Reading the Tea Leaves: Chicago Public Schools and the Obama Education Agenda

When we take a good look at the doctrine towards Education of the Obama Administration, we need only look at the situation and status of the Public Education System in Chicago. Why Chicago, some of you may ask? Well there’s a two-fold answer to that which paints a terribly clear picture of what current practices might look like nationally. First, Chicago is the heart of Obama’s political home state of Illinois, and since Obama is most often criticized for employing “Chicago Style Politics” (cronyism, etc) it is somewhat synonymous, at least with his detractors, of his administrative and executive style. Second, is that Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was about as close to the Obama Administration as one could hope to be. As Obama’s first Chief of Staff he was essentially the President’s Vizier until mid-term 2010 turnover election predictions came, almost in concert, with the opportunity to run for Mayor. As such, we can probably assume that the Mayor and the President has a somewhat close alignment on a number of issues considering that Emmanuel was also an Illinois US Representative while Obama was a Senator. Conjecture and fact of their political alignment is not hyperbolic.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the bookends of Chicago Public Schools’ 2012-2013 school year. They year began with the eyes of the nation on CPS as their teachers walked out due to differences and grievances with the City. Parents seemed to overwhelmingly support the walk-out while the media in general tried to throw the teachers under the bus (as is fashionable) and attempt to paint them as selfish and doing a disservice to their charges (which is a position I attacked in an article at the time). Eventually, with children out of school for well over a week in September a compromise was met that allowed the teachers to go back work. So, already we can see that politically aligned as they are, teachers are not pleased with the Mayor. The year, at least from my vantage point of New York, where we have our own massive troubles with mayors, seemed to go routinely…or at least without national scandal.

That is, until the nigh end of term came around and CPS decided that they would in fact close 49 (initially the number was well over 50) public schools. The Board President, knowing that the Board and the Citizens of Chicago are not cosigning this move spearheaded by Mayor Emmanuel, took four schools off of the list so as to expedite the process of getting these school closed. “The status quo is not working” was the comment given by Board President Byrd-Bennett following the unanimous vote to back the Mayor’s initiative to shut down the 48 elementary schools and one high school program. While the city is saying that they will shift the student populations around to find them suitable placement the truth between the lines is simply going to amount to one of two possibilities: over crowding or charter school placement. The reality of the situation will probably be some mix of both. Meanwhile, detractors and parents are shouting that such closings will tear their communities asunder as elementary schools are often gathering points or common factors in community identity. Rather than ascertaining what isn’t working—most likely the so-called reforms that have been put in place—they have decided instead to wipe the schools off the map.

The number of schools being closed happens to be astronomically high, but also raises questions about how replacement could possibly fix the issue. According to the Center for Public Education only some charter schools yield better results than the public institutions they aim to replace while may perform the same or worse. This raises the question as to why then, given such doleful data that the push for charter institution would be so hard and so universally acclaimed in the media. I have my own opinions on the matter which amount to the institution of a Dickensian parochial school system in America, where only the haves will have access to education–public or otherwise–while the opposite intention is given as the reason. Regardless of my theory or not, the statistics do not support massive school closings as any kind of practical solution to fixing the education system. We’ll have to wait and see how the experiment to go all-charter in Philadelphia works, but I have a hunch that the numbers will be the same, or worse as per national indication. The push for privatization through Charter is a centerpiece of the Obama Education platform, along with the nebulous and overbearing Common Core Standards.

While it is unclear how Common Core Aligned Chicago Schools are, it is also unclear how Common Core Aligned anybody is, anywhere. The language is largely undefined while the practice of the language is required in school ratings. The most heavily emphasized word emanating from the Obama doctrines is “rigor” which is a frightening term that nobody, even supposed experts, can define or model. It’s something of a joke in administrator free staff rooms—teachers talking about rigor like it’s a widget in a fictitious business class project: it doesn’t matter what the product does, as long as you can sell it. This creed is the standard of the business infused, high stakes testing obsessed education “reform” of the past decade. Nobody seems to be able to tell students and teachers what their practice and results should look like, but sure as hell they can tell you how to assess it and rate your practice and success. There has been a flurry of absolutely insane statements behind these reforms including “building the airplane while it’s in the air”. This one is perhaps the most preposterous and dangerously absurd yet telling statements to date. Would you want to fly in an airplane being built in the air? Why would you subject children to a system being overhauled under those terms? And how could you hold anyone ultimately accountable for the performance of such an airplane, still incomplete yet in flight? But that is what the Common Core Standards, borne of the distractingly name No Child Left Behind Act, aims to do exactly. Build it while it’s in the air and blame the pilots—not the engineers—when it tragically and invariably crashes.

While all public schools are looking to adopt the Common Core Standards at break neck speeds to receive funding, they are also additionally charged with making sense of the damn thing and must define the terminology in the way that best services their school’s environment and philosophy. It raises the question as to how such standards, so variably defined, could bear the nomenclature of “Standard” at all. Regardless though, it is the standard of Standard that schools and by extension the dehumanized student product they attempt to churn out like manufactured Stepford children are held to, and is indeed their cross to bear. However, the institution and adoption of these new guidelines seems to have done little in curbing the trend of school closings as both Philadelphia and Chicago can both attest to so it leaves many to wonder…what are these undefined standards meant to do?

If one were to read the tea leaves, then Chicago may be our best cup to sift through; where Captain Emmanuel is as close as one could be to the Admiral Obama while still having their own ship to helm. The portents there are not very comforting, at least not for people who believe in fair and appropriate public education, when the government of a major American city is looking close almost 50 schools at once. 50 schools hardly seems like any of the so-called reforms of the past few years have been working, and limiting teacher freedoms to tie them to these ill-explained demands and drill-and-kill mentality doesn’t benefit anyone either. When we look at the microcosm of Chicago in the context of what lies ahead for the whole country, we should reexamine what we consider to be reform and starting thinking about how we can properly rebuild Americas school into something that is going to help America’s children, because the current structures aren’t helping any schools to thrive.




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