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School reform: reality vs. distortion

People protest outside of the Chicago Public Schools Headquarters 125 S. Clark, where the school board is considering a reform package that includes closing or overhauling 17 struggling schools.Wednesday, February 22, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union is for smaller classes and a massive pay raise. They are against closing or overhauling struggling schools, and their union bosses this week advised teachers to play hooky from school so they could help block Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial reform plan.

Yet CTU President Karen Lewis wants us to think that she and the union’s top brass are the real reformers, and that Emanuel and Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard are the ones who would do anything to preserve a culture of school failure.

Pure genius. This is the kind of “reality distortion field” that helped Apple’s legendary founder Steve Jobs convince himself that up was down, and that black was white. It is hard to imagine that anyone is going to fall for it, but for the sake of Chicago’s schoolchildren, here’s hoping that Lewis is as brilliant at pulling it off as Jobs was.

In a glossy 46-page manifesto called “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” Lewis argues – repeatedly – that what Chicago schoolkids need more than anything right now is more teachers. More teachers for traditional classrooms, more teachers for art and theater, more teachers for physical education. And teachers should have their own assistants. On top of all that, Lewis argues, kids need more counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists.

There’s nothing in the CTU propaganda about improving the quality of classroom instruction. There’s nothing about a longer school day to give teachers and students more time to catch up. What we see are multiple proposals that seem designed to do little more than add more than 1,500 new dues-paying members for the CTU. It’s good for the union’s bottom line, but is it good for kids?

The “Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” gives lip service to better partnerships with parents, but there is nothing in the document about allowing them to have a stake in ongoing teacher contract negotiations between the union and the city. They don’t even want parents to peek behind the curtain to see whether the needs of their kids are even a factor in the bargaining process.

To be sure, a lot of the recommendations CTU is pushing are no-brainers. Fixing leaky roofs, ensuring all schools have recess and addressing the needs of special-needs students should be non-negotiable at this point. And its general theme – that low-income Chicago kids deserve the same high-quality education that wealthy students get – should be a guiding principle for all city leaders.

“Our children deserve better!” the CTU document exclaims.

Indeed, they do.

Reform means change. Change can be bumpy. Despite all the noise, Chicago is seeing real results from some of its most controversial reform efforts. Test scores in schools that underwent dramatic reform efforts such as turnaround are on the rise. Even some of the city’s toughest high schools, where the turnaround work is most difficult – are slowly showing signs of improvement. It’s getting very hard to argue that serious intervention in these struggling schools isn’t in the best interests of school children.

It is entirely understandable why the CTU would want to fight to add to its membership levels. Every new dues-paying union member adds to the union’s already hefty bottom line. Picking on the school district helps CTU explain to its members that it is fighting on their behalf. There has to be a bad guy, and we understand that.

What is impossible to fathom, however, is why Emanuel and Brizard would even consider wavering from their commitment to providing every child in Chicago with a better opportunity to succeed.

Rebeca Nieves-Huffman is director of the Illinois chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee.