In Chicago, Imagining a Different Ending

Now that the teacher strike in Chicago has ended – and the city’s schoolchildren have returned to school – one thing seems unavoidably clear: despite the agreement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his city’s public school teachers will remain deeply divided, deeply mistrustful of one another, and deeply entrenched for the foreseeable future.

The good news is that the rest of us can learn something from the mistakes both sides in this particular melodrama have made. In fact, there are cities that have actually transformed their school systems for the better, and done so in a way that left everyone feeling good about (and committed to) the changes. To bring about such a shift, however, the central figures of reform – elected officials and teacher unions – must start thinking very differently about how transformational change occurs, and what it requires.

One place Chicago’s leaders might want to visit is the Canadian province of Ontario, which realized a few years ago that its school system needed some massive remodeling. Unlike Chicago, however, the key figures in Ontario understood that in order to improve their schools they needed to build collective capacity – which meant generating both the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone could ever match.

Educational change expert Michael Fullan was a part of the successful reforms in Ontario. In his book All Systems Go, Fullan explains why it worked: “The gist of the strategy is to mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results relative to core outcomes that society values. It works because it is focused, relentless (i.e., stays the course), operates as a partnership between and across layers, and above all uses the collective energy of the whole group. There is no way of achieving whole-system reform if the vast majority of the people are not working on it together.”

If the morality play in the Windy City had played out differently, each side would have heeded a different part of Fullan’s advice. Mayor Emanuel would have recognized the importance of fostering a deeper emotional commitment from the folks most responsible for seeing the reforms through – his city’s teachers. He would have realized the futility of pointing out that Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country while also denigrating his city’s educators and putting them on the defensive from the moment he took office. And he would have genuinely welcomed educators into the process of reimagining what Chicago’s schools should look like. In short, he would have done what our civic leaders are supposed to do: foster eclectic coalitions that bring people together in a spirit of partnership to work towards a common goal.

By the same token, in a parallel world Chicago‘s teachers would have realized that a deeper level of technical expertise is required in modern American classrooms. They would have been the first to call for a longer school day – and they would have made sure the extra time was used wisely. They would have been the first to demand a better system of evaluation – and they would have made sure it actually helped teachers improve the quality of their professional practice. And they would have been the first to acknowledge the value of empowering each school principal to build his or her own teaching staff. In short, they would have done what our educators are supposed to do: help the rest of us understand what great teaching and learning actually looks like – and requires.

Instead, what we see in Chicago is a mayor primarily focused on the technical aspects of school reform, and a teaching force primarily driven by emotion. Ontario instructs us that it doesn’t need to be this way. But it will, in Chicago and elsewhere, until we heed some simple advice: How we speak, not just what we say, matters greatly. And until the tenor of our national conversation reflects a deep awareness of, and commitment to, working together to achieve results, our efforts at developing collective capacity will remain, in Chicago and elsewhere, agonizingly out of reach.

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Just got an email from a former student who now teaches in CPS. This is what he said: “I think I agree with most of what you write. However, unfortunately, the vast majority of CPS teachers are old and tenured and may in fact be teaching for all the wrong reasons. That being said, it would be career suicide for the average old school teacher to suggest a more rigorous evaluation system and inconvenient to request a longer school day. The new generation of teachers is far more likely to support (even request) more rigorous evaluation procedures because social justice is such a huge component of their teacher education programs. Virtually all new teacher work more hours than tenured ones and will never dispute a longer school day as long as the extra time is used to create a more rich curriculum (as opposed to double classes of language arts) I admit, I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think about Rahm. So emotional that I lack the ability at the moment to articulate my feelings. You wouldn’t believe how much misinformation is out there, even within our own union. I know several delegates and each one describes the meeting differently. It’s impossible to follow the news when you’re in the middle of it.”

    What do others think?

  2. Stefanie
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I must say that I’m surprised byt his perspective, Sam. First of all. . . the older teachers in Chicago are in this for the wrong reasons? Is that what I hear your former student stating? They don’t want longer school days or an evaluation system? I don’t believe it, and it makes me very sad to hear this us verses them mentality. Very sad. I have been very fortunate to have some amazing older mentors in my day.
    And I don’t see this fight about a longer school day or just about CTU and Rahm. This fight has been about enough is enough. This privatization of public schools started in Chicago, and teachers there are finally saying enough.
    This is about equality in education for ALL children instead of testing factories for the least of them.
    Do you feel that your blog has simplified a very very complex issue?

  3. Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey Stefanie,

    I shared it not as gospel but as one young teacher’s perspective on what’s happening, and an effort to surface how others see it (like you). Inevitably complex issues always get simplified to a degree when you write an opinion piece. But I do feel that case studies like Ontario can be very instructive for us here, and I don’t think either side is without fault. In the past, teaching was all art. These days, some people want to make it all science. The solution, it seems to me, is finding the delicate balance between the two. THAT’s when we’ll build collective capacity. And until then, the rest is silence.

  4. Posted September 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    And a clarification from my former student-turned-teacher: “Let me clarify one thing. When I say tenured, I mean “old school teachers” who may be so deeply entrenched in the system that they forgot why they started teaching in the first place.”

  5. Stefanie
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the clarification.
    Is there ever a time though, when we have to say enough is enough? Do you not believe that people with money have been able to influence the public school decisions? Do you think for the last 15 years, there has been some attempt from the union to work with CPS? Do you struggle with a board made up of parents who send their own kids to private schools? Do you believe there is more to this than just a mayor and a bunch of teachers not agreeing on issues?
    Do you believe an evaluation system of teachers based on test scores, is the best way to determine a teacher’s ability to teach? Many equate test scores with learning performance. I don’t see the two at all equal. I think learning is much more complicated then a test score.
    So, I guess my question to you is what do you do when one side won’t work with you, but will work for money? Or don’t you believe in this corporate reform agenda?

  6. The former student
    Posted September 19, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink


    I respect your opinion and apologize for the way a loosely used the term “tenured.” My wife is a tenured teacher in cps and she’s as hungry now as when she first time she walked to a classroom.

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