Chicago teachers strike: Give change a chance

Students picket with striking Chicago school teachers outside Lane Tech College Prep High School Sept. 11, 2012, in Chicago. Getty Images

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY The contentiousteachers strike in Chicago has brought back memories of my mother, who was a dedicated  teacher at the public elementary school in our middle-class St. Louis neighborhood.

Each year, parents lobbied the principal to get their children into my mother's class. On Halloween, wide-eyed kids from the neighborhood who knocked on our door treated my mom like she was a rock star. My mother, who was an extremely modest person, truly hated all the attention. She felt she was only doing what any teacher should do -- providing all her students the best education possible.

What my mother also didn't like was the ability of mediocre teachers to benefit from a broken educational system. In St. Louis and throughout the country, it remains nearly impossible for lousy teachers who have tenure to be fired. When school districts need to lay off teachers, principals are forced to make decisions based on seniority rather than on keeping the most valuable teachers.

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My mother, who was not a political person, rarely talked about any of this, but hailing from an extended family of public school educators (great aunt, uncle, aunt, brother-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephew, brother, sister), I firmly believe that great teachers are a treasure and poor ones need to find a different career.

Fearing change
For decades, I saw little progress in making the public schools more accountable to children. As a political progressive, however, I was thrilled when the Obama administration made education reform a top priority with its Race to the Top competition.

Pay isn't the chief concern of the Chicago strikers. The kind of educational reforms that the government favors is just the sort of change that prompted the strike.  It doesn't surprise me that teachers in Chicago and elsewhere are angry about a push for increased teacher accountability, because change is always scary. 

Many of the proposed changes in Chicago and elsewhere seem like no brainers to me. In fact, I think most reasonable people would answer "no" to these common practices that need to be stopped: 

- Should school districts continue to be forced to lay off teachers based on seniority?

- Should teachers be paid based on their seniority rather than on merit?

- Should school districts be required to rehire laid-off teachers even if there are better candidates?

Public vs. charter schools
I also don't think this conflict should be positioned as public schools versus charter schools. There are great public schools and great charter schools, and there are failing schools in each category. (My children went to a combination of traditional public, charter and private schools before heading off to college.) What is most important is that schools enjoy flexibility to make the best decisions for children.

If public schools were doing a great job of educating students, the case for resisting change would have more merit. But that is far from the reality. I say let's give change a chance.

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