Despite months of protests and civil disobedience, Chicago’s board of education voted Wednesday, May 22 to close 50 Chicago public schools, the largest such wave of closings in U.S. history. The schools are almost all exclusively located in black and Latino low-income neighborhoods in Chicago’s South and West Side. The months-long efforts of parents, teachers, and students to convince the board to rethink the closures, and even prevent the vote from taking place, ultimately failed.
Some of the most outspoken critics of the school closings have been the members of their local school councils, or LSCs. Unique to Chicago, LSCs provide teachers, parents, and community members direct oversight in how their school is run.
In a piece posted to The Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet blog, Leslie T. Fenwick, dean of the Howard University School of Education writes that such policies are “really about exporting the urban poor, reclaiming inner city land, and using schools to recalculate urban land value. This kind of school reform is not about children, it’s about the business elite gaining access to the nearly $600 billion that supports the nation’s public schools. It’s about money.”
The irony here is that this really wasn’t about a lack of money. To add insult to the injury, Chicago is simultaneously transferring hundreds of millions in tax dollars meant for public education to the private sector, including $100 million for De Paul University, a private institution, to build a new sports stadium.
So many times I have written articles to expose this gross disenfranchisement of the poor, black, and Latino children that is systematically occurring in our nation. We will pay a huge price in the future, as a community, for this planned disregard for those that need our attention and care the most. Is this what we really are, as a society? I choose to believe that is not the case. What we are is lazy and indifferent to anything that does not directly affect us. However, I assure you this assault on public education in our most impoverished areas of our country and cities will affect you in ways you may not appreciate on the surface. Crime, the cost of public assistance, and the real danger of long term unemployment of those under 25 will rear its ugly head and we won’t like the results.
We must act and speak out for those without political clout. Yeah, I am talking to you, cozy middle class families. There are actions we can all take.
We need to change tactics, including pressuring union leadership to mobilize their members to demand the Democratic Party stop supporting school closures nationally. We need to support and encourage teachers and community members taking over their schools in order to save them. Yes, I mean we need to prepare to occupy the schools, just as the CIO did in organizing industry in the ’30s. They occupied the factories. And I think the difference is we need to occupy the schools and make them sites of educational liberation, so that we show that it is we who control education, not these elites who have hack politicians who do their work. But to do that requires a phenomenal amount of mobilization and consciousness and radicalism on the part of parents and students and teachers and community activists.
But if not now, when? The United States places 17th in the developed world for education, according to a global report by education firm Pearson. A report recently published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are making gains in academics three times faster than American students, while those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate.
Students in Shanghai who recently took international exams for the first time outscored every other school system in the world. In the same test, American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. A 2009 study found that U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, behind nations like China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland.
Just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at the advanced level on an international exam administered in 56 countries in 2006. That proportion is lower than those achieved by students in 30 other countries. American students’ low performance and slow progress in math could also threaten the country’s economic growth, experts have said.
There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focused system-wide attention to achieve improvement.
Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.
Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.
Parents are neither impediments to nor saviors of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.
Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.
Enough said, let’s get off our collective asses and do something that begs our immediate attention.