I know there is a lot on the Net and in newspapers and print about the teachers' strike in Chicago, and it may seem I need not say more but that I emphatically support them. It is, however, not quite so that all points are made that need to be made, and even if mine is an obscure blog, I thought I would make what important points seem to me missing.
Last night as I was watching DemocracyNow.org and listened to Amy Goodman interview teachers, parents, a professor, and play feeds showing the strike and its context, and an important point was avoided. It's this: the way the corporate attempt to privatize the schools (and turn them into profit-making organizations whose curriculum is intended to support capitalism unqualified and make of what students they have docile sheerly technically-educated employees) is presented as based on the failure of the teachers to convey learning and knowledge to the students is based on 1) definitions of failure and success which define what is happening as failure, and 2) that is done by giving the students impossibly hard tests on narrow precise technical definitions early on in the semester which demoralize them, and repeating these same tests over the course of the year. I concede that tonight the reporting came much closer to explaining.
It reminds me very much of Mr Gradgrind's definiton of a cow or horse which he insisted the children in Hard Times must memorize or flunk. Tellingly, Mr Gradgrind is not a teacher. He's an inspector come to see how the children are doing on standardized tests. Dickens is more than prophetic for just these things were being done in Victorian public schools for the poor. It's absolutely parallel. Gradgrinds wants the children obediently to regurgitate the answers. None of them has seen a cow. A fierce anti-arts agenda is on. So too in the Chicago strike the children are asked to pass these standardized tests administered frequently and it's insisted on by people who know nothing of education. AP and all sorts of classes closed, and what's left is to be vocational and business learning. If it wasn't tragic it'd be comical: the first week of class in science the students are given tests on DNA; they are expected to fail and then the test is re-administered at some point in the future; if they don't get a certain grade, the teacher is fired, and if enough fail, the school is closed. The substitute is privatized school. It hits the poor hard for to get into these will not be a lottery by who you know. I can't say Dickens is prophetic here as he is not really prophetic in Little Dorrit, it's more plus ca change, moins ca change.
I know there is more to this than the simple setting up of schools and teachers to fail. I recommend to my readers Diane Ravitch's article on the history of education in the US and Romney's plan (a harsher, yet more corporate oriented version of Obama's obtuse bill): In Mitt Romney's Schoolroom. (NYRB, July 12, 2012, pp. 38ff), one of a series of essays she's written, the most important of which is, How and How Not to Improve Schools (NYRB, March 22, 2012). We there learn that throughout the history of the US a small minority of schools for privileged children have done outstanding well against most others in the "developed world," and the rest have come out somewhere in a medium range until the last 30 years when there has been a plunge downwards (especially in reading and science skills, in knowledge). The way to teach children is to first to build self-esteem and make them understand why they should want to learn a subject and then teach the subject wholistically and then after that specifics. This is precisely what all the corporations and the tests ignore. It's been shown repeatedly in the last 10 years the charter schools do no better and often do worse (of late) than the public ones.
The origin of the failure of schools is in the society which the school teachers is given the task of transforming with little money and (of late) less help.
Why do the teachers not proclaim that they are being set up to fail? Because what is presented as what they should teach the children seems plausible. Ought not a child to be able to define what is DNA? ought not they to be able to answer questions on set historical questions. Be able to do a chemical experiment? Especially useful is showing that a child has failed some aspect of math -- because this is connected in parents' minds to making money. Jobs come from technical know-how is the idea. That they come much more from social skills and success is out of social skills is not acknowledged -- though schools are expected to provide training in this which is not tested. How can it be?
Because the society at large seems to be undergoing some re-emergence of paranoid anti-intellectualism which emerges in the idea it's a waste of tax-payers money to teach humanities, arts, music, and it's encouraging malingering to have social workers and psychologist and services for disturbed and otherwise upset students in schools. Funds are repeatedly cut for the disabled is the truth. The resurgence of racial and ethnic prejudice (which never went away) feeds all this. Class anxieties -- both resentment and dislike by the lower middle of upper middle people accused of atheism (Darwinites) and fear of the middle middle class their children will not learn the right manners, entrepreneurial pro-active skills in working class environments.
The not-so-hidden agenda is to destroy the teacher's unions and make teachers come cheap. The way to do this is to ignore the value of certification and ignore the boards which say a teacher is certified to teach. TeachforAmerica is doing precisely this. This corporate sponsored boondock supposedly prepares young adults to teach in less than 6 weeks and then pushes them into schools. They teach by rote; they make tiny incomes. All education is vocational. The tax base for education is six billion and the corporations want that 600 billion.
This wiping away of a profession has increasingly successfully been done to librarians so that the lower level of librarian jobs go to friends and family members of local people near the library and there is no way for a person with a degree to start at the lower rungs and slowly work his or her way up to learn to be a head librarian -- unless you come from a prestigious school with connections.
So you give very hard tests repeatedly across the year, and if the students fail, you close down the public schools and fire the teachers. You open charter schools. How will students get into these? It's said through a lottery. Everyone knows that what will happen is cronyism and favoritism and some children will get into better charter schools and some into worse based on who their parents know and their connections and pressure. Parents who know how to do this will get their children in. Black, hispanic, poor whites will be relegated to worse schools or sent to the gutted public ones. Soon they will drop out. But who cares? This process has begun in NYC (where a large number of community public schools were summarily closed by Bloomberg), Philadelphia and is now about to be repeated in Chicago.
The way community policing went so will go community schools and the children will be lost utterly, for no one will be there to care for them individually. I've read what happens in some of the new public non-community schools. Tests and then streaming, and children can end up in cubby holds with a work book and one teacher per a large number of students.
It's said in the mainstream media the teachers are striking for better pay. Yes they are, but much more. Rahm Emmanuel has doen an analogous thing to strikes: it's against the law for teachers to strike in Chicago except on the basis of pay (benefits). How clever of him. He defines them as utterly self-interested this way, and the mainstream media (whose advertising is paid for by the corporations) repeats this without explaining.
I see this so clearly because recently I experience a version of this in the college I was teaching at: colleges are mirroring, doing versions of what's going on in the lower schools. Humanities requirements abolished. In the humanities classes left micro-management of all required courses to force teachers to give up assigning books which are part of the English literature terrain and instead off business techniques on how to get ahead. The students are expected to be savvy at a level they might be in graduate school when they do their research (they are to find out what is fashionable this year by studying the peer-edited journals of "their" discipline). It apparently seems plausible to ask students to do this. Those who know better keep silent or are hypocrites. The result is terrific growth in plagiarism and buying of papers. This is what I witnessed in the composition department of GMU. It's what friends have told me versions of in their colleges who teach composition or required courses.
I am writing this because I watched the teachers, the professors, the parents on DemocracyNow.org grow silent over the tests and not explain not explain how and why the definition of failure and success have been set up to make the public schools fail and that this definition is at the heart of what they are fighting. All they say is teaching to the test doesn't work. They don't say what's in the tests enough, they don't say how they are administered, they don't describe what real education takes: face-to-face group interaction. The growth in distance courses in colleges, another sham, is another mirror in the colleges of the lower schools.
And: the one place where people in the US have been brought together across classes, ethnic groups, races, religions has since the 1870s been the public schools for all whites, and since Brown v Board of Education for whites and blacks until the last decade. The melting pot is a myth. The US is a stratified society where people do not identify with one another readily. If the public schools go, an important place for people in our society to overcome the dysfuntional social sphere and corrupt mass public media, the schools, will have no replacement. Churches are by definition not neutral places for all to get together.