The World is Watching Chicago, Once Again

In 1968, student protesters stationed outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago broke into a spontaneous chant that quickly crystallized the tenor of the times: “The whole world is watching!”

It’s ironic, then, that one day after this year’s Democratic National Convention, rumors of a city-wide teacher strike in Chicago are reaching a similarly feverous pitch.

As they do, I want to borrow that famous line from 1968 and re-purpose it for 2012. The whole world should be watching, once again, because the issues at stake in Chicago are the same issues at stake in our ongoing efforts to improve American public education. In short, what’s happening in Chicago is extremely important, extremely rare, and not entirely discouraging.

It’s extremely important because you have a Democratic mayor pushing reforms that his city’s teachers — the majority of who are also Democrats — are pushing back against. The mayor wants merit pay and a longer school day. The teachers want a more balanced set of courses, including the arts, music and foreign languages. The mayor wants 50% of a teacher’s formal evaluation to be based on student reading and math scores. The teachers counter that if you enact a policy like that, the only thing your extended day will get you is more test prep and more concerted efforts to game the system. In that sense, the fight in Chicago isn’t purely about teacher contracts — it’s also about conflicting visions of how you create the optimal conditions for teaching and learning.

It’s extremely rare because it hasn’t happened in a quarter-century — and yet 90% of Chicago’s teachers, and 98% of the teachers that voted, indicated their support for a strike. That tells you just how strongly Windy City teachers feel. And regardless of what one thinks about teacher unions, surely we can all agree that having teachers more directly engaged in core questions about education reform is a good idea.

And finally, it’s not entirely discouraging. The most recent reports I’ve read suggest that a deal is close to being reached. If that’s true, I’d characterize the Chicago showdown of 2012 as our latest reminder of what democracy actually looks like when it works — messy, frustratingly slow, and contentious. And yet, at the same time, when we honor individual and collective processes for making our opinions felt and known, it’s also the best chance we’ve got to ensure that when decisions are made, they are done so with the fullest possible knowledge of what “we the people” wish to see.

Tune in if you can.

(This article also appeared on CNN’s education blog, Schools of Thought.)

Categories: Democracy, Equity, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality, Voice

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