Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Let There Be Competition

John Stossel, host of Stossel show on Fox Business Network appeared on the O’ Reilly Factor taunting Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, who went on strike earlier this year, for being confused about their demands. He blamed them for being responsible for the failing public schools. Perhaps Mr. Stossel doesn’t know that successful schools depend not just on teachers, but on adequate resources as well. He went on to say that the best way to reform education is through competition.

Markets in education is a dangerous discourse. An abundance of research shows that contrary to improving education, markets and competition, in the long term, perpetuate existing inequalities. Telling parents to compete for best schools for their children in choice programs like voucher plans, may sound appealing, but typically has detrimental effect on the public good. What would happen to the children of the parents who are unable to engage effectively in this competition? To compete, people would need the tools to help them win the competition. As a result, there are several drawbacks that can preclude marginalized parents from winning in this competition. For instance, research has shown that parents who have all the resources, including time, money, and correct information, are better situated to navigate good schools for their children. Consider a single parent mother who juggles three jobs a day, taking a subway to all these jobs, and does not have friends or colleagues with whom she can share good information about local schools. How is this parent expected to compete successfully in schools choice? The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, together with Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, do not send their children to the CPS system. Their children attend the prestigious Lab School at the University of Chicago. Perhaps this is the reason the Mayor and the Secretary do not find it urgent to increase resources to CPS schools and listen to the demands of the teachers so that these schools too can provide good education as is possible in the Lab School.  

CPS teachers had legitimate grievances and they ought to be commended for their courage in these times of attack on public education and unionized labor. The recent events in Wisconsin did not deter their courage. One of the teachers’ demands was to untie salary from students’ scores. They are also against the high stakes testing, as one of the placards read: “I want to teach to the students not to the test.” They want students to become critical thinkers who can make informed decisions in this democracy. In a quest to raise test scores, the Mayor seems to be fixed on the increase in the length of hours students are kept in classrooms without recognizing that the tests are racially and culturally biased in a way that disenfranchise students in poverty contexts. They also do not necessarily measure what teachers are teaching or what students are learning. One might ask whether the length of the school day can be so simply related to the scores on a standardized test.

Teachers in CPS may have not gotten all their demands met, but the act of engaging in the strike is a partial victory itself. They remind us that in a democracy test scores and competition are not the answer if we want all students to succeed. CPS teachers know that there is something wrong if education has to produce winners and losers.