Which Side Are You On?

For parents, the strike meant time off of work or shelling out for extra childcare–sometimes even improvised home schooling. For students, it meant valuable class time lost, or for the less studious, surprise no school days. For teachers, it meant their livelihood. The strike clawed into the heart of the city, even for those with no immediate ties to schools. As it took over our airwaves, newspapers, and streets, a nervous electricity seemed to pervade Chicago from root to tip.

But when the strike was finally suspended on September 19th, the collective sigh was a muddled mixture of relief and disappointment. The fight wasn’t, and still isn’t, over–the new contract was given the OK by teachers on October 4th, but the effort to stop school closings is just heating up. The larger ideological debates about nonunionized charter schools, classroom funding, scheduling, and administrative policy remain unresolved, and it’s clear that Chicago has a lot of work to do in order to get the public school system on its feet.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Edward Hershey, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 2001 with an AB in physics and math, and again in 2003 with a masters from the Physical Science Division. Hershey is an honors and AP physics teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, one of nine selective enrollment high schools in the Chicago Public Schools system.

For our conversation, we settled down next to a window in a quiet nook on the second floor of the UofC’s Reynolds Club. With his back to the window and the evening sun pouring in, I could only make out his silhouette, his posture casual as he passed a glass bottle of Coke between his hands. He needed little prompting; he knew what he wanted to say.

Where are you from originally? Have you taught in other public school systems?

Originally I’m from Buffalo. I’ve had other small teachings jobs, but this has been my first full teaching job. I don’t work full-time now; I worked full-time for my first three years and then I went part-time three years ago. I was a TA for summer programs [at the UofC] for five years; I taught French at an elementary school for a few months as a side job, and I was in the Neighborhood Schools Program as an undergrad here. But my first certified teaching job was at Lindbloom.

What is the most rewarding part of being a CPS teacher?

Seeing students learn and grow–I mean, the nice part about CPS is that you feel like you make more of a difference, that the effort you make matters. I feel like if I was in a prosperous suburb, the kids’ success would be kind of, not guaranteed, but a lot more laid out for them. In a way you have to work harder, but it’s also more rewarding.

How involved were you in the strike, and how did you become involved in the first place?

Well by virtue of being a union teacher you’re involved. I mean, I was the most active person in the union at my school–I’m one of the more active people in the city as far as that goes. Things changed last year–first when Wisconsin happened, and then when Rahm Emanuel got elected, and that sort of ended up catapulting me into doing stuff at my school.

The things I was doing originally were more citywide and usually involved one or two teachers at different schools, and not every school was represented. At my school, before the strike, part of the reason I hadn’t been doing stuff was that we are a selective enrollment school–students test in, we have more resources that we need, and we were able to establish a successful environment already. When Emanuel got elected and started attacking the union, everybody started paying attention–we may be a little bit better off than some schools, but you know, they’re talking about really eliminating quite a bit about what makes teaching attractive.

At first the things we were losing were things that were just nice, that other schools didn’t have, like professional development. When those things got cut back it wasn’t that palpable, but then our class sizes started going up, we had more of a crunch on our supply budget–those problems in the last two years you really started to notice at our school. It’s still functional, but it’s definitely worse in that way.

When it became more apparent that a strike might happen, we didn’t even really have an active delegate at our school, so I arranged that–I didn’t become the delegate myself, because as a part-time teacher you don’t have tenure protection. But I found someone to do it, set up a meeting, and they got elected.

As this was going on, more and more people were beginning to pay attention–beginning of last year, people were paying attention a little bit, but starting last winter everybody was paying attention. When we had the strike vote, we had no “no” votes, and we had almost everybody vote.

What were the main grievances that teachers were trying to communicate?

Working a longer day without getting paid for it was the biggest thing. Close behind was merit pay, not getting paid accordingly for steps [seniority] and lanes [additional degrees and education]. Those were the main ones, but they were talking about increasing the pension, health care costs. We can’t have teachers laid off at our school, and our school is not likely to be closed, but a lot of people had been at other schools that had been closed and we understood that things could change and we could end up in the same boat even if that didn’t seem immediate.

One complaint we had was that we had no professional development time other than at the beginning and the end of the year. All the time in the teachers’ week was either prep or teaching–no time built in for faculty meetings because there was no time when everybody was free. With the strike settlement there are now a number of half-days built in, and I assume a lot of that extra time will be given over to faculty meetings. We didn’t have them weekly by any means, but we did often have them a little more than once a month, and it’s a problem if you can’t schedule those when you need to. They said that if we were going to have them they’d have to be on our own time and therefore they can’t be mandatory.

Originally they’d also proposed for report card pickups to be half-days…a lot of the things didn’t make sense. Those half-days for report card pickups meant there was less time available to meet with parents, and the half-day was just politics so Emanuel could say that we had more school days. A half-day does not at all have the value of a full day, or even 50 percent of the educational value of a full day, because students treat half-days very differently. Not only are we cutting in time with parents, we’re basically doing it for show. That was taken off out of the strike, but we shouldn’t have to have a strike for them to do something that’s reasonable.

A majority of CPS teachers voted in favor of the new contract. Did you vote? If so, were you in support of or opposition to it?

I did vote, and I voted against it because I think–we were going take concessions in the contract, and we did–the union cut the strike short. I think a lot of the membership and union apparatus itself believed the hype in the media that the public was going to turn against us.

What we saw in the streets was not what you’d be led to believe by the media. I’m sure there were parents who were annoyed, who wanted their kids back in school, but the proportions of who those were and how they felt.. We could have stayed out. One parent said, “I would have supported you if you’d stayed out; I think you guys should get what you deserve.” I don’t think we were going to win a whole lot more than we did, but we could have pushed further.

What is your stance on REACH (Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students) and its policies regarding teacher evaluations and standardized test scores? 

I’m not against the kind of tests we’re doing, and actually the one we gave for physics wasn’t that bad as far as making sense and being designed thoughtfully. I’m against using it in teacher evaluations. They’re going to use “gains” or “growth” in those scores, but I don’t buy that. Everything I read about that–it’s not a very stable number for a teacher from year to year. If it’s not stable, it’s not characteristic of a teacher’s performance. The students in the poor neighborhoods are going to have lower growth also, so you’re penalizing people for working in poor neighborhoods. It’s going to make people easier to fire at poor-performing schools, which are already targeted for closure and harder to staff. If you were at two or three schools that got closed, you might have been a good teacher but you’re basically placed on a metaphorical “do not hire” list.

What’s annoying is that there are effective models of education. The countries that do best in education are not doing what we’re doing, all this data-driven BS that comes out of the private sector. What they do in Finland is they give people small class sizes, professional autonomy, hold students to high standards and I think that’s the way to do it. Of course, it costs a lot of money and requires a lot of investment.

What about the idea that laid off teachers should be automatically “recalled” for positions when or if they open up, especially since Emanuel has said that layoffs should focus on teachers who perform the worst?

Part of it is that principals will play with evaluations–in certain instances they can rate a good teacher low in order to lay them off. If we’re talking about layoffs, the principals should be going by the idea of “last in, first out.” I think the problem is that a lot of those ratings are still subjective, and any time they have wiggle room the board people use these things to do things that aren’t as advertised.

They’re blaming all the problems in education on “bad teachers,” and there are schools where you have bad culture among the teachers, but it’s the responsibility of the administration to discipline their work force. If they want to fire someone, they should have to fire someone. The administration, it’s their task to fire people who aren’t performing. There’s this myth that tenure means a job for life. Given everything that’s happened, tenure only really applies to you in your building, and even that isn’t secure.

Are there any issues that weren’t addressed that you think should have been?

The union and a lot of teachers pushed the TIF issue very hard, and the media was having a blackout on that. Somehow that didn’t get into the papers. There’s a huge pot of money that could go to the schools, that came out of the schools, going to Penny Pritzker…she could shake five million dollars out of her couch if she wanted to, I don’t know why she needs it. All this money is money that should be going to the schools. The money they spent on advertising against us, they probably could have used to air condition most of the schools that don’t have it right now. And class size–we talked about it, we didn’t get anything on it. We actually got the art and music and other things because the mayor I guess didn’t want to look bad.

That’s the thing, all those things cost money and we’re not exactly allowed to bargain over them. We have to pretend we’re not bargaining. The first couple days of the strike the people thought it was just money, and we didn’t get as much money as the day is longer–that was one of the concessions but those things, we raised them in the public consciousness but we didn’t get anything on them. The class size language we have now is weak, but they didn’t get rid of it.

I think what we showed with the strike is that there was an aura of inevitability about all these reforms, and I think we burst the bubble on that by having the strike. At least asking whether this all makes sense, this market logic that they use, it gave us a platform to say we know what works, and what works is giving the people the ability and means to actually teach.

What do you think is the “next step” in improving CPS?

Convincing–no, they’re not going to be convinced–forcing the ruling class to pay more for all the things I talked about. Social services, smaller class sizes, having our art-science-language programming at every school. One of the next steps–they’re doing this a little bit–the TIF money, even if all of it went back into schools, it wouldn’t solve all of the problems. There is enough money that we could get a lot of what we need with existing funds but it’s sort of mustering the will to tear that out of the hands of the people that have it.

Concretely, the next step is asking, “How are we going make this city not destroy public education?” What they’re doing, opening charters, more private schools–work on pushing that off. That’s the next big fight coming up. It’s a defensive fight, maintaining schools and keeping them open, keeping public schools from being dismantled and such. I mean people are a lot more aware now. The union, before, was moderately organized and could pull off some things, but since the strike every school is organized. They’re going to be able to get a lot more people, parents, and students out there.