Thursday, September 13, 2012

Guest Blog: Billionaire Philanthropy and the Chicago Teachers' Strike

The following is a guest posting by Robin Rogers, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). Robin's last post was the popular "Billionaire Education Policy." She can be reached via email at
Follow her on Twitter: @Robin_Rogers

Earlier this week I was a guest panelist for Al Jazeera English’s news program Inside Story. The half-hour feature – provocatively entitled “Should U.S. schools be run like businesses?” – focused on the Chicago teachers’ strike that had begun that morning. The two other guests were Joanne Barkan, who writes on economic, labor and education issues, and her clear foil Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. – and, I should note, currently in a heated debate with Sara Goldrick-Rab.

Barkan and Chingos are formidable thinkers and articulate advocates for their positions on the Chicago strike, Barkan siding with the Chicago Teachers Union and Chingos making a case against it. And then there was me. I’d be delighted to say I was brought onto this panel as the rational moderate—or as I prefer to think of it, immoderately rational. But rather, I was brought on as “an expert on the role of billionaire philanthropy in shaping public policy.” Taking a step back, it’s important to ask why a panel on the teachers’ strike needs an expert on billionaire philanthropy. My very presence at the table is telling. The truth is, you can’t understand what’s happening in Chicago without factoring billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Michael Dell, and Michael Bloomberg into the equation.

To be clear, billionaire-financed education reform is not the only reason for this strike. The city of Chicago is facing debt in the billions. The schools are under-performing and among the most segregated in the country. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his education reformers have genuine problems to solve and good points to make. On the other hand, Chicago teachers are facing a serious and well-financed effort to cut their pay and benefits while the school system is reorganized to permit their wholesale firing. They have some good points, too.

The strike, however, is about much more than these bread and butter issues. The strike is about the heart and soul of American public education. I don’t buy the claims being tossed around by both sides that this is all about the kids. (It is never all about the kids: they don’t vote.) This particular strike, in many ways, has become a referendum on how “public” public schools should be. Increasingly, public officials like Rahm Emanuel are teaming up with private education reformers and private foundations. The question of who controls public education – an institution that is at the core of democracy – has become open-ended.

One of the biggest issues in the Chicago strike is teacher evaluation. For many observers, this issue makes teachers seem unsympathetic, as if they’re afraid of being evaluated. But evaluation in and of itself isn’t the real issue—even many unions support strong evaluation and reform. In today’s debate, teacher evaluation has become something of a code word or a Trojan horse for a package of other reforms, many of which lead toward the privatization and de-professionalization of teaching. On the surface, it might seem trite or suspicious for teachers to be striking over their evaluations, or their pensions and healthcare. In truth, for both sides the strike is about much more than that.

When anti-union reform advocates talk about teacher evaluations, they’re also talking about a new type of education system—the type supported by billionaire philanthropists— that rewrites the rules of seniority, tenure and credentialing, while shifting funding priorities into public charter schools and other new models. Pro-union opponents, on the other hand, support some types of evaluation and reform, but they also want to strengthen and preserve what we currently understand to be the public education system.

The aspect of this debate that’s very frustrating to me as a social scientist is the idea that we can look to scientific studies for “objective” answers as to “what works” in education. Today’s education reformists often believe that they have found the “solution” to public education. Based on what is presented as clear-cut research, reformists will shut down longstanding neighborhood schools and open charter schools that reflect the latest, trendiest “solution.”

Meanwhile, most education researchers will tell you that we wish we could handpick the perfect teacher based on the perfect parameters or evaluation schema, but we can’t. Teacher evaluation models have turned out to be very iffy predictors of how well a teacher performs – and, of course, there is not an endless supply of brilliant teachers. This doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions or strategies for hiring good teachers, but rather that public education is more complicated than many number-crunching reformers realize.

There is mounting evidence that charter schools don’t perform particularly better or worse than regular public schools, despite the money invested in charters. Of course there are examples of outstanding charter schools just as there are examples of outstanding public schools. I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City, an outstanding public school, and yet I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that Stuyvesant could be duplicated all over the country – “scaled up” to use the language of philanthrocapitalist education reformers.

There are three important points that I want to make away from the heated rhetoric on both sides of the strike – point that I think many involved would agree with but that are being lost in the fray. First, we are at a turning point in American education that will impact our ability to sustain our democratic system as well as our economic competitiveness. Second, education research is being mangled and abused as people – again on both sides – try to turn questions that are fundamentally about our values and priorities into technical questions that can be solved with a spreadsheet or regression analysis. Third, billionaire philanthropists have an outsized role in public education policy that is financed by tax dollars as well as private contributions. If we can focus on these three issues and use education research in good faith, then perhaps we can build a public education system worthy of our county’s children – even if they don’t vote.