The Common Core Standards Died a Natural Death. Why Is Dana Goldstein Trying to Dig Them Up?

In a superficial article last Friday, NY Times education reporter Dana Goldstein exhumed an education reform that has, mercifully, already been buried: the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core has pretty much faded out of the public consciousness, but now that Goldstein has chosen to examine the corpse, I wish she had done a careful job.

Goldstein explains that the Common Core Standards were created by “a bipartisan group of governors, education experts and philanthropists” and that, “The education secretary at the time, Arne Duncan, declared himself ‘ecstatic.'” Now, ten years after the experiment was launched, many of the over forty-five states that tried the Common Core have dropped it. They have recalibrated their curricula and dropped from their annual testing regime the standardized tests that were paired with the Common Core Standards, tests created by one of two test-development consortia: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (the PARCC test) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (the SBAC test).

In her article last Friday, Goldstein wonders whether recent U.S. test scores on the international PISA test and our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) would be better if the Common Core were brought back: “The disappointing results have prompted many in the education world to take stock of the Common Core, one of the most ambitious education reform projects in American history. Some see the effort as a failure, while others say it is too soon to judge the program, whose principles are still being rolled out at the classroom level.”

Much of her story covers an interview with a Kentucky teacher who liked the Common Core. She also quotes one of the developers of the Common Core math standards, interviews other people who favor a nationally aligned curriculum, and talks with the program officer responsible for the Common Core at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  What she leaves out is the history and substance of the Common Core experiment, and she also omits all the reasons states have pretty much abandoned this project.

The Common Core State Standards were an attempt by Arne Duncan’s Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to impose common curricular standards across the country. The Common Core was to be another step in institutionalizing the movement for standards and test based school accountability that was originally cast into law by No Child Left Behind.  No Child Left Behind assumed that if states set tough standards, tested the students every year, and sanctioned schools unable to raise scores quickly, achievement would rise and all children would be proficient by 2014. But the federal government couldn’t, by federal law, impose a national curriculum. However, Arne Duncan figured out how to create incentives for states to buy into a national curriculum without its being federally imposed.  As part of the 2009 stimulus package created to infuse money across the states to address the Great Recession, Duncan created a federal competitive grant program—Race to the Top.  To qualify even to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores and agree to controversial turnaround plans that included school closure and privatization. And states had to agree they would adopt “college- and career-ready” standards.

The states had the freedom to develop their own standards, but conveniently, the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers sat down with Bill Gates and together they agreed that the Gates Foundation would fund the development of Common Core Standards, which states could then use to meet Arne Duncan’s requirement that they adopt “college- and career-ready” standards in order to qualify for a Race to the Top grant.

There are certainly people who still believe in curriculum standards—even national standards—but there were a number of problems with the way the Common Core was rushed through. The substitution of new tests developed by the PARCC and SBAC consortia also intensified what many felt were unfair high stakes punishments being imposed on schools and on schoolteachers by No Child Left Behind.

The Common Core was developed by the same people who brought us test-based school accountability.  In her 2012 book, Reign of Error, written just as the Common Core standards and the tests paired with the standards were being rolled out, Diane Ravitch explains the top-down origin of these developments: “The U.S. Department of Education awarded $350 million to two consortia to develop national assessments to measure the new national standards. States and districts will have to make large investments in technology, because the new national assessments will be delivered online. By some estimates, the states will be required to spend as much as $16 billion to implement the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16) “The Gates Foundation… supported the creation, evaluation, and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in almost every state.  In addition, the Gates Foundation has joined in a partnership with the British publisher Pearson to develop online curriculum for teaching the Common Core standards.” (Reign of Error,  23)

One of the huge criticisms of the Common Core Standards is that their developers focused on pushing more difficult content knowledge without enough attention to the wide variation in children’s readiness and to normal variations in linguistic and cognitive development. In their 2014 book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass observe that teachers who know and understand their students, but are at the same time under intense pressure to raise scores, have less latitude to meet children’s particular learning needs: (U)nder the new Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by 45 states, teachers have little control over the curriculum they teach and the time they can allocate for instruction.” (50 Myths & Lies, p. 52)

What caused the most intense backlash—as more than 40 participating states substituted the PARCC and SBAC Common Core tests for the standardized tests the states had already been using annually under No Child Left Behind to judge schools—was that the PARCC and SBAC tests were benchmarked with much more demanding cut scores.  More schools appeared to be “failing.” And, for states to qualify for Race to the Top and the subsequent No Child Left Behind Waiver program, Arne Duncan demanded that states use the annual standardized tests as part of formal teachers’ evaluations.  When students’ test scores dropped catastrophically on the new PARCC and SBAC tests, there were growing news reports about teachers—sometimes long experienced and award-winning teachers—being fired or reassigned.  In some places, the teachers’ ratings based on the new test scores were published in newspapers to embarrass teachers into working harder. The replacement of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which banned the Secretary of Education from involvement in states’ evaluation of teachers, was one result.  The other was the further discrediting of the Common Core experiment itself.

Goldstein explains why she dug up the Common Core again last week for coverage in the NY Times. Recently released scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were disappointing, and U.S. scores recently released from the international PISA test were not significantly improved.

Back in 2010, Bill Mathis at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a cautionary analysis of the Common Core for the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. In the piece, Mathis warns against developing standards-based education policy as a way to make the U.S. appear globally competitive: “The Obama administration advocates for education standards designed to make all high school graduates ‘college- and career-ready.’ To achieve this end, the administration is exerting pressure on states to adopt content standards, known as the ‘common core,’ being developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers…. Contentions about global competitveness provide a key rationale given for common standards, along with increasing equity and streamlining the reform process.  The analysis presented here suggests that the data do not support these contentions.  U.S. states with high academic standards fare no better (or worse) than those identified as having low academic standards.  Research support for standards-driven, test-based accountability systems is similarly weak.”

Mathis concludes: “The… common core standards initiative should be continued, but only as a low-stakes advisory and assistance tool for states and local districts for the purposes of curriculum improvement, articulation and professional development.  The… common core standards should be subjected to extensive validation, trials, and subsequent revisions before implementation… Given the current strengths and weaknesses in testing and measurement, policymakers should not implement high-stakes accountability systems where the assessments are inadequate for such purposes.”

In her 2012 Reign of Error, Ravitch agrees with Mathis: “Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor the developers of the Common Core standards thought it necessary to field-test the new standards.” (Reign of Error, p. 16)  One reason we all watched the launch and failure of a giant experiment is that the Common Core and PARCC and SBAC tests were rolled out without validation and trials.

Reign of Error was published as the Common Core was being implemented across the states and before anyone knew how the Common Core standards and accompanying tests from PARCC and SBAC would work. In her 2012 book, Ravitch remained carefully neutral about what to expect: “No one can say with certainty whether the Common Core standards will improve education, whether they will reduce or increase the achievement gaps among different groups, or how much it will cost to implement them. Some scholars believe they will make no difference, and some critics say they will cost billions to implement; others say they will lead to more testing. ” (Reign of Error, p. 315)

Diane Ravitch has written a new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, to be published on January 21st.  It is to be a history of several decades of corporate, accountability-based, test and punish school reform and privatization. When I read Slaying Goliath, I’ll be looking for Ravitch’s postmortem on America’s failed experiment with the Common Core State Standards.

Giving Thanks for Red for Ed — Teachers Striking for Justice in Public Schools

This blog will take a week long holiday break.  Look for a new post on Friday, December 6.

In their agreement at midnight on Halloween to end a ten day strike, Chicago’s teachers secured not only a salary increase, but also the promise that the school district will spend $35 million annually to reduce what have become in many schools outrageous class sizes. Teachers also won the guarantee of a full time nurse and social worker in every school by July of 2023.

A lagging recovery from the 2008 recession, compounded in many states by revenue shortages due to tax cutting and the expansion of school privatization at public expense, has left desperate conditions in traditional public schools across many states.  In response, the Chicago Teachers Union, like Red for Ed counterparts in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Oakland, went on strike to expose primary staffing inadequacy in public schools where such conditions are pretty much invisible to the general public.  After all, most of us do not have the opportunity to go into schools and look around to see what’s happening there.

Red for Ed teachers’ strikes have also challenged statewide policies that have come to define our public schools during the corporate school reform era. The Los Angeles and Oakland strikes, for example, surfaced evidence that charter schools—over which California’s public school boards of education have had little control—steal essential dollars that should be spent on the majority of children and adolescents who attend the public schools.  In Arizona, the teachers’ strike helped put the spotlight on the alarming danger to public schools of a pending 2018 ballot initiative (which ultimately was voted down) to expand the state’s already expensive Education Savings Account neo-vouchers. Chicago’s teachers were able to expose untenable aspects of the 1995 Illinois state law that imposed mayoral governance on Chicago’s public schools—an appointed school board and punitive restrictions to disempower the Chicago Teachers Union itself. The strike also helped shine a light on problems with student-based budgeting and school closures, both of which have been at the center of Chicago’s portfolio school reform under former mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the final contract agreement which ended the strike did not eliminate all of these policies, the strike made their consequences visible and secured promises from key legislators in Springfield to address several of these concerns.

Two more Red for Ed teachers’ walkouts have occurred in the weeks since Chicago’s teachers settled. The first, in Little Rock, Arkansas on November 14, involved 1,800 members of the Little Rock Education Association. The strike was not about teachers’ salaries. The Little Rock teachers’ strike instead pushed back against the the Arkansas Board of Education’s plan to end the unpopular 2015 state takeover of Little Rock’s schools by dividing the district. The state Board of Education proposed to return “successful” schools to a local school board, to close eleven schools, and to hold the lowest scoring schools under state takeover. Because the schools the Arkansas Board of Education refused to release from state takeover are majority black and brown, teachers struck on November 14, to protest what teachers identified as a return to segregation.

For Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc reports: “The immediate roots of this week’s action go back to January 2015 when the Arkansas State Board of Education announced that it was taking over Little Rock’s schools due to low standardized test scores. By all accounts, the ensuing state takeover failed to accomplish its nominal goal of improving stability and educational opportunities for the town’s low-performing schools. Yet rather than return Little Rock School District to local control in 2020 as promised, the state board instead proposed in September of this year that it would continue to oversee so-called “F”-rated schools, those with the lowest scores… In a dramatic protest on the evening of October 9, thousands of teachers, support staff, students, and community members congregated on the steps of Central High… This public outpouring forced the state board to change tactics  At the next evening’s contentious Arkansas Board of Education meeting, it dropped the proposal to split Little Rock’s school district.  But surprisingly, the board then immediately proceeded to cease recognition of the LREA (Little Rock Education Association) as the educators’ representative, thereby scrapping the last remaining collective bargaining agreement for school workers in Arkansas. The decision was blatant retaliation against not only teachers but also Little Rock’s school support staff, who were in the midst of negotiating a pay raise.”  On November 14, teachers walked out in protest.

Not surprisingly in Arkansas, the Waltons, well known for funding attacks on public education, have for many years also been funding the campaigns of legislators likely to impose policies like the 2015 state takeover. Blanc continues: “The Waltons for decades have bankrolled Arkansas politicians, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, to break up unions and the public sector. They have paid for anti-union Astroturf organizations like the Arkansas State Teachers Association and leveraged their fortune to make standardized testing the live-or-die metric to judge Arkansas schools.”  The Arkansas State Teachers Association sounds like a teachers’ union, but what it is really?

For the Arkansas Times, Max Brantley explains: “Little Rock teachers are… complaining of a mass e-mail from the anti-union Arkansas State Teachers Association… warning teachers against striking. This group had a $362,000 startup grant from the Walton Family Foundation, no surprise given how notoriously anti-union Walmart has always been.  ASTA also has ties to a national anti-union organization founded by like-minded billionaires… ASTA also has been peppering state newspapers with op-eds touting their anti-union views.”

The  Little Rock teachers’ strike focused on the urgent need to preserve one racially integrated school district with all schools returned to the local board of education, which will be elected in November of 2020.  Teachers also stood up for their right  to be represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest public sector union.

This month’s second recent Red for Ed event closed schools across the state of Indiana on November 19th, as 15,000 teachers gathered in Indianapolis for a statewide rally. Chalkbeat Indiana‘s Emma Kate Fittes describes the walkout, which teachers dubbed a statewide rally because state law prohibits teachers’ strikes: “With so many teachers planning to be at the state capitol on the ceremonial opening day for the legislative session, more than 130 districts statetwide have cancelled classes, affecting about half of the state’s students.” “Better working conditions, higher pay, increased funding for public school classrooms, less emphasis on standardized testing and more respect—these are some of the things teachers say they will be fighting for Tuesday at a massive Indiana Statehouse rally.”

Fittes summarizes what teachers demanded: “The state’s largest union, Indiana State Teachers Association, is calling for lawmakers to take three actions: give schools $75 million of the estimated $400 million the state will bring in this year above its expected revenue, pass a hold-harmless provision to protect schools from any negative consequences related to low 2019… standardized test scores, and repeal new licensing requirements mandating 15 hours of unpaid professional development related to their community’s workforce needs.”

Salaries were a centerpiece of the Indiana rally on November 19. The Indianapolis Star‘s Arika Harmon reports that Indiana’s average teacher pay, $50,614, lags the average teachers’ salary in all the states surrounding Indiana: Kentucky, $52,952; Ohio, $58,000; Michigan $61,911; and Illinois, $65,721.

Further, Indiana has been rating and ranking schools and school teachers according to students’ performance on state tests, but the state changed tests in spring of 2019, and the teachers want their evaluations and their schools’ ratings held harmless because scores dropped sharply when new tests were introduced.

Finally, on November 19, teachers were protesting a state-imposed a “staff development” teachers must complete to renew their teaching certification. As though teachers are ignorant about the workplace outside their schools, they will now be required to engage in a workplace externship or learn about the workplace in some other way. Herron describes the requirement: “The new rules passed last year require teachers to log 15 hours of professional development related specifically to their community’s workforce needs—like available jobs and skills needed by local employers—before they can renew their teaching license.”

Teachers across Indiana declared that it is not their own misunderstanding of the demands of the workplace but instead the conditions in the schools where they work which are undermining their students’ education. The Indianapolis Recorder‘s Tyler Fenwick interviewed teachers at the rally including Trudie Ingram, a Gary, Indiana middle school science teacher. She explained how Indiana’s miserably inadequate funding for public education undermines opportunity for her students: “It’s a great hindrance for science because we don’t have the equipment and the technology… to keep students up to date on those things that are required for them if they’re going to go on to higher education to become science-related majors.”

For nearly two years teachers have built Red for Ed momentum across the states. Teachers have courageously raised their voices:

  • for smaller classes;
  • for enough school funding to ensure their schools have essential equipment and technology;
  • for enough school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses, and certified librarians;
  • for teachers’ salaries that provide a living wage;
  • against too much standardized testing that eats up classroom time and narrows the curriculum;
  • against branding schools in poor communities with letter grades;
  • against corporate state takeovers and school closures in the schools that serve poor communities; and
  • against the expansion of privatized charter schools and vouchers that eat up desperately needed public dollars.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, we must give thanks for teachers’ courage and energy as they continue to demonstrate our collective responsibility to provide all of our nation’s children with public schools which will enrich their lives and ensure our society’s future as an inclusive democracy.

An Urgent Issue in Troubled Times: Building the Will to Support Public Education

For this blog, I’ve been tracking the explosion of new vouchers in Ohio, a similar expansion of the cost of school vouchers in Wisconsin, the proposed closure of the storied Collinwood High School by Cleveland’s mayoral-appointed school board, and the protracted negotiations in Lorain, Ohio to get rid of the state’s appointed school district CEO, a man who has brought chaos to the city’s public schools and the entire community. Then, last week, I spent time reviewing the history of corporate, accountability-based school reform as a twelve-year experiment imposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein, in New York City.  It is all pretty discouraging.  And an added worry is the absence so far of any talk about our public schools, arguably our most important civic institution, in the 2020 Democratic candidates’ debates.

At the impeachment hearings last week, I was struck by the importance of people like William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch, experienced career professionals who clearly articulate the institutional norms and goals of international diplomacy. What educator could I feature in this blog, someone who would remind us of the educational policies and institutional norms worth fighting for as a way to protect in our public schools during troubled times?

After an extensive search across shelves of books, I remembered School Reform Fails the Test, an article in which, five years ago, Mike Rose, the education writer and UCLA professor of education, examined America’s long journey into corporate, test-and-punish school reform.  Even if you read this article five years ago when it was published in The American Scholar, and even if you’ve read Rose’s inspiring books, I encourage you to read Rose’s article from 2014 again. Rose identifies important norms and practices in our public schools and explains why, in the midst of all the news swirling around us, we must continue to advocate for strengthening our society’s dedication to universal public education as a right we guarantee for all of our young people.

Rose is not naive.  He explains: “Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.”

Rose suspects that our long, strange, education-reform trip into test and punish accountability may reflect massive and rapid change in our broader society: “School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of our education….”

Here is part of Rose’s analysis of the school reforms that followed, policies which were eventually formalized in the No Child Left Behind Act and which made demands on public schools and school teachers: “A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable….  The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished… An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students.”

But the framers of the law didn’t envision all the consequences which followed, including this one: “The nature of a school’s response to high-stakes pressure is especially pertinent for those less affluent students at the center of reform. When teachers… concentrate on standardized tests, students might improve their scores but receive an inadequate education. A troubling pattern in American schooling thereby continues: poor kids get a lower-tier education focused on skills and routine while students in more affluent districts get a robust and engaging school experience. It’s important to consider how far removed standardized tests are from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.”

In 1995, Rose published Possible Lives, a book about several years of research he undertook by visiting public school classrooms.  He reviews the conclusions of that research in the 2014 article: “During the first wave of what would become the 30 year school reform movement that shapes education policy to this day, I visited good public school classrooms across the United States, wanting to compare the rhetoric of reform, which tended to be abstract and focused on crisis, with the daily efforts of teachers and students who were making public education work.  I identified teachers, principals, and superintendents who knew about local schools, college professors who taught teachers, parents and community activists who were involved in education….”

What did Rose notice about the characteristics of the excellent classrooms he visited?  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Rose concludes by lifting up the experiences and traditions within public schools themselves—as an alternative to the corporate boardrooms seen by school reformers as the place to seek answers: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students?…  Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success.  All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies.

Even if you know the work of Mike Rose and have enjoyed his books, I hope you will read or reread School Reform Fails the Test.  It is a great review of what has gone wrong. It is also hopeful: Rose anchors school improvement in supporting the work of the professionals who have studied good pedagogy and who know the norms and expectations of the institutions where they spend their days with our children. Rose confirms what we’ve watched now for going on two years, as schoolteachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have been striking to drive home the urgent need for nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and small classes. To serve  the collective needs of our children, we’ll have to build the public will for investment to overcome our public schools’ greatest challenges.

Michael Bloomberg Says He May Run for President: Why He Won’t Be my Choice

New York City’s former three-term mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, is exploring whether to join other Democrats running for President in 2020. It is said that he would be a Democratic centrist, and we know that he has contributed positively to the national conversation promoting gun control and an aggressive response to climate change.  But, as usual in this political season, his record on public education has been neglected by the press.

Michael Bloomberg does have a long education record. Bloomberg served as New York City’s mayor from January of 2002 until December of 2013. In 2002, to accommodate his education agenda, Bloomberg got the state legislature to create mayoral governance of NYC’s public schools. In this role, Michael Bloomberg and his appointed schools chancellor, Joel Klein were among the fathers of what has become a national wave of corporate, accountability-based school reform. Bloomberg is a businessman, and Joel Klein was a very successful attorney. Neither had any experience as an educator. They took aggressive steps to run the NYC school district, with 1.1 million students, like a business. Their innovations included district-wide school choice, rapid expansion of charter schools, co-location of a bunch of small charter and traditional schools into what used to be comprehensive high schools, the phase out and closure of low-scoring schools, evaluation of schools by high stakes standardized test scores, the assignment of letter grades to schools based on their test scores, and a sort of merit pay bonus plan for teachers.

In her 2018 book, After the Education Wars, Andrea Gabor, the New York business journalist and journalism professor, comments on Bloomberg’s educational experiment: “The Bloomberg administration embraced the full panoply of education-reform remedies. It worshiped at the altar of standardized tests and all manner of quantitative analysis. The Bloomberg administration also had a penchant for reorganizations that seemed to create more disruption than continuous improvement among its 1.1 million students and 1,800 schools.” ( After the Education Wars, p. 75)

Gabor describes Bloomberg’s expansion of charter schools: “Harlem, in particular, has become the center of an unintentional educational experiment—one that has been replicated in neighborhoods and cities around the country.  During the Bloomberg years, when close to a quarter of students in the area were enrolled in charter schools, segregation increased, as did sizable across-the-board demographic disparities among the students who attended each type of school. An analysis of Bloomberg-era education department data revealed that public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double—and several have triple—the proportion of special needs kids of nearby charter schools. The children in New York’s traditional public schools are much poorer than their counterparts in charter schools. And public schools have far higher numbers of English language learners… In backing charter schools Bloomberg and other advocates pointed to one clear benefit: charters, it was widely accepted, would increase standardized test scores. However, years of studies showed little difference between the test-score performance of students in charter schools and those in public schools.” After the Education Wars, p. 95)

A Leadership Academy for school administrators taught business management principles. Gabor explains: “The Leadership Academy, launched in January 2003, was a cornerstone of the new Bloomberg administration’s education-reform strategy for public schools, one focused on breaking up both the central bureaucracy and New York City’s large, factory-style high schools…  The Leadership Academy’s mission was to recruit and train six hundred new entrepreneurial principals by the end of Bloomberg’s first term, in 2006, to help run the many new mostly small schools that the new administration hoped to establish.  Like many of the Bloomberg-era reforms, there was much that was controversial about the Leadership Academy.  For one thing, the academy boasted the ideal of a public-private partnership and the promise of helping to run both schools and the education bureaucracy more like businesses….”  (After the Education Wars, p. 76)

Perhaps Gabor’s most abiding criticism is that Bloomberg and Klein distrusted experienced educators. And this attitude has been part of the corporate reform movement they helped launch across America’s big cities during the past two decades: “The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over the knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And, most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.” (After the Education Wars, p. 4)

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch examined all this while it was an ongoing experiment: “In the first decade of the new century, New York City became the national testing ground for market based reforms.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, applied business principles to overhaul the nation’s largest school system, which enrolled 1.1 million children… They reorganized the management of the schools, battled the teachers’ union, granted large pay increases to teachers and principals, pressed for merit pay, opened scores of charter schools, broke up large high schools into small ones, emphasized frequent practice for state tests, gave every school a letter grade, closed dozens of low-performing schools, and institutionalized the ideas of choice and competition (albeit without vouchers).  (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 69)

School closures were among the most problematic of Bloomberg’s reforms.  Ravitch explains: “As it elevated the concept of school choice, the Department of Education destroyed the concept of neighborhood high schools.  Getting into the high school of one’s choice became as stressful as getting into the college of one’s choice… Students were expected to list their top twelve preferences. Most got into one of the twelve, but thousands got into none at all. Neighborhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local high school that served all the children of the community, a school with distinctive traditions and teams and history. After the neighborhood high school closed, children scattered across the city in response to the lure of new, unknown small schools with catchy names or were assigned to schools far from home… As a high school for 3,000 students was closed down, it would be replaced by four or five small schools for 500 students.  What happened to the missing students?  Invariably, they were the lowest-performing, least motivated students who were somehow passed over by the new schools… These troublesome students were relegated to another large high school, where their enrollment instigated a spiral of failure, dissolution, and closing.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 84)

In a stunning 2013 report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University tracked what happened to students who arrived in the district too late for that year’s school choice competition.  Others did not speak English, or for some reason did not participate in the choice process. These students who just showed up at school trying to register were dubbed in NYC, “over the counter students”: “Every year, some 16,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as ‘over-the-counter’ or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education. These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students… OTC students are disproportionately assigned to high schools that are subsequently targeted for closure or that are undergoing the closure process.”

Under Bloomberg’s watch, several large comprehensive high schools, deemed failing for low test scores, were phased out one grade per year.  New ninth graders stopped being enrolled; then tenth grade was eliminated, then eleventh, and finally  the school closed.  Ravitch quotes education sociologist Pedro Noguera: “Pedro Noguera of New York University observed that the Department of Education failed to provide the large schools with the support and guidance they needed to improve. ‘They don’t have a school-change strategy… They have a school-shutdown strategy'”(The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 87)

In a stunning 2015, New Yorker magazine profile of Jamaica High School, in Queens, Jalani Cobb recounts the story of his own alma mater, its demise brought on by increasing residential segregation, poverty, and Bloomberg school reform: “Jamaica High School, in Queens, was once the largest high school in the United States… One evening in June of last year, Jamaica students wearing red and blue gowns gathered with their families and teachers and with members of the school staff at Antun’s, a catering hall in Queens Village, for the senior-class commencement ceremony, but it carried a particular significance on this occasion, because it was as applicable to the faculty and the staff, some of whom had been at the school for nearly three decades, as it was to the students.  After a hundred and twenty-two years, Jamaica High School was closing; the class of 2014, which had just twenty-four members, would be the last.  The New York City Department of Education had announced the closure three years earlier, citing persistent violence and a graduation rate of around fifty percent.  Accordingly, the department had begun to ‘co-locate’ four newly created ‘small schools’ in the old building… The schools tended to operate like siblings competing for bathroom time. Access to the building’s communal spaces was at a premium. Unable to secure the auditorium for a graduating class of two dozen, Jamaica High School found itself both figuratively and literally, pushed out.”

Cobb explains how the Bloomberg-Klein New York Department of Education phased out the school: “In 2004, in the name of greater choice, the Bloomberg administration revised the districting rules to allow students to attend any high school in the city. Given the realities of residential segregation and of school quality as a determinant of real-estate values, there was something almost radical in that idea.”  But the universal high school choice plan didn’t desegregate New York City’s public schools. “The demographic balance that characterized Jamaica during my years became impossible to maintain. In 2011, the year that the city formally decided to close the school, fourteen percent of the student population had disabilities and twenty-nine percent had limited English proficiency. In the year before the school closed, it was ninety-nine percent minority, a demographic that would not in itself be a concern were it not also the case that sixty-three percent of the students qualified as poor… The tacit belief that large schools were unreformable meant that Jamaica’s sliding numbers looked to some experts like predictable educational failure; to the faculty, those numbers looked like what happens when a school is asked to educate a challenging population without the necessary tools.”

Among the Democrats running for President in 2020, I’ll be looking for a candidate who respects professional educators and who understands the importance of supporting the public schools, designed to serve the needs and protect the rights of all children. Public schools need our ongoing attention and support. My choice for President couldn’t possibly be Michael Bloomberg.

School Closures Threaten to Destroy Neighborhoods, This Time in Cleveland

Right now in Cleveland, Ohio we can watch the latest battle in a war that has spread across the nation’s big city school districts.  It is a fight about the definition of a high school—a misunderstanding between the technocrats who have imposed something called “portfolio school reform” school choice and the families who want their children to have a high school experience in a neighborhood where they feel comfortable.

Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood was defined through much of the twentieth century by the huge New York Central railroad yards. And today’s high school battle in Cleveland is between a mayoral appointed school board and the families, teachers, and community residents who understand a neighborhood high school tradition defined by the football rivalry between the Collinwood Railroaders and the Glenville Tarblooders. Glenville, one of two remaining comprehensive high schools in Cleveland, is the school into which today’s mayoral-appointed board of education is folding Collinwood.

Portfolio School reform was formalized in Cleveland in December of 2012 in a four-year transformation plan that emphasized school choice, innovation, and student-based budgeting. High school in Cleveland is all about school choice—with the money following the students who choose a particular school. Cleveland’s high school choice book advertises small schools featuring specialties:

  • New School Models—early college, international high school, aerospace & maritime, college & career, and environmental studies.
  • Academies—business careers, tech, and environmental studies.
  • New Tech—four schools which are part of a national New Tech Network.
  • Two comprehensive high schools.

Cleveland’s high school choice guide identifies 18 of the high schools across the these categories as innovative. These schools are designated by their specialization: early college, digital arts, architecture & design, science & medicine, the arts, problem based critical thinking, civic & business leadership, engineering, information technology, global studies, science & health, STEM, and leadership. Collinwood High School and the other three New Tech high schools do not make the list of innovative schools. Neither do Glenville and East Tech, the two remaining comprehensive high schools in the Cleveland school district.

Collinwood and Glenville represent very different neighborhoods on the city’s northeast side, the traditionally black side of town.  Both neighborhoods were devastated by the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Today, the students in the Collinwood and Glenville areas are among the city’s poorest.

Portfolio school reform, the essence of the Cleveland Plan, formulates school district management around the idea that schools are like the investments in a stock portfolio. The district imposes student based budgeting, and as students carry their funding to the most popular schools, the district will shut down the losers. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell describes what Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon recommends as the future of Collinwood High School under portfolio school reform: “Gordon’s plan would close the three-story, 228,000-square-foot building at East 152nd and St. Clair Avenue after 93 years of serving a once-thriving neighborhood.  But enrollment at the school has declined over the years and the school now has about one-tenth of the 3,500 students it had when it opened in 1926.  All of the unused space, with about 300 students remaining, makes it emblematic of a large problem facing the district…  ‘We have all of these extra seats and you can’t make the building shrink to match the community,’ Gordon said at a community meeting this week.”

Residents of Collinwood have been protesting. In an extensive Plain Dealer report, Jordan Heller examines the peer group issues of suddenly mixing students across three high schools—Glenville, MLK, and Collinwood—as Gordon has proposed. Heller raises an issue which has emerged in Chicago when the students in one school have been collapsed into another as he describes the worries of Collinwood football player Velonte Paul and his mother: “But to Paul, his teammates and their parents, it was not a population problem, but a people problem. Collinwood, MLK and Glenville high schools serve many different neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods host many different gangs.  Bringing them together in one building seemed to be ‘not even an option,’ said Paul’s mom… ‘Now you’re meshing kids from Hough, Wade Park, from out of the projects—including a number of gangs like the Heartless Felons—and they already have beef from these neighborhoods.'”

A Cleveland City Council member representing the Collinwood neighborhood has spoken eloquently at recent public hearings.  O’Donnell reports: “City Councilman Mike Polensek asked the district to keep Collinwood High School open, and also give the school the vocational and other innovative programs it has sought for years.  Instead, he said, the district is breaking promises made a few years ago to keep the school open… ‘What is the game plan for the East Side?’ Polensek asked.  ‘Is it more school closures on top of school closures?'”

The members of the school board in Cleveland are split as the district debates the closure of Collinwood.  While most of the board members—all appointed by the mayor—are expected to support the plan presented by the mayor’s appointed CEO, Lisa Thomas has spoken out against the closure based on the fact that, in a school district with universal high school choice, the school district itself has located attractive programs elsewhere, thereby drawing students away from Collinwood, whose programs have languished.  In a recent report, O’Donnell describes Thomas’s concerns: “For board member Lisa Thomas, closing the mammoth but almost-empty school would amount to the district giving up on the neighborhood at Cleveland’s northeast corner. Too many businesses and other institutions have abandoned that neighborhood, she said, and left ‘gaping holes’ in a once-strong community.  ‘We didn’t start the fire, but we’ve got to put it out… If we close Collinwood High School, we are part of the problem.'”

There is now a body of academic research examining the effect on the community when schools are closed.  In Chicago, after Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

In a profound 2018 book,  Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students.  Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-159)

The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell reports: “The school board will meet at 6:30 p.m., Tues., Nov. 19, at East Technical High School, 2439 E. 55th St., to vote on the school consolidation plan. The meeting is open to the public with time for comments.”

Fourteen Years Later, Andrea Gabor Examines the Meaning of the 2005 Seizure of New Orleans’ Public Schools

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in September of 2005, I was serving in the Justice & Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, as the point person tracking and staffing work in UCC congregations to support justice in public education. My job was to help our churches support equal opportunity and access to quality education and to ensure that members of our congregations understood the importance of the First Amendment separation of church and state in public schools.

In the autumn and winter of 2005, our office worked with partners in New Orleans to advocate for policies that would protect New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens during the hurricane recovery.  Early in the fall of 2005, it wasn’t apparent that the city’s public schools would be affected, but weeks later the state intervened to take over the majority of the schools under a Louisiana law that had been amended to permit the broad takeover. All of the school district’s teachers were put on disaster leave, and on March 24, 2006, all of the school district’s teachers were dismissed or forced to retire.

My job included writing a September, beginning-of-school resource for UCC congregations. Its purpose was to highlight primary challenges to justice in our nation’s public schools. To research the 2006-2007 Message on Public Education, I traveled for a week in July, 2006 to New Orleans to learn what was happening in the public schools of a devastated city. I talked with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, sidelined in the state takeover. I spoke for more than an hour with Brenda Mitchell, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, which had been rendered—by state fiat—incapable of protecting even long-serving, tenured teachers. I drove past the former Alcee Fortier High School—previously a public neighborhood high school with open admissions—now seized by the state and turned over to Tulane University to become the selective Lusher (charter) High School, which privileged admission for the children of the staff of Tulane and other universities. And I visited Benjamin Franklin High School, formerly a selective magnet high school, and now a selective charter high school.  While charter schools in the rest of the country were required to accept students through non-selective lotteries, in New Orleans, the emergency had created a rationale for exceptions that created a group of exclusive, selective charter schools.

What I learned during that week was that the majority of public schools in New Orleans—one of the poorest communities in the United States—had been deemed “failing” because of low test scores and that, due to that designation, the state and all sorts of players I did not understand were conducting a disruptive experiment with a new kind of school reform on a group of children whose lives had just been upended in every other possible way.  In October of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, for The Center for Community Change, published a profound resource exploring the same issues.  She called it Dismantling a Community. Later Kristen Buras published Pedagogy, Policy and the Privatized City and other research that helped explain, from the point of view of New Orleans’ teachers and students, what had happened.  But at that time none of us really had the language accurately to characterize what we had watched happening as public education was intentionally collapsed into some kind of experiment.

Naomi Klein helped with the definition in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, in which she described the sudden takeover of the public schools in New Orleans as the defining metaphor for neoliberal economic reform: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

This month In the November, 2019, Harper’s Magazine, Andrea Gabor examines the New Orleans school takeover fourteen years later, from the perspective of history.  Who were the real players in the seizure of the city’s schools? How did the experiment work? Did the New Orleans state takeover improve the schools? And how has neoliberal school reform in New Orleans impacted what has happened across the United States in the ensuing decade and a half.  Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, also examined the history of corporate school reform in a 2018 book, After The Education Wars.

Who were the real players? Gabor explains: “The transformation of New Orleans into an all-charter city was spearheaded by a handful of large philanthropic organizations, and cultivating relationships with these institutions is often essential to a school’s survival.” Gabor identifies New Schools for New Orleans as the local pass-through agency, the gatekeeper for distribution of funds from philanthropies outside the city. And in New Orleans the big funders were the same foundations which have underwriting disruptive, neoliberal school reform ever since: “Since about 2000, the model’s chief proponents and funders have been three big philanthropies: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Foundation, which recently announced another $1 billion investment in K-12 education, may be the single largest charter-school benefactor in New Orleans, typically providing grants between $100,000 and $350,000 to startups.)”

Gabor describes how this sort of school reform works in New Orleans: “The system operated on a bottom-line approach known as the portfolio model, which seeks to manage schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio: the model rewards high performers (as measured primarily by test scores) with further investment and punishes poor performers by cutting off funding or by shuttering them. The promise of this model was that idealistic technocrats would run schools like businesses, emphasizing competition, financial incentives, and accountability…  Over one third of charters are run by large management organizations such as the San Francisco-based Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates hundreds of schools across the country, including eight in New Orleans.”

What about eliminating the teachers’ union?  In New Orleans, explains Gabor, “The silencing of teachers was facilitated by Teach for America… Typically, new T.F.A. staffers were handed canned curricula and detailed rules on classroom management… While the new teachers were willing, initially, to work fourteen-, sixteen-, and eighteen-hour days, close to half came to the city with less than three years of experience. And in the schools that served the poorest students, most teachers lasted no more than a year or two. Ironically, today New Schools for New Orleans blames its declining test scores in part on what it calls a teacher attrition ‘crisis.'”

Authentic community engagement was undermined in New Orleans by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E.): “In fact, the chartering process was designed to deny input by community groups.  Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, then-governor Kathleen Blanco signed executive orders suspending key provisions of Louisiana’s school law, including the requirement to consult with, and obtain the votes of affected faculty and parents before converting an existing public school into a charter school. Granted the authority to take over ‘failing schools,’ B.E.S.E. handed most charter-authorization decisions to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.”

Gabor examines years of test-score evidence and concludes that even based on test scores alone, the New Orleans experiment didn’t work: “The latest state data confirms that New Orleans test scores have stagnated or declined since 2013. This year, only four charter high schools in New Orleans scored above the state average in English and math—of those, three were selective schools. The vast majority of nonselective schools performed well below average for the state….”  Gabor also describes the limits of test scores as the measure of school quality: “The portfolio model’s approach emphasized test scores at the expense of other crucial educational goals, including nurturing children and fostering their creativity and citizenship. Charter schools responded to this pressure by subjecting students to intensive test prep, including spending thousands of dollars on private tutors, and by weeding out students who didn’t test well.  And some schools cheated.”

The New Orleans state takeover quickly became a model for other states to experiment with the seizure of low-scoring school districts, and Gabor updates the story to what’s happening right now. The list of philanthropic players has expanded to include Laurene Powell Jobs, John Arnold—once a commodities trader for Enron, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings: “Hastings and Arnold… went on to launch the City Fund, a $200 million effort to spread the New Orleans portfolio model to forty cities across the country. With Neerav Kingsland, an erstwhile head of New Schools for New Orleans as its managing director, the City Fund is building on familiar alliances and strategies. One of the City Fund’s first beneficiaries was an Indianapolis-based gatekeeper called the Mind Trust…. With the help of Gates funding, Mind Trust created a nationwide network of local gatekeepers and like-minded organizations to advance the education-reform agenda.”

During my own week visiting New Orleans back in 2006, I found what had happened to the schools extremely disturbing, but I struggled to see the big picture and to name what was happening.  It is important that writers like Gabor are putting a decade and a half of New Orleans-style school reform into historical context.  In January, Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, will surely continue this analysis.

In her new Harper’s Magazine article, Gabor identifies the key players in neoliberal, corporate-style, accountablity-based school reform; shows how their ideology and their money undermined public education in New Orleans; and demonstrates how  school reform modeled on the New Orleans takeover has grown into a multi-state wave.  She also shows that the movement has been a failure.

Delegates Assembly of Chicago Teachers Union Ends Strike, Agrees to New Contract

The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union who has been sidelined by a brain tumor, Karen Lewis released a statement on Tuesday night to urge Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to find a way to resolve the then nine-day teachers’ strike. Lewis concluded her statement with the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

The primary issues underneath the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, tentatively ended around midnight on Wednesday, were shockingly inadequate services for children and two decades of the disempowerment of school teachers in Chicago. To fully ratify the agreement, all 25,000 members of of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) must vote within ten days.

Just as teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles and Oakland publicly exposed deplorable conditions in underfunded public schools and in school districts where sizeable portions of the budgets have been diverted to charter schools, Chicago’s strike focused on the conditions in which Chicago’s teachers are forced to teach and their students are expected to learn.

The Chicago strike was never really about teachers’ pay.  Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially offered teachers a 16 percent raise over five years, and the teachers eventually accepted that offer. Some people criticized teachers, because Lightfoot’s original offer seemed generous. So why did they strike?

You have only to look at what teachers—in the final contract—accepted as an improvement in school staffing to grasp the deficient conditions Chicago’s leaders have ignored during years of austerity and disruptive corporate school reform.  From the Chicago Sun-Times: “The union received a guarantee that there will be a full-time dedicated nurse and social worker in every school by July 2023 with staffing ramping up from now till then. On class size, a new joint council will be created to address overcrowding. The council will get weekly updated data and will have $35 million per year to address situations on a case-by-case basis. Overcrowded classrooms will only get relief, however, when they hit certain hard caps. Those limits are: 32 students in a K-3 class, 35 kids in grades 4-8, and 32 students in core high school classes. The district’s guidelines for normal-sized classes—ones it says it ‘shall aspire to stay within’—are 32 for K-3, 31 for grades 4-8 and 25 for core high school classes.”

Chicago’s top school reporter, WBEZ‘s Sarah Karp describes the real subject of this Chicago teachers’ strike: “The strike… did something else, beyond just producing a contract that includes language on and money for lower classes and more staffing.  It shined a light on the barebones conditions common in many Chicago schools. Sharkey (CTU president Jesse Sharkey) declared at one rally that the strike was a revolt by all the people who work in or are impacted by Chicago Public Schools. He often said the strike was about educational justice.  For decades, Chicagoans had gotten used to schools with the bare minimum numbers of nurses, social workers, counselors, librarians, even teachers.  And in the last decade of budget cuts and austerity, these staff became more scarce at many schools… In press conferences and at rallies, teachers, social workers, special education teacher assistants and even athletic coaches talked passionately about how their schools lacked resources commonplace in most other school districts.  Many teachers talked about having 40-plus students in their classrooms and they did not have any recourse. The teachers talked about how they often had to serve as nurses or social workers because these staff were only available one or two days a week. One preschool teacher talked about how having too many children in preschool classes left some students sitting in urine for hours. Other teachers talked about how they had no help for traumatized students. Athletic coaches said needed equipment was so sparse they often used their paltry stipends to buy bats and bases. One softball coach said her team picks up broken glass and other trash before starting practice… And to perhaps the surprise of Mayor Lightfoot, many parents stood by the teachers. Parents said they knew firsthand how bad conditions were because their children were living it.”

It is easy these days to extract a particular event out of its historical context. The 24/7 news shifts the focus to sensational details, disagreements, and rancor. But Chicago’s teachers made it clear from the outset that remediating the 25 year  disempowerment of Chicago’s teachers was also a primary goal of this strike. Chicago teachers have been pawns again and again as politicians enacted plans that undermined Chicago teachers’ control over the circumstances in which they teach and their students learn.

In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley got the legislature to grant him mayoral control and, in the same law, a provision that has banned the right of Chicago’s teachers to strike over any issue apart from salary and fringe benefits. In 2004 the same mayor, along with appointed corporate reformer CEO Paul Vallas and his assistant Arne Duncan, disrupted the Chicago schools with Renaissance 2010 to close schools and open charters. Mayor Rahm Emanual intensified corporate school reform by instituting student based budgeting, which combined school choice with a plan to let the money follow the child. This sort of policy is central to what is known as “portfolio” school reform, in which a district sheds its weakest schools and opens new ones.  As children choose schools perceived to be winners, student based budgeting begins a downward spiral in schools that are losing students, as principals with ever-decreasing budgets shed the counselors and librarians  they can no longer afford and increase class size. University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing documents widespread community grieving on Chicago’s South and West Sides for the closure of institutions long valued as anchors of their neighborhoods.

In last week’s negotiations, CTU demanded that Mayor Lightfoot agree as part of the contract to support legislation in Springfield to return Chicago’s schools to an elected school board, and to support legislation once-again to permit Chicago’s teachers to bargain about the conditions in their schools and not merely salary and benefits.  Lightfoot refused. While, Mayor Lightfoot agreed to the kind of staffing changes now prohibited by state law as permissible in CTU negotiations, she delayed settling the strike when she refused to agree to the union’s demand that she throw her support to state legislation to undo the 1995 law that established a mayoral-appointed school board and limited the CTU contracts to salary and benefits.  Sarah Karp explains: “(T)o her credit, she did not pursue this legal argument once the strike started and never moved, as her predecessor did, to have the walkout declared illegal. This, she must have realized, was a strike on moral issue and fighting it in a courtroom would not reflect well, especially on a mayor who ran as a progressive. After all, she agreed the school district needed more support staff.  But she said putting these promises in the contract would lessen the flexibility the leadership needed.”

Fortunately Chicago’s powerful leaders in Illinois’s state legislature grasped that one of the strike’s primary goals was to undo at least some of the history aimed at disempowering the Chicago Teachers Union. The Sun-Times reports: “On Wednesday, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton signaled support for both measures. That led the union to drop its demand that Lightfoot publicly support the measures.” Later, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker added his support for the legislation demanded by CTU.

Chicago has served as a microcosm where we have all watched the operation of accountability-based, test and punish school reform. Chicago’s history has mirrored the imposition of the same kind of reforms mandated nationally in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Corporate-accountability reformers have embraced evaluation of schools by test scores alone, competition among schools (public school competition and competition from charter schools), punishments for teachers when test scores are low, and school closures for so-called “failing” schools. The experiment has been going on in Chicago for nearly 25 years since mayoral governance was imposed in 1995.

What Chicago teachers showed us during their ten day strike is that corporate reform has not worked.  Chicago’s children have been trapped in schools where too many classes have 40 students and not nearly enough support staff.  Parents and students have been rallying with their teachers now for nearly two weeks. We have all watched an open display of schools whose funding and resources have become shockingly inadequate.