Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Education Commission States Event (Photo by US Department of Education)

The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike on September 10. At least twenty-six thousand educators have been taking a stand in the streets, for a fair contract and for reductions in class sizes, the provision of social services for children, a halt to the expansion of charter schools and an end to “turnarounds” and school closings.

The Associated Press reports President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, “isn’t taking sides in the Chicago teachers’ strike that is keeping more than 350,000 students out of the classroom.” The AP notes Duncan’s statement,“I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table — as teachers and school districts have done all over the country — to reach a solution that puts kids first.” And it concludes, without any context, that Duncan is neutral in this fight.

Obama’s education secretary is only neutral if one believes he has no prior experience in the management of education. He’s only neutral if you gloss over and omit his history as “former chief of Chicago’s public school system” and then leave it there.

Catalyst Chicago, an independent news magazine created in 1990 to document, analyze and support school-improvement efforts in the Chicago Public Schools, covered Duncan’s record as CEO of Chicago’s public schools. When he was in charge, he wanted to create the “best urban school district in the nation.” To fix high schools, he implemented a program called Renaissance 2010, which involved closing schools down to “replace them with new, smaller schools.” School staff was fired and schools were reopened under new management (turnaround schools). Classrooms were infused with new curriculum and materials. Education experts celebrated the attention given to “often-ignored high schools,” but “problems with high schools” were “so entrenched and intertwined with poverty that it [was] difficult to predict whether these efforts” would be enough for students.

A report published in October 2009 by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute sought to determine what effect this policy of closing schools was having, whether it was positive for students or not.

The report states, “Since 2001, CPS has closed 44 schools for reasons of poor academic performance or underutilization. In 2006, CPS modified its school closing policy to focus on “turning around” academically weak schools instead of closing them. In a turnaround school, students are allowed to remain in the same building while all or most of the staff is replaced. As of 2009, there are 12 turnaround schools in Chicago.”

Researchers concluded school closings had few effects, positive or negative, on “the achievement of displaced students.” Closings did not negatively affect students’ learning nor did it improve achievement of students displaced. Only the small number of students that “transferred to academically strong receiving schools and found supportive teachers at these schools made significant gains in their learning.”

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Christian Fenger Academy High School

School closings were a cornerstone of the Renaissance 2010 plan for Chicago public schools, which Duncan implemented. They are now a major source of contention in negotiations between teachers and the city right now. And rightfully so because, while closings have not conclusively improved students’ ability to achieve in the classroom, they have improved rival gang members’ ability to clash and fight each other in schools.

Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old, was brutally beaten and killed outside Christian Fenger Academy High School on September 24, 2009. Teachers, students and activists in Chicago attributed his death to the fact that violence in schools has gone up as a result of school closings that have led to the mixing of gangs in schools. It seems the death was the product of a dispute between “neighborhood teens” and those from Altgeld Gardens, who had been transferred to Fenger when the school closest to the public housing complex was turned into a military academy.

AP reported, “Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 public school students were fatally shot each year. That soared to 24 deadly shootings in the 2006-07 school year, 23 deaths and 211 shootings in the 2007-08 school year and 34 deaths and 290 shootings last school year.”

The same year Albert was murdered Fenger experienced an escalation in the number of fights. Staff and faculty had been replaced to improve “performance” and the increase in fighting was alleged to be a result of this reform.

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Another reason why teachers are striking involves tying student test scores to teacher performance evaluations. This is a policy that has been promoted by Duncan and President Barack Obama through the Race to the Top program.

Researchers and professors from sixteen universities in Chicago have written a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, and the Chicago School Board arguing a “focus on end-of-year testing” would result in the “narrowing of the curriculum as teachers focus more on test preparation and skill-and-drill teaching.” They argued:

b.  There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement.  In order to determine if there is a relationship, researchers recommend small-scale pilot testing of such systems. Student test scores have not been found to be a strong predictor of the quality of teaching as measured by other instruments or approaches.

c. Assessments designed to evaluate student learning are not necessarily valid for measuring teacher effectiveness or student learning growth. Using them to measure the latter is akin to using a meter stick to weigh a person: you might be able to develop a formula that links height and weight, but there will be plenty of error in your calculations.

They suggested using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance would mean less “enrichment activities” like art, music, civics and other non-tested subjects, and teachers would be “incentivized to avoid students with health issues, students with disabilities, students who are English Language Learners or students suffering from emotional issues.” Teachers in the fifth grade would actually want incoming students from the fourth grade to have done poorly on their testing exams so he or she could get credit for improvement. A culture of competition would be promoted rather than a culture of learning.

Despite the problems with tying student test scores to teacher performance evaluations, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has provided grant money to states that link the two. As a result, according to the Wall Street Journal, “at least 23 states and the District of Columbia now evaluate public-school teachers in part by student standardized tests, while 14 allow districts to use this data to dismiss ineffective teachers.”

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Where Duncan stands (and where even President Obama stands) is not unclear. It is easy to surmise what Duncan’s position is on the strike.

The Obama administration supports closing schools and firing teachers to “reform” education. The administration favors business policies where unionized teachers are pushed aside and staff picked by city managers are brought in to do their bidding. It supports market-based solutions that do not address the root causes of why children are coming to school unable or uninterested in learning, why children are incapable of passing high-stakes tests or why parents are not around to support children properly because they are having arguments, are impoverished and work multiple jobs and/or can barely put food on the table each week.

Duncan and Obama endorse the agenda the corporate state has prescribed for education in the United States, a prescription that amounts to teaching students what to think instead of taking time to teach students how to think, because how students are thinking cannot be measured numerically in ways that indicate whether certain business investments are paying off or not.

Where are Democrats in this struggle? They are largely silent so as not to get in the way of the corporate agenda for education, which has become increasingly popular amongst the leadership of the Democratic Party. They are repeating this talking point that they hope the strike will be resolved soon and it will not turn into a national or international event. But, unfortunately for Democrats,  the strike is already a national event because Chicago is ground zero for the Obama administration’s war on public education, which stems from the administration’s “education reform” agenda that enjoys bipartisan support.

Duncan’s support for this agenda is why Karen Lewis and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators felt a moral obligation to take the lead of the Chicago Teachers Union. As Lewis told Liane Casten of The Progressive, Duncan pushed reforms that included “privatizing schools, promoting charter schools, and codifying standardized tests for all children—thus eliminating critical thinking, analysis, and creativity, decimating unions, and undermining schools in poor Latino and African-American communities with the aim of closing them down.”

These “reforms” apparently do not allow for social workers, adequately staffed schools, smaller class sizes, air conditioners in classrooms, an end to the purging of teachers from schools, the preservation of art, music, foreign language and physical education classes, playgrounds and more books on library shelves in the Chicago public school system, which is why educators are now engaged in a profound act of resistance.

Karen Lewis understands well the corporate forces lined up against Chicago educators:

We’re fighting big business…They want to control the population. They need a permanent underclass to do the available jobs for less pay. They want a compliant, unquestioning work force. They want a volunteer army. They want to terrorize people: ‘Be quiet and don’t complain.’ No critical thinkers here. It’s all about obedience.

And, while Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel may be the current face of corporate America’s war on public education, Emanuel is simply continuing what his predecessor, Democrat Richard M. Daley, began and what Duncan helped to launch.

Jitu Brown, Eric Gutstein and Pauline Lipman, activist-scholars based in Chicago, who are experts on education, explained in May 2009:

Two powerful, interconnected forces drive education policy in the city: 1) Mayor Daley, who was given official authority over CPS by the Illinois State Legislature in 1995 and who appoints the CEO and the Board of Education, and 2) powerful financial and corporate interests, particularly the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago whose reports and direct intervention shape current policy. As Pauline documented in her book, High Stakes Education, the mayor and Civic Committee are operating from a larger blueprint to make Chicago a “world-class city” of global finance and business services, real estate development, and tourism, and education is part of this plan. Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance. Schools are also anchors in gentrifying communities and signals to investors of the market potential of new development sites. For Chicago’s working-class and low-income communities, particularly those of color, this has meant gentrification and displacement, including of thousands of public housing residents. As in other U.S. cities, Chicago has also handed over public services (public housing, schools, public infrastructure) to the market and privatized them, and public education has been in the forefront. Although not the architect, Duncan has shown himself to be the central messenger, manager, and staunch defender of corporate involvement in, and privatization of, public schools, closing schools in low-income neighborhoods of color with little community input, limiting local democratic control, undermining the teachers union, and promoting competitive merit pay for teachers. [emphasis added]

Thus, Emanuel is fulfilling his role as a sycophant to interests that promote the privatization of public schooling. He is taking on the teachers union, because he knows if he is able to overcome the popular support the teachers union has in Chicago it will be a huge victory for the privatizing education. It could even empower city managers all over the country to take on public sector unions and weaken them further on behalf of corporate executives and business interests.