Monday, September 17, 2012

Missing the Point About the Chicago Strike

I generally think of the New York Times Editorial as representing a measured and fairly cautious set of opinions.  Earlier this week, they departed from this norm in an editorial titled “Chicago Teachers’ Folly”, in which the paper attacks the union in Chicago’s school district not on the merits of its gripes, but on the basis that they appear to be fighting against a “national trend” to streamline education. 

“Teachers’ strikes”, wrote the paper, “because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea”.  That’s a pretty bold statement from an editorial board.  It would be one thing to launch your attack on a strike action based on the principles of the particular strike in question, the good-faith of its organisers, or, in other words, any specific point related to a particular strike.  But the NYT went farther.  It attacked, in principle, any strike by educators under the misplaced assumption that it’s worse for kids to miss a single day of school than for teachers to remain unionised.  Because without the ability to strike, what’s left of the benefits that unionisation confers on a group of workers?

So if, on the one hand, the paper is launching an attack on the very idea of organised labour it is, on the other, suggesting that it’s a zero-sum game.  If students miss school, it’s a bad thing, the paper says, always worse than the effects of leaving problems with the educational system un-addressed.  This is a common—and very stupid—criticism of strike action.  “If only”, the critics moan, “we could have a strike that didn’t disrupt things, didn’t impact anyone, was nice, quiet, and easy to ignore”.  This misses the point of a strike, which is precisely to disrupt things, thereby showing the importance of a given sector of workers by demonstrating how disruptive their absence would be. 

The federal government (and some state governments) are making a sustained effort to overhaul education, to turn it into a leaner, meaner, altogether less thoughtful enterprise which reduces students to the sum of their test scores.  There is a ripple-effect here—for example on university campuses where students arrive with a firm mastery of whatever rote material the state and federal government deems test-worthy, but with poorer writing skills and with less practise in approaching subject matter analytically (i.e. the things which matter for making the most of a university education).  Just as it changes the nature of the stakes for teachers in poor-performing schools (potentially punishing a different version of success), it changes the stakes for students.  No longer can education be framed as something empowering, or can students be encouraged to see why the seemingly abstract things they have to study in school matter.  Increasingly, the only reason they do matter is because they might feature on a test.  It’s a rather dispiriting measure of importance and relevance.

I think the question that critics ought to ask themselves about the Chicago strike or any other teachers’ strike is, this: What, at the end of the day, hurts children and their families more?  Missing a few days of school, and the attendant inconveniences?  Or being fed a test-oriented curriculum which doesn’t appear to work very well by increasingly stigmatised teachers and staff who are working in increasingly toxic conditions?  Teachers are blamed for an ever-growing number of social ills by a public which doesn’t seem to realise that teachers have less and less room to manoeuvre in the classroom, less input into curriculum, less scope to tackle student weaknesses in creative ways which can be tailored to the strengths of those students, less backing from their administrators, and more pressures to contend with.  Once you’ve evaluated this new culture of education you can pronounce on the specifics of a particular strike.  But blanket condemnations like that offered in the New York Times are a sorry contribution to the public debate.

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