There is only one problem confronting urban public schools, and it has nothing to do with the schools or the teachers, contrary to all the blather by idle-rich busybodies and the intellectually feeble politicans who do their bidding. The primary problem with urban public schools is that they largely serve a population that lives under conditions of economic hardship, sometimes grotesque economic hardship, with all the attendant problems of poor nutrition, physical safety, availability of adult supervision after school, and suitable environments and incentives for school work. That, of course, is why suburban public schools in affluent communities--with unionized teachers who are no different than those in the urban schools--always do better on measures of academic performance and outcomes. If you don't have to worry whether there will be food for dinner, or whether you will be mugged, or if anyone will be available to take care of you, or whether you'll have a quiet place to work, it turns out to be easier to do well in school. It's got nothing to do with the teachers, and everything to do with the environment. (Here and there, fabulous teaching makes a difference, but you can't make policy around atypical cases.)
Of course, it would be hard to generate enthusiasm among hedge-fund billionaire busybodies for doing something about the economic environment in which the victims live, so instead we are presented with the absurd idea that if only the teachers were better, everything would be dandy, as well as the destructive idea that to make the teachers better, we need to measure their performance based on standardized test results. (That idea, by the way, started with George W. Bush when he was Governor of Texas, and it successfully destroyed the public schools, as the curriculum devolved into "teaching to the test," rather than teaching.)
Rahm Emanuel's kids attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where 99% of the kids go on to college (and about 50% go on to what would be generally considered highly selective or "elite" colleges and universities). There are some very good teachers at "Lab," and some not so good ones. But no one ever dreams of suggesting that to be even better, those teachers should be paid according to standardized test results. Lab School is successful for simple reasons: it has resources and it has good students, half of whom come from academic families and the other half from with families with family and monetary resources to support them. The school's financial resources support a good curriculum, a well-compensated teaching staff, arts, enrichment programs, after-school activities, and more. No one ever suggests we should "stop throwing money" at the school, that what "Lab" really needs is teachers whose students get higher test scores. But this bullshit and blather is standard fare when it comes to the public schools.
The pathological liars of the right are out in full force to smear the striking teachers. Typical are the headlines on the site of "Matt Drudge," one of the ringleaders of the Right-Wing Blob, a man whose crimes against truth and moral decency are well-known. One headline reads that the teachers "Turn Down $400 Million Deal, 16% Pay Raise..." Of course, you have to go to the article and read till the end to learn that that was a 16% pay raise over four years, and that it was in response to an even greater increase in the workload of the teachers. Another headline then reports, falsely, that Chicago public school teachers "have highest average salary in Nation," linking to a blog post at The National Review (!), which cites no sources, since in fact it's not true. Corey Robin has more relevant details. And here's a good takedown of the disgusting Mayor. Jim Nichols has a good round-up of links and information.
UPDATE: A colleague elsewhere correctly observes that if "there is really high teacher turnover and/or burned out teachers who are dramatically overworked and under-resourced, then teachers really do become problematically bad," and that's, of course, part of what the teachers' union is trying to prevent. The key point is that the problems confronting urban public schools are not primarily problems about the quality of teaching, let alone problems that will be solved by gimmicks like standardized testing and merit pay, which will produce, among other things, precisely high teacher turnover.
ANOTHER: A profile of the head of the teachers union.
AND ANOTHER: This story usefully situates what's going on in Chicago in a national context.
MORE: A terrific speech by a Chicago lawyer, Matt Farmer, about what parents want from education.
ANOTHER RESOURCE: Diana Ravitch, who was actually in the Bush Education Department, though has subsequently recanted on the right-wing myths about public education, charter schools, and teachers' unions, has a good and on-going set of posts about the Chicago situation. (Those right-wing myths continue to be championed by the Obama Administration in large part.)
A LATE ADDENDUM: This post raises an important point about how we are taught to think about compensation in the capitalist utopia.
SEPTEMBER 12 UPDATE: Leave it to the "liberal" New York Times to come down squarely on the side of the idle-rich billionaire busybodies!