Nov 1 2012

Not for Teacher

Journalists take sides in Chicago strike

Supporter of 2012 Chicago teacher strike (cc photo: Alejandro Quinones)

Not a message you often see in corporate media. (cc photo: Alejandro Quinones)

Among corporate media pundits, hostility towards teachers’ unions spans the ideological spectrum (Extra!, 9/10). And in supposedly straight news reporting, the policy goals of corporate “reformers”―support for charter schools and teacher ratings based on standardized test statistical models―are treated as common sense instead of contested and controversial.

So when the Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike this September, it was never in doubt which side the corporate media would take. The story of Chicago, as they framed it, was that well-paid teachers in an underperforming, cash-strapped school system wanted more money, and opposed any attempt to hold them accountable for their performance. From the start, coverage stressed it was, as the New York Times put it (9/10/12), “a dispute over wages, job security and teacher evaluations.”

That isn’t false per se, but that framing suggests teachers were primarily concerned with matters of obvious self-interest―how much they make, how they can keep their jobs, how to avoid accountability. The union had made clear for months that it was concerned with a host of issues, from reducing class sizes to expanding social services for students in poverty. But coverage too often glossed over these substantive issues in favor of a storyline that suggested teachers were simply protecting their turf.

Take the issue of so-called “teacher evaluations”―which teachers, media led us to believe, were against. As ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer (9/10/12) presented it, “Here is the heart of the standoff: How do you judge if a teacher is good or not good enough in the classroom and who should decide?” Correspondent Alex Perez’s answer began by asking a student, “Are you upset that you’re not able to be learning in the classroom today?” Viewers eventually learned that the “sticking point” is that the “new plan” would stress standardized test scores, and that “the unions argue that would put teachers at a disadvantage and possibly cost them their jobs.”

But the actual problem is more fundamental: whether the scores, and the value-added statistical modeling that is used to transform those scores into teacher effectiveness ratings, can accurately or reliably measure teacher quality―a proposition that is rejected by many education experts (Extra!, 4/11). ABC’s failure to explain that surely led some viewers to conclude that unionized teachers don’t want their job performance to be evaluated―especially when Perez concludes by reminding viewers that students are failing:

Complicating the situation, statistics like this one from the U.S. Department of Education which found that about 80 percent of Chicago eighth graders are not grade-level proficient in reading or math.

The following night (9/12/12), ABC World News was back in Chicago. “How do you grade a teacher?” Sawyer asked again. But the real issue in the segment was something else: how to replace public schools that have unionized teachers.

Reporter Perez noted that despite the strike, “it’s been business as usual for 52,000 other Chicago public school students.” Those are students attending charter schools, which Perez claims “routinely outperform non-charter public schools.”

Nationally speaking, charter schools do no such thing (Center for Research on Education Outcomes, 6/09). But ABC’s report stuck entirely to charter-friendly sources―one school’s “CEO,” along with a charter teacher who declared that his job wasn’t safe if he didn’t get results. Perez closed the segment: “So which model works? That’s the question at the heart of the largest teachers strike in two decades.” If that was the question, ABC’s “evidence” left viewers with a predetermined answer.

While the discussions of charters and teacher evaluations could be a bit vague, one part of coverage was crystal clear: How much Chicago teachers make―a lot―and how they’re striking in spite of a generous raise.

“A possible 16 percent increase over four years for teachers who make an average of $75,000 a year, in a district already struggling financially,” explained NBC Nightly News (9/14/12), using figures that made the rounds across the media. While the pay increase was broadly mentioned in press coverage, less attention was paid to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to cancel a previously scheduled pay increase, which no doubt affected how much the union trusts his administration.

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane (9/10/12) measured teachers’ salaries against the incomes of Chicago families. Roughly 80 percent of students “live at or near the poverty line,” Lane noted, comparing that to the cushy lives of their teachers:

The average public-school teacher in Chicago earned almost triple that amount―$76,000 per year, according to the school district. In contract negotiations this year, Chicago Public Schools offered an average total pay increase of 16  percent over four years…. I cannot describe the moral repugnance of this strike by aggrieved middle-class “professionals” against the aspiring poor.

Lane presumably puts “professionals” in scare quotes because anybody can be a teacher―unlike, say, journalists.

Newspaper editorial boards weren’t much more sympathetic to the striking teachers, as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted (9/20/12): “Editorial boards from the right-wing Wall Street Journal to the liberal New York Times were nearly unanimous in condemning the seven-day strike.”

Chicago Teachers Strike Sept. 2012--Photo Credit: Firedoglake/Wikimedia Commons

Chicago Teachers Strike Sept. 2012–Photo Credit: Firedoglake/Wikimedia Commons

Both big hometown papers were editorially opposed to the union. The Chicago Sun-Times (9/10/12) took a slightly less hostile stance, acknowledging that the union was “right to fight” on issues like funding disparities and social services― they just shouldn’t strike. And the paper featured op-eds from union supporters like Jesse Jackson (9/17/12). The Chicago Tribune seemed less interested in a debate; it was very clear which side they were on (“Don’t Cave, Mr. Mayor”―9/11/12), and the paper twice pointed out (8/31/12, 9/11/12) that the strike’s silver lining was that it would produce a “groundswell” among parents for charter schools.

The New York Times thought little of the union’s side (“Chicago Teacher’s Folly,” 9/12/12), fingering “union discontent with sensible policy changes” and chiding CTU president Karen Lewis as someone who “seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system.”

Times columnists jumped in, too. Joe Nocera (9/11/12) admitted that the “reformers” don’t have all the answers, but claimed that teachers want nothing to change: “The status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable. In Chicago, about 60 percent of public school students graduate from high school.” Nicholas Kristof (9/13/12) argued that he wasn’t buying the idea that the union was standing up for their students, since “the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers.”

And Times conservative David Brooks (9/13/12), echoing the Post’s Lane, pointed out that “the average Chicago teacher makes $76,000 a year in a city where the average worker makes $47,000 a year.” As with Lane, it’s hard not to conclude that Brooks’ point is that teachers should face something like a 40 percent pay cut.

“Chicago’s Striking Teachers Flunk the Sympathy Test” read the headline on USA Today’s September 12 editorial page, where the paper explained that teachers unions don’t live in the “real world.”

Of course, the real real world includes oversized classes, impoverished students who lack social services, science and art becoming luxuries reserved for wealthy schools―all the things the striking teachers were fighting―along with corporate reformers who buy into untested, profit-making schemes, who don’t send their kids to the schools they promote and who move on to the next project when things don’t pan out.

That real world was hard to discern in Chicago coverage.

Research assistance: Rick Carp



Which Side Are You On?

by Peter Hart

One recurring theme (e.g., New York Times, 9/18/12) was that Barack Obama “has not publicly taken a side in the strike, which awkwardly pits his former chief of staff against labor, both key allies.”

That’s an odd conclusion, since the union was clearly taking aim at “reform” policies of the current White House. That would put Obama on a side, whether or not he publicly said anything at all.

And it might help explain why the strike received relatively light attention on liberal-leaning MSNBC, which probably would have had a very different view if the union had been striking against Republican policies.