Picket lines make good headlines. Who doesn't love a story about how Chicago kids spent their unexpected week off from school? But the Chicago Teachers' Union strike isn't just good newspaper fodder. It's good dialogue fodder about the future of public education in the United States. The questions raised by the walkout drive right to the heart of issues that stymie educators and policymakers. How do you evaluate teachers? Where do teachers at failing schools go? How much should they get paid? The answers cannot be placed on a bumper sticker. No wonder this stuff got ignored at the political conventions.
It's easy to focus on the national politics of a high-profile local standoff. Unions are a critical part of the presidential election, and the major national teachers' unions came out early in support of President Obama. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a colorful character with country-wide name recognition, having worked in two administrations.
But setting aside the horse-race components of the strike reveals real and troubling issues about how to improve a city's school system that has failed many of its students. No one disagrees with the idea that teacher quality needs to be monitored, but the measurement tools have to be calibrated just right. That's the kind of instrument that takes time and trust to develop, two things that a strike does not foster. On failing schools, Chicago isn't unique. There are thousands of disagreements all over the country about closing bad schools, and the results are never pretty. What do you do with those schools' teachers? Who is to blame for a failing school? There is no easy answer.
What is surprising about the Chicago strike is not these questions but other thorny factors that are not sticking points--teacher pay, the city's right to close schools, even teachers' right to strike. The parties' grudging willingness not to make a big stink over these factors is the best evidence to show that they have acted in good faith.
What lessons about education arise from the Chicago strike? How can policymakers use the Chicago dispute to push the national dialogue into productive territory? Are there positive messages about education that can emerge from the talks? What does the dispute say about state and local education budgets? Can the strike spur creative thinking about how to treat teachers?