When a colleague asked me to discuss my Chicago Public Schools experience with her undergraduate class, I received a valuable opportunity to reevaluate my understanding of public education. I have encountered two very different versions of CPS, the good and the not-so-good. As I planned to present, I attempted to reconcile the good and the miserable into a coherent narrative: Chicago Public Schools are in crisis.
I currently serve as a Local School Council member for a small elementary school near Wrigley Field. The school stands at the intersection of a few neighborhoods, and enrolls a student base many would write-off. High levels of poverty, high levels of English Language Learners, and much of the rest of the “tough to teach” litany describe Greeley. Our faculty strive to provide the best education possible for our students, stretching every penny possible to improve academic and social outcomes. Unsurprisingly, their effort pays off. The team is well-thought, well-meaning, and willing to go to work to help every child in the building.
Recent years, CPS’ budget has continued to decline – threatening this stable pedagogical ecosystem. Masterful budgeting has alleviated some of these problems, and coordination by my peers on the LSC have rallied private funds to augment our shrinking budget. Exposure to the reality of increasingly scarce resources has taught me that education is not a given.
Unfortunately, many CPS schools seem to be less functional than the elementary team I serve.
First-hand experience at a secondary school equips me with plenty of anecdotes about low morale, poorly skilled instructors, and a persistent lack of concern for students. Thankfully, these negatives were not universal, but the attitude dominated the culture. Many of the older, insulated, and tenured faculty were the worst offenders…
This negative culture seems to play a huge role in what hinders Chicago Public Schools students. Defeatist logic across most of the system (“poor kids are tough to teach” and self-victimization phrases like “teachers are under attack”) has put the largest teachers’ voice on the defensive. The local union affiliate’s inability to break from this defensive position has prevented any cohesive teamwork between the district and teachers. Worse yet, the two phrases above were a de factoplatform for the current union leadership. This is a recipe for disaster.
Until the local union is either willing to police its membership (and improve the instructors’ culture) or recognizes that not all instruction is of the same quality, Chicago’s students will continue to suffer.
Unfortunately, budget shortfalls and contracting faculty rosters will only reinforce the problems noted above. Using the LIFO (last-in-first-out) procedure to lay off teachers will only leave the grizzled veterans who are most entrenched in this culture. Finding a way to rekindle this flame or remove this cancer is the best course of action; unfortunately it will require CPS and CTU working together…
Crisis; Demand > Supply
Reflecting on my experiences as an educator and LSC member, I realized that Chicago Public Schools are in the midst of a crisis. Many schools appear to be in a similar problem: shrinking resources and increasing demands.
In the debates about education today, there is no interest group organized around the students’ interests. Teachers have unions, which seek to secure fatter contracts. Charter school boosters have PACs and think tanks to spread their ideology. More often than not, helicopter parents hover on an individual basis rather than coordinate efforts for a larger population. Some schools have booster clubs, which is a start; although moving beyond fundraising and actually advocating on behalf of students would be ideal.
One of the most powerful (and seemingly easiest) solutions is simple cooperation among key players. Parents and pro-student logic would help immensely. Instead of focusing on conflict issues that split teachers, administrators, budgeteers, and families, the discussion needs to return to common interests, most specifically the best interest of the student. There may be reasonable disputes about this issue, but this student-first perspective can alleviate most of the tension among these groups.