,264 to $150,396.

In Chicago, one of the country’s most expensive cities where the cost of living is high, the most well-paid teachers earn $76,000, working 60 to 80 hour weeks educating the children of the city. If that seems high, consider that the Romneys’ dressage horse makes more – Rafalca earns the couple $77,000 in tax credits.

Lesson Three – Collective Bargaining Is Necessary for Schools to Succeed

Collective bargaining works for everyone. It’s not conducted for the benefit of union members, but for all education stakeholders. Collective bargaining helps improve working and learning conditions – so classrooms aren’t sweltering hot on a humid Chicago day, and so students have the necessary technology and materials for optimal learning.

It allows educators to help administrators decide the best way to extend the learning day rather than having a program thrust upon them that they then have to scramble to make work in their classrooms after administrators have gone back to the central office.

It also attracts and retains better teachers who want to have a voice in education decision-making because of their expertise and classroom experience.

“Collective bargaining is a process that works.  In states where collective bargaining is protected, strikes are rare (in those states negotiations have led to a strike only 0.36 percent of the time in the last ten years), and there are more districts with higher-performing schools,” says NEA president Dennis Van Roekel.

Lesson Four – Educators are Committed to Change

Educators and the unions that represent them are committed to change. They want what’s best for teaching and learning, not the status quo. Despite media reports and accusations, Chicago teachers weren’t trying to block the longer day – they wanted to be included in the decisions on how the longer day would be implemented. They weren’t against accountability and evaluations – they wanted the evaluations to be fair, accurate assessments that rely on more factors than a one-size-fits-all standardized test score.

Educators and their unions want to move the field of education toward greater excellence.

“Currently, conditions in our schools are so difficult that almost half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first five years,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “We need to get our priorities in order—higher standards for those entering the field, more support and mentoring for new teachers, and more relevant, ongoing, and well-funded training for all teachers. This is what’s best ot only for educators but also for students.”

To help be the catalyst for change, however, educators need to have a seat at the table.

Lesson Five – Collaboration is the Key

True leadership requires collaboration. Divide and conquer strategies don’t work where one side tries to pit public opinion against the other, which is what Rahm Emanual’s team tried to do. And unsuccessfully – a poll of Chicago voters that showed that fully 66 percent of parents with children in the city’s public schools supported the strike.

“The only way to dramatically improve public education is through bipartisan collaboration,” writes Fawn Johnson of the National Journal.  “If that seems an anathema now, perhaps the Chicago negotiations can make it seem a possibility.”

There are a lot of educators who know it’s a possibility, like those in Montgomery County, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.

Broad Acres Elementary School, the highest-poverty school in Montgomery County, Maryland, was on the verge of being taken over by the state when the Montgomery County Education Association put forth a proposal to restructure the school with staff and administrator involvement. As a result of that collaborative partnership, Broad Acres achieved adequate yearly progress (AYP) within three years and the students continue to make gains.

That’s not a teachers union that cares more about salary and benefits than student achievement — that’s a union demonstrating the power of shared leadership.