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School’s Out at a Turnaround School

This era may be remembered as the time when our nation’s leaders decided to break the spirits of our teachers and to close enough schools to instill fear in the hearts of all educators

I don’t know which “thought leader” came up with the idea that the best way to “fix” a school with low test scores is to fire the principal and at least half the staff. I don’t know the evidence to support this policy of wiping the slate clean without individual evaluations.

But now with the federal imprimatur of Race to the Top, it’s happening in many school districts. And of course, the U.S. Department of Education will stretch to prove that lowering the boom works, because it’s their idea. But how do you persuade the public and especially communities of color where the axe will fall most often that this punitive strategy is a good idea?

Imaginary scene: Some bright PR guy or gal figured out how important language is in selling a really destructive idea. “How can we explain to people that we are firing most of the teachers and renaming the neighborhood school? The one that everyone knew and loved for fifty years? How do we make this unpleasant reality palatable?” Ponder, ponder.

“Ah, I’ve got it! When we shut down their school and fire everyone, let’s call it a “turnaround!” That sounds like a dance around the Maypole. It sounds so festive. It’s positive and happy.

“Crazy idea. No one will believe that. No one is that stupid.”

“Think so? Let’s try it and see how it goes.”

With that context, here is how it went for this teacher in New York City.  This comment and the events it describes occurred before the arbitrator postponed the school turnarounds last Friday. Some teachers had already found other jobs. Those who choose to remain have a one-year lease on life, unless a court throws out the arbitrator’s decision. The bottom line: chaos, uncertainty, disruption. This is no way to run a school or a school system.


Why This Preschool Teacher Voted to Strike
July 2, 2012

A lot of cash will be spent in Chicago to beat the teachers down for authorizing a strike. Expect a barrage of ads aimed at demeaning the teachers and distorting their grievances. The big equity investors and corporations like to complain about the power of the unions, but the unions don’t look very powerful these days. The CTU looks like downtrodden and much-abused teachers. Democratic mayors like Rahm Emanel have shown that they don’t care about CTU, and don’t need them. They talk “respect” out of one side of their mouth, but they are ready to throw the teachers under the bus.

Emanuel’s Wall Sreet friends will make sure the public hears his side of the story on radio and television.

Time to hear the other side.

A preschool teacher in the Chicago public schoolsexplained recently why she voted to authorize a strike. Understand that teachers are disposed to follow rules, because they teach children to follow them. They are inclined to respect authority because they expect to be respected for their authority. But in Chicago, after years of being abused by the city’s leadership, they decided they had had enough.

This teacher gave her reasons.

One, every year her job is in jeopardy because of budget cuts. Every year she gets her resume ready and every year she lives in constant insecurity, not knowing if she will be around next year. At the same time, she must maintain the level of enthusiasm necessary to be a “super-teacher” both to keep her job and to hired if she needs another job. It’s hard to maintain maximum “effectiveness” under such demoralizing conditions.

Two, she is disgusted that the time she used to spend on field trips and other activities that little children love has now been turned into time to administer standardized tests to them to determine “kindergarten readiness.” It used to be that every child of the right age was ready to go to kindergarten, but “those days are over.” Accountability, she writes, always seems to be for “those with the least say-so.”

Reason 3: She was infuriated with Superintendent Brizard sent a letter to parents informing them that the strike was wrong. The letter was translated into “Spanish, Mandarin, Polish and Arabic.” The teacher was dumbfounded because she had never been able to get the resources to translate materials or information to the parents without doing it herself. So the system does have those resources, but only to attack the teachers and their union.

Reason 4: The city council just voted $5.2 million to the Hyatt chain to build a new hotel (CPS board member Penny Pritzker is an heiress of the Hyatt chain).

And finally, “I voted ‘yes’ because I have self-respect, and I was always taught (and teach) that when you stand up for yourself against bullies and liars, other will stand up with you. Well, the teachers are standing up. Will you join us?”

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...