Emanuel, teachers union both miss the big picture in Chicago strike

The Windy City is engulfed in a stormy teachers' strike that has gathered front-page national attention. But will it turn out to be just more hot air in the national debate over school reform?

I'm afraid so, even though the issues at stake in Chicago are not irrelevant.


First, it's noteworthy that the stumbling block is not teacher pay. That's a vital lesson: We must work harder to understand other factors that count more in the all-important recruitment and retention of good teachers.

In Chicago, the biggest battles are over how much weight should be given to students' test scores in evaluating teachers and whether seniority should control filling vacant positions. But two subtexts appear more troublesome: the willingness of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to confront the union on many other fronts, including charter schools and longer school days; and general teacher anger and frustration over working conditions, including tight budgets.

On the strike issues, "Rahmbo" — despite his combative style — has the better of it. Like two other big-city mayors, Michael R. Bloomberg in New York and former mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., he has had the guts to elbow aside the school board and take personal charge of a failing school system. And in his case, it's an extra profile in courage for a leading liberal Democrat to go to the mat with a politically powerful, liberal union.

But there is more to it than that. And here the news (no matter which side prevails) is not good for kids or the country. The dispute is a distraction from much larger issues that are crucial to national school reform, especially in urban centers like Chicago and Baltimore.

The first distraction is that the strike will encourage the tendency of conservatives and even some liberals to scapegoat the unions. True, teachers unions can be too protective of weak teachers. But an eye-opening study by the conservative Thomas E. Fordham Institute showed that there is nothing in most collective bargaining contracts that prevents school administrators from taking stronger action to weed out poor teachers, if they are so inclined. But the education establishment, including school boards, hasn't been so inclined.

Further, both national teachers' unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — have increasingly collaborated in a range of school reforms. Witness the contract for merit pay and teacher evaluations between the Baltimore Teachers Union and the city school board. And where would low-income, politically disadvantaged urban school districts be without the lobbying muscle of teachers unions? Funding would be even worse.

The second distraction is that the Chicago strike does not address the critical root causes of the failings of public education, no matter which side one takes in the big political divide over school reform. One side in the debate, spearheaded by New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, believes that schools are unfairly blamed: The fault lies in the family and neighborhood poverty of low-income, low-achieving students. Through this lens, schools are relatively powerless, and most so-called reforms (like those pushed by Mr. Emanuel) are unproven and doomed to failure.

The other side, led by President Barack Obama and others like Mr. Emanuel and Baltimore schools CEO Andrés A. Alonso, doesn't downplay the scourge of poverty and poor neighborhoods. But they insist that schools can do a lot better. They cite the progress made by some school districts, including Baltimore. And they press, as embodied in the criteria for federal grants under the president's signature Race to the Top initiative, for stricter teacher evaluations, more restructuring of failing schools, and more school choice, including charter schools.


I fall in the latter camp, but I think both schools of thought fall short. Neither side has sufficiently taken on the most neglected subject in school reform: the mismanagement of classroom instruction. My 2010 book, "It's the Classroom Stupid," calls for "better weapons of mass instruction." This means better management of the instructional infrastructure that should support teachers: research-based curricula aligned with realistic expectations, smaller pupil-teacher ratios, better training including classroom coaching, and stronger supervision, monitoring and R&D.

The absence of such a support system is fueling teachers' frustration and high turnover rates, causing otherwise manageable labor conflicts to explode, and stifling student achievement. The Chicago strike will eventually be settled, but unless we address the more fundamental causes of teacher dissatisfaction, school reform will remain elusive.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.