Monday, October 8, 2012

The Significance of Chicago Public Schools

A revised version of this recently appeared in Education Week (10/3/12):

The EdWeek Version: The Strike and Minority Students

Others who contributed interesting pieces were:
Stephen Dyer:  The Fast and the Furious
Andrea Kaufman:  Red Shirts, Blue Shirts:  The Strike May be Over, but the Relationship Continues 
Paul Thomas:  Missing the Forest for the Trees 


The Significance

The Chicago Teachers Union strike highlights the disproportionate dependence black and Hispanic children have on public education in the nation’s major urban centers.  It is clear that the trauma to the city and to the more than 400,000 students and several hundred teachers affected, is significant and will require considerable healing.  But, who are these 400,000 young people?  It is no secret that large urban public education systems across the country are made up of predominantly black and Hispanic students, the majority of whom are children of the poor and working poor.  The consequences of public bickering, budget reductions and ever changing political and educational policies are borne by children and families least resilient to these forces.  It is important, in a country that is quietly returning to de facto educational segregation, that we be clear about who is affected by the Chicago Teachers Union strike.

According to the U.S. census, Illinois is 78 percent white, 15 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic – proportions almost identical to those for the United States as a whole.  The Chicago public school system, however, is made up of 9 percent white students and 41 and 44 percent black and Hispanic students respectively.  Additionally, 87 percent of all students in the Chicago Public School system are classified as low income.  Of the approximately 404,000 students in the public education system in Chicago, only slightly more than 36,000 of them are white.  It would not be surprising either to anyone that lives in a major urban center, if those white students are concentrated in predominantly white schools.

So what does the strike say to the students themselves?  One possibility is that their teachers are fighting to ensure that they get the best education possible – that they have defenders in the world that are looking out for their best interests.  Another possibility is that they feel abandoned, that the institution where and the people with whom they spend the majority of their time locked them out.  The nuances of the argument, that teachers’ wages should be tied to students’ performance on standardized exams likely does not resonate with children.  If it does, it is surely a stress that a child ought not bear.  An amended mantra would be, “Do well in school, it is important for your future… and the livelihood of your teacher.

Young black and Hispanic public schoolers in Chicago are not alone.  Atlanta Public Schools was recently ravaged by the largest school system cheating scandal in the United States.  Nearly all of the schools involved were predominantly black schools.  On the heels of the cheating scandal, Atlanta Public School officials conducted a redistricting process that resulted in 7 public schools being closed.  Of the 2,032 students whose schools were closed, 1,978 of them were black students, nearly all of whom were low income.  White children and families were entirely unaffected by this massive shock and trauma to the educational system.

One of the emerging U.S. national interests is the capacity of the 21st century workforce.  Workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are of particular concern.  President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is evidence of that federal concern. Forty four states have adopted the new Common Core Mathematics Standards to increase the rigor of math instruction for primary and secondary school students and the Next Generation Science Standards are soon to come.  A fundamental issue for national leaders in industry, education and policy is that the U.S. workforce will not be sufficiently well educated to compete with their international counterparts.

The reality is that our international counterparts have vastly different social expectations.  The levels of social inequality in China and India are largely incomprehensible to average Americans.  The public social support systems in European and Scandinavian nations are not palatable in the United States.  So, where does that leave the child in Chicago whose teachers and public servants have walked out her?

It leaves her as a representative of a generation of mostly poor black and Hispanic children who are at the center of a critical juncture for the nation.  If we continue down this path of social neglect, she is and will continue to be, as the late Harvard Professor Derrick Bell wrote, a face at the bottom of the well.  Our other option is to be clear about who she is and the challenges she is facing.  Her education is trapped in a thicket of race, income and geography.  The extent to which the nation is willing to address that, is the extent to which the nation is willing to move in the right direction.


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