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Chicago teachers walk the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago September 10, 2012. (JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS)
Chicago teachers walk the picket line outside the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools in Chicago September 10, 2012. (JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS)

Expat dispatches: ‘I don’t see how we can fix our schools if the teachers unions don’t budge’ Add to ...

In Canada and the U.S., governments and teachers are in a fight. In Ontario, it’s over frozen wages and an anti-strike bill. In Chicago, Illinois, it’s over teacher evaluations. Canadian expat Owen Harkness is a teacher working in the U.S. He argues that the American education system is a mess. And a big part of the problem: teachers unions.

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This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series– expats talking about life and politics south of the border.

Stayner, Ont., is the kind of small, Canadian town where people know each other’s business, so when I walked into the bank on Main Street, the teller already knew why I was emptying my account and buying U.S. dollars. “I hear you’re moving to New York to teach the kids in the ghetto,” she said.

I had grown up on a hundred-acre crop farm near Stayner, where I was raised by parents who had moved to Canada in 1967 to evade the Vietnam draft.

They had raised me with the types of values that you might expect from draft evaders: the family politics lay left of those of our neighbours in a mostly conservative riding.

We were a pro-labour family, and during two teacher labour disputes in the 1990s, I proudly joined my mother on the picket line in front of the high school where she taught biology.

It was that sense of activism that my parents had instilled in me that had me emptying my bank account that day in Stayner. I was, as the teller had heard, moving to New York City to become a public school teacher.

I left my parents’ farm in June, and was teaching a class of emotionally disturbed and learning disabled 7th graders amid the housing projects of East Harlem in September.

In my two years there, I taught 7th graders as old as 17, and with reading levels as low as the 2nd grade level. I was a shy 25-year-old with braces and an acne problem.

I wasn’t sure how my transition from the bean field to the city would go, but I learned fairly quickly that the challenge wasn’t going to be the children in the school.

It would be the grownups.

The workplace politics were more amplified than I ever imagined they would be in a school, and a lot of it centred around a powerful union. People had clashing ideas about what would work, and even more people didn’t seem to care at all.

During that first year, I would come to work some days and there would be chunks of ceiling on the floor of my classroom. I kept my students on the other side of the room.

Early in my second year, we were told that due to low performance, our school would be closed. A new public school, and a new charter school – which is an autonomous public school – would open in the space.

The parents of East Harlem would have more choices about where to send their children to school and the educators who had failed them would go elsewhere.

For me, it was my first glimpse of where educational policy was headed. This idea of choice and aggressive reform is central to both parties’ education platforms in the upcoming election.

The following September, I restarted my teaching career as a high school teacher on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

I taught math and science to students with disabilities at a small high school in the basement of a building across the street from the back of Lincoln Center.

After decades of low test scores and violence, the Martin Luther King Jr. High School had been closed down and several smaller high schools had opened within its walls.

In one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the country, I still taught very poor students who rode the subway to school. One student told me her mother paid $600 per month for their apartment in the projects – less than a pair of tickets can cost a few hundred feet away at the Metropolitan Opera.

During my fourth year at that school, we received notice that due to its poor statistics, that school would be closed down as well.

This was another school with powerful and angry union leadership, where every time the principal had an idea about how to improve our school, teachers resisted. Their clinging to the specific details of what work looked like in their collective agreement seemed to prevent us from ever changing our practice, despite the clear statistics before us that showed our students failing.

It was a place where teachers operated with a lot of talk about union versus management, and not about students or their futures.

So I found myself, formerly a card-carrying member of the NDP, nodding in agreement during New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s anti-union speech at the Republican National Convention.

While I would rather have heard strategies than widespread denouncements, I don’t see how we can fix our schools if the unions don’t budge.

Both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney seek to increase accountability for states. They both seek to incentivize reform and achievement.

Mr. Obama has already tied funds to more rigorous teacher evaluation, and Mr. Romney seeks to do the same.

But Mr. Obama’s platform leaves out specific language of school choice, which teacher unions oppose for fear it would drive students and funds away from public schools to non-unionized charter schools.

While the President has been aggressive in school reform so far through his Race to the Top program – in which schools compete for federal funding – he is avoiding much talk of reform in his platform.

In Mr. Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention, he said, “When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.”

Mr. Obama stuck to inspiration, and avoided specifics in his speech and offered vague statements nobody would disagree with, including, “No child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school.” He also talked about a plan to “recruit a 100,000 math and science teachers within 10 years.”

After all my years on the political left, it makes me sad to say that these just seem like the same kind of hopeful statements that this country got so excited about in the last election, but that led to so much disappointment.

I started my new job last week working at a newer public school with a much more affluent student population. The classrooms are beautiful, and I’m already enjoying using the latest technology in my teaching.

But the best part is that I’ve found myself working with a group of adults who are willing to work hard and collaborate to ensure the success of our students. While I had made things work before with outdated technology and a falling ceiling, those weren’t the biggest obstacles to raising achievement.

The biggest obstacle was the teachers who did not seem to want anything more for their students, didn’t believe they were capable of more, and wouldn’t work outside of their contracted number of minutes to make change happen.

Every morning in East Harlem I’d arrive to my classroom early to sweep up the dust from the falling ceiling, but I wasn’t able to fix the problem myself.

Someone in charge needed to do something big. Like that classroom, education in this country is a mess, and it needs to get cleaned up. The President needs to be unafraid to do something big, and the unions need to cooperate in fixing teachers, or sweeping them out.

 

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