Putting Students First? In Chicago, Not a Chance

I'd intended to write a piece about a few of my students -- kids who made a deep impact on me this year. Roberto. Carmen. Jackie. Leo.

Then I spent yet another morning picketing in front of the Chicago Board of Education headquarters, and my writing plans changed.

Teachers, parents, and students shouldn't have to pound the pavement every month or so just to have a fighting chance at a meaningful, quality education for kids in our city's schools.

But we have to. So we do.

This time around, we were protesting recent teacher layoffs and budget cuts that, if not rescinded, will have a devastating impact on schools across the city. We called for the Board, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and CPS leadership to make public education funding and Chicago's schoolchildren a true priority.

To hear them tell it, of course, they already do.

A month before taking office in 2011, Mayor Emanuel wrote an op-ed in the Tribune describing his plan to "seize the moment" and bring "a culture of accountability" to CPS. He titled it, "Putting our students first."

Emanuel's hand-picked schools' CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, has said numerous times since arriving in Chicago that her goal is to make decisions for the district "that put our children first."

Their comments echo the current school reform movement's "students first" mantra, made famous by former Washington, D.C. schools' chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has constructed an entire career -- including a best-selling book and a well-funded non-profit organization -- around the concept.

The pitch is that, for too long, the "status quo" of schools has operated for the benefit of the adults in the system, not the students. The reformers -- of whom the mayor apparently considers himself one -- say they're finally turning the tables and enacting school policies and practices with students' interests as their primary concern.

But as a teacher in a Chicago school, that's not what I see.

I see our school's only computer lab -- which should be a student resource -- closed for weeks at a time (a total of nine this past year) so it can be used to administer board-mandated standardized tests.

I see revamped teacher, principal, and school evaluation policies that assign heavy weight to gains on standardized test scores. This will likely turn the screws of pressure further on school-based educators, and mean an even narrower curricular focus and a more intensified push for larger gains.

I see dozens of schools closing in low-income African American neighborhoods -- despite the protests of parents and community members, despite warnings that children will have to cross potentially dangerous gang lines to get to their "receiving" schools. Can anybody imagine these closings being proposed -- much less approved -- if 90 percent of the children impacted were white?

I see the mayor's pet reform initiative, the longer school day, turning out to be what many critics feared: simply a longer day. Not "better," not "fuller," and not supported with appropriate resources. The recent layoffs will only make this situation worse.

I see the board laying off nearly 2,000 experienced teachers (and over 1,000 other school-based staff), while at the same time hiring up to 325 recruits from Teach for America, an organization which provides its "corps members" with only five weeks of preparation for teaching in Chicago classrooms. To make matters worse, at a time when CPS claims to be cash-strapped, it will be paying TFA a mind-blowing $1.6 million in "finder's fees" for its services.

I see principals across the city scrambling to make ends meet with dramatically reduced budgets while the mayor turns a deaf ear, blaming funding issues solely on Springfield's pension reform impasse. Blaine Elementary principal Troy LaRaviere blasted the budget cuts at a protest at City Hall last week. "When people ask me, 'How did you achieve the results that you did?' I give them a list," he said. "And almost everything on that list has been decimated by this budget... We've lost music, we've lost our reduced class sizes, we've lost our intervention specialists, I've lost my ability to recruit and retain and hire the most effective teacher."

I could go on, but it would be begging the same question: How does any of this put students first?

Surely Mayor Emanuel and his appointed school board wouldn't think these polices and practices (and their ground-level reverberations) would be good for their own kids. If not, why insist that they're good for other people's children?

What's happening in Chicago schools -- and in many other places across the country -- is not about putting students first. It's agendas first. Ideology first. Test scores first. Efficiency first.

It all can be so discouraging. What provides a measure of hope, though, in places like Chicago and Philadelphia and Seattle and many others, is that so many teachers, parents, students, and community activists are refusing to simply accept this misguided direction for our schools. In increasing numbers, people are speaking up, doing grassroots research, organizing, fighting back.

But that, too, takes its toll.

After all, when teachers are kept on the defensive all the time, forced to struggle constantly against policies they believe are detrimental to the work they do, it ends up -- directly or indirectly -- taking time and attention away from our students, our classrooms.

That's the bitter reality of where we find ourselves right now as we wrestle over the future of our schools.

One way or another, students get pushed aside. Just like they did in this piece.