Chicago teachers’ strike highlights need for further reform

While the students of Chicago Public Schools resumed classes late last week, effects from the teachers’ strike still linger. With students missing seven days, the district was quick to resolve immediate concerns of the strike.

But the teachers’ strike went deeper than higher wages or better health insurance. Many public school systems stress the importance of gauging a student’s progress using standardized tests, with a teacher’s job security resting on the results of these assessments. If a teacher is fired due to poor student performance, there is no way for teachers to appeal. The Chicago Teachers’ Union grew tired of having tenure and overall job security rest on the backs of young students.

Every child is unique. Children begin the year with varying levels of understanding, so it’s no surprise that they end the year on different levels academically. It is counterproductive for teachers to spend the whole year sculpting their students solely for the standardized tests.

Neglect of certain students begins to emerge from a school system run by standardized tests. Students who excel can be overlooked. They’re above the average, but they aren’t reaching their true potential.

But what about the children in the Chicago Public Schools who are in the lower class? Teachers are unaware of a child’s home environment. Some children act as a translator for parents who don’t speak English. Some children have a higher education than their parents. Who then will help them when they are struggling with their homework?

Many public school systems have attempted to help children in needy homes by offering free or reduced lunch and busing. But these outside problems cannot be completely fixed. So, how can teachers be judged on students’ performances regardless of problems outside their control?

Teachers need to have flexibility in their classrooms. As it stands now, teachers are planning their classes around teaching for standardized tests. With more freedom in class, teachers can gauge where each of their students are and change the material accordingly. The teacher can slow down a lesson if many students are struggling. Concepts in class need to be understood thoroughly, not memorized.

I went to a public high school where many of my tests consisted of information I could memorize and reiterate back to my teachers. I would get a study guide, make flashcards and speedily memorize those facts. Once I handed in the test, all of that short-term memorization washed away. I didn’t really understand what I was learning. I just knew how the system worked.

I realize that school districts want to compare their students with other children across the nation. Standardized tests serve as a way to even the playing field and easily compare academic “success.” But in fact, they divide students.

Some students are better problem solvers, while others are better at applying concepts. Additionally, some children are better at taking tests, while others just freeze up. On a rigid, specific test based on facts, some students will have an advantage. These types of tests are not going to express the success of an individual teacher and should not decide whether the teacher is effective.

Overall, teachers need to be given a voice in their own classrooms. They are around their students at least seven hours a day during the school year. They are the ones who should be included in deciding a student’s progress or success, not a test written for the “generic” child.

But for now, the teachers’ strike has been quieted and the children are back in school. Some of the teachers’ concerns were addressed: Teachers will now receive a 7 percent salary increase, 30 percent of teachers’ evaluations will be based on the students’ test scores and when the principal hires new teachers, half of them must be previously laid off teachers. But there are still many more bumps in the road.

While these changes do not correct every issue the teachers raised, they are a step in the right direction. What it comes down to is the fact that the children are the future, so they should be the first priority.

Katie Haggstrom ’14 is from Omaha, Neb. She majors in English.

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