On Tuesday, I got the chance to ask Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president, and Jean-Claude Brizard, Chicago Public Schools CEO, a couple of questions at the Tribune‘s Chicago Forward: Education forum.
I got some boos. I got some applause.
I sat in the first row with other TribNation essay winners: two students, two parents, one other teacher. Behind me, a few rows of CTU members
cheered and chuckled when Lewis rolled her eyes at Brizard. A few rows behind them, many Chicagoans listened. Sometimes some applauded for Lewis. Sometimes some applauded Brizard. I waited for my turn.
The moderator asked me to read my essay last. Then I asked Karen Lewis my question: “We know that in all professions, there are people who
are ineffective at their jobs. Why does the union protect bad teachers?” I heard some applause.
“The union,” Lewis jumped in, “does not protect bad teachers.” She got some applause. “The union protects due process,” she continued.
But I have to remind myself as I write this reflection–the due process is a complicated, time-consuming process that makes it difficult to remove a bad teacher from the classroom. The bad teachers I’ve worked with belittle students, plan poorly and teach unengagingly, and explicitly say students can’t learn. We know when we have a bad doctor even if we don’t have a medical degree, so we should not find it so difficult to identify–and remove–a bad teacher.
If a principal is committed to removing a bad teacher, she must spend hours documenting a case against the obvious. This takes away resources
from good teachers and, of course, students who deserve a better school.
On the stage, Lewis went on to say, “I think you are mischaracterizing what we’re all about.” When I said that I–as a union member–wanted to “see my union lead the conversation and ask the questions before the [difficult] topic even comes up,” her response was, “I’d like to have the time to do that.” I stayed a the mic and responded to her comments because I felt I needed to and because the TribNation manager said we could. They wanted it to be a conversation. So Karen Lewis and I conversed.
“You’re still my brother,” Lewis reassured me that night. “You’re still family here.”
After the event, I thought about the legislation that passed earlier this year that will allow student growth to be considered in teacher evaluations. I was invited to a focus group by CPS’s Department of Human Resources–so were other National Board Certified Teachers. I have not heard
anything from the union about how this will or will not work.
At the end, Lewis promoted the CTU’s leadership in professional development through the Quest Center. But I–as a CTU member–don’t need them to lead PD. I want them to lead policy–policy that will help more good teachers.
My question for Brizard was this: “Not one high school in a Latino neighborhood has the words ‘college prep’ in its official title.” I heard some applause. “To me,” I continued, “this means Chicago’s educational reform movement failed the Latino community. Can you agree?” Quiet. I didn’t hear anything. My wife said someone near the back yelled, “They failed everybody!”
Throughout his calm response, Brizard answered “yes” two times. He emphasized that part of his value system included “putting resources where it’s [sic] needed.”
I agreed with Brizard at one point: “Putting ‘college prep’ in the name does not automatically make it college prep. It’s about an ideology, a value system, a community.” But I emphasized that when we see college preps going up in other parts of the city, we’re on the Southwest Side thinking, “When is it our turn?”
I didn’t stay for the cocktail reception. As I walked out, about twenty people stopped me and expressed their support. One group included moms
from Little Village. One man, however, was from Substance News and is now claiming I’m not a union member. My dues are paid in full. No one there, though, said anything mean.
Lewis was given the first word; Brizard was given the last, but Lewis fought to get it. I left satisfied knowing I participated in CTU protest
of a different sort.
To hear our entire conversation, click on the link below and scroll down to the “EXTRAS” section. Then, open the the mp3 file and fast forward 2/3 into it.
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