The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education

The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.

The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, Sept 12, 2012

The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.

We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.

In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.

Here’s how it can be done:

  1. Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
  2. Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
  3. The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
  4. What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
  5. And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?

This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.

What are the outcomes of this model?

  1. Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
  2. Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
  3. Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online.  My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this.  For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
  4. Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children SucceedFor the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
  5. The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
  6. The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
  7. Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
  8. And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.

This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?

This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building  models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological.  Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.

The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.

If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.

Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.

Some Resources

The Vermont Virtual Learning Community

The National Writing Project

National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE)


The Art of MATLAB

Community Works Institute

Other Articles

The Elements of Teaching

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Defining the Liberal Arts in America, in 3 Parts

The Emotional Lives of Teachers

Education and Its Discontents

Higher Education and Education Reform: the Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

Hope Spring Eternal Amidst Decline: the Bard College Model

Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

Newark’s South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox

An Education Revolution = A Revolution in Our Communities

The Uncanny Convocation in an Upside Down World

The Last Human Freedoms and the University

Second Guesses and Learning From Students

Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

The Location of Technology and a Theory of the Present

6 thoughts on “The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education

  1. Hector,

    As usual you cut right to the heart of things and lay out an elegant, do-able, sensible plan to change education, not just on the primary and secondary levels, but in higher ed as well. Fabulous post.

    In the graduate course I am co-teaching on the digital writing classroom for 54 K-12 teachers in Vermont this year through Young Writers Project (with teacher mentors–experienced writing teachers using digital and face-to-face approaches– visiting the classrooms and working with the teachers online), I see just how mired the public education system is, even in a fairly progressive state as ours, with tests and scores and time wasted on things that just don’t matter. I see how teachers want to give students meaningful learning experiences, flipping the classroom when possible, but, without the mentoring, inspired leadership, and opportunities for experimentation you describe, they cannot make the leap.

    I see how divided schools and supervisory unions are on all the points you mention–inertia and fear are difficult to overcome: what will be lost, compromised, even damaged when computers enter the classroom in any but cosmetic ways, they ask. But really, they are also asking whether they themselves will be able to cope with the changes, keep up and keep their jobs. Teachers also worry–rightfully– about equal access–to computers and to the internet in school and then at home. Throwing iPADS into classrooms and opening Stanford’s curriculum is not a solution without the deep, sustained in-person and online mentoring you describe.

    Even in this small state we are a long long way from classrooms and schools resembling what you say is both possible and essential. How many of our Vermont college students are looking to careers in education? How many of those who are spend meaningful mentoring time with kids online and in the classroom, both, right here in Vermont? How many of our teacher ed programs are ready to embrace your point #8: ” And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.”

    Thanks for this. You give me hope and inspire me to keep going!


    • Talk about getting to “the heart of things,” Barbara, wow. I think that what you describe, particularly in terms of teacher’s worries and then in terms of volunteering and working with students right here in VT, the major obstacle that I see is the system itself; that is to say, that if those in supervisory unions and the principals don’t see something they recognize, a lunch time program, a tutoring program after school, they’re not sure what to do with it.

      I also see the problem of access to the right hardware. When I first did this program I describe in my post, the first schools I went to were MUHS and, of course, Shoreham, since I have along history of working with them. MUHS’s English teachers literally and simply rejected me. One teacher, the spokes person for the group, said that “assessment could not be done by Middlebury students.” The words still ring in my head since we weren’t going to assess anything, rather we were going to help students meet her requirements. We did venture into Shoreham and the combination of woeful technology, lackluster teacher performance and really inner-city social problems in this rural school, made it so we could hardly get to first base.

      As this was happening, in year one, I did do a tutorial program with a 7th grade class in Newark. I asked for volunteers at Middlebury and I had to turn down some because we had so many. I sort of worked, but then the infrastructure problems in Newark began — tech guy gets sick, no one able to take his spot, the teacher’s indifference, and so on, and well, the rest is history.

      In New York City I have a real partner, a principal I’ve known for over twenty years. It helps that she comes out of the New York City Writing Project (they’re doing wonderful online work, by the way, as is the National).

      In all, I think that what I propose is simple and doable; however, the politics, the fear, and so on, that are so a part of the system, have to be addressed with healthy development. I’ll never forget a very well known teacher, at MUHS, when I did the Orton Project on Digital Storytelling, who said to me, “Hector, don’t forget that we’re institution people.” There’s the crux of the problem. The institutionalization of the imagination is a killer.

      Some of what our elite colleges and universities can do, actually, to help this along, would be to return to the CET model of yesteryear, but this time, around pedagogy and technology, helping teachers work with and deal with different teaching partners — a computer and it’s CMS, a college-age mentor/tutor, and a college professor. In the early days of the CET, we had the model right; it’s been dropped and the teacher working alone persists — but it’s a failed model.

      This is all doable, I insist, and maybe pursuing funding, grants, something to get this “on” — and agreed upon by school boards — is the key.

      Thank you, again, Barbara, for your getting to the “heart of things” — and pushing me, too!

  2. It breaks my heart but surprises me not a bit that you ran into roadblocks in our local schools. Our county is woefully represented in the course I am teaching, too. Something strange about a college town, perhaps…

    As for the CET model, I’m all for it. In a way that is what Geoff Gevalt and I are doing, or trying to do as well, though we are using teachers and former teachers as mentors (including the head of the Green Mountain Writing Project) precisely because they have standing, and are embraced by the classroom teachers as experts. Geoff and I work with the mentors as well as the teachers on digital & communication literacy pedagogy, so in a way it’s two courses in one.

    I love that you have your students doing the mentoring as part of their own development as teachers– you are bringing Pierre Levy’s notion of reciprocal apprenticeships into every classroom: the kids teach and learn, the college students teach and learn, and the teachers teach and learn. Wow. Imagine.


    • Didn’t think of Pierre Lévy on this … Thank you for reminding me. Must be he’s in me unconsciously! Oh boy … Keep doing what you’re doing… See Brittany’s post. She’s TFA, just graduate from Midd, and was in my course last year. And she’s moving mountains — I’ve seen her childrens’ poetry; however, you see what she’s saying!

  3. A lot of thoughts running – but this one I wanted to drop by before I go back to grading 🙂 The Achievement Gap as an literacy and more so –access gap has never hit more closely than presently, in my first year of teaching.

    In the beginning of the year we wrote “I am From” poems, and what should have taken 20 minutes to type, took over two days. The school I teach at has prometheans in every room (though mine doesn’t work very well, nor have I had time to figure out how to use it most constructively for student’s learning) , and Ipads, but my students are still struggling with basic research skills and keyboarding (one-finger point typing is very stylish). At my school, the standardized tests are so important, so ingrained… that my students and parents know their scores (and benchmarks to that) “got a 205, man, I lost 5.” During phone-calls home, in speaking about how impressed I was from fluency diagnostics, most parent’s concerns were not that their kid had tackled high school level texts and words, or the most incredibly beautiful phrase they’d wielded into their free write — but how many points they’d rise. And who am I to be surprised by that, that’s what the school puts out again and again as the priority —

    Speaking as someone who just showed my students a Def Jam Poetry video as a way to introduce how we analyze author’s use of repetition (before delving back into a speech by Dr. King)… the conflict of wanting to having an engaging, modern, creative space for learning versus the pressure of teaching exactly to the test has never been more real, especially at the at-risk schools which are so often at the center of the discussion.

    May visionaries like y’all keep bringing the revolutionary fervor we need to have students truly learn, creative, and synthesize, and may the idealistic, confused naivete a first-year teacher brings to the classroom stay for as long as possible.

    One thing I’d be curious to know – -thoughts on the direction of the Common Corps Curriculum? At least in ELA, it seems to be miles better about trying to be more realistic to real-life tasks & needs.

    • Brittany, thank you. You raise some interesting and quite real challenges and problems. This is why I say what I say. Imagine, then, your classroom, you doing what you’re doing, even moving students “to the test,” which, as you say, is so critical, but with 10 other hands at your side — Middlebury hands. And imagine that we find a fund or something — maybe a google fund — that loads up all the software needed and all the up-to-date- hardware. And what if one tentacle of the software was voice recognition where the kids that aren’t up to speed keyboarding can speak their poetry, their words and the machine records this (which, by the way, would be part of universal design since some kids just learn better this way or can’t learn another way — auditory learners). And, finally, what if the Common Corps Curriculum is the framework that’s laid over the materials being piped through the content areas we find currently being delivered by elite institutions, being tweaked by you for your students. Every time a student keys in or speaks in and responds, there’s the assessment — for you and for the student. The assessment, likewise, announces, tells, shows a pathway for learning something or other that a kid got “wrong” (in quotes because of Bartholomae, of course). Wouldn’t this be something? Wouldn’t this excite the kids, change you, in a way, making it so that you’re more highly focused on the immediate learning? How would your kids like to have, say, 10 more Middlebury students that they could count on, even virtually? You know what we can do.

      I suggest this only because the world of racism and poverty and class struggle is not going away. The political will looks the other way, more interested in self-preservation on the backs of others. So we in education must argue for, push for, excite and demand other ways of doing business because if we don’t work creatively and diligently for some change that is not consistent with the ways we’ve done things in the past, which is why we’re standing still, the world your students face is, well, daunting, something I can’t even imagine. Hell, your community, now, in the future, may simply be some sort of dumping ground, some place the rest of us simply go around, never through. And thus we have the greatest bifurcation in history — and then we’ll see that this is democracy. A huge lie. We have to work, shoulder-to-shoulder, so that won’t happen.

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