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President Obama and the Teachers pt2 – Karen Lewis talks to Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and we’re in Dearborn, Michigan. We’re joined again by Karen Lewis. She’s a school teacher in the South Side of Chicago. She’s president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So President Obama has pissed off a lot of teachers, suggesting that a lot of teachers–not all, but a lot–are either lazy or unqualified, and that’s the real problem in America’s educational system. So tell us what he’s proposing and what you think of it.

LEWIS: Alright. So, first of all, let’s talk a bit about what that means, because teaching is one of the few professions that has a really long probationary period. Okay? First of all, 50 percent of people that come into teaching leave within the first five years because they cannot do this job. This is a tough job. It’s emotionally draining. It requires you to do so much other than what you learn in a book. So there’s no other profession that self-selects like we do in the beginning. That’s number one. But all this teacher-bashing is just–it’s just a distraction. It has no basis in reality.

JAY: Well, there’s some reality. Everybody knows there are some teachers that are just hanging around.

LEWIS: There are some, but that’s every profession. What profession do you not have people that are exceptional, the majority of the people are average, and then some people are at the lower end? The problem is there’s all this focus on a very small group of people. But what’s happened is they want to paint everyone with this particular “bad teacher” brush, and it’s garbage. Here’s the other problem with that. A principal has, in Illinois and in Chicago, 3 to 4 years, depending upon your district, to make a decision on whether this teacher can move forward in their careers. In Chicago, after the first year, if you don’t like a teacher, you don’t even have to tell them why. You don’t have to tell them anything. You can just click a computer, then they’re off, they’re gone. So where are these so-called bad teachers?

JAY: Well, the argument is that the unions are so strong that the schools can’t get rid of lousy teachers.

LEWIS: That’s not true. First of all, what the unions do is protect due process, not bad teachers. Every teacher, regardless of what happens, deserves due process, because in Chicago, for example, teaching used to be patronage jobs. So if I don’t have the right politics, then I don’t get a job. We need due process, and we do need protections. But we also know that there are teachers that are struggling who need help and they need guidance. And we also know that teachers have cyclical abilities to work. I mean, sometimes you do really well and you do well for two or three years. But if you have a bad year or you have a class that is a little more challenging that comes through, then are you a bad teacher? No, you’re not.

JAY: But what are some of the structural problems, then? And how do you think they should be solved? And we know there’s kids sometimes even graduating from high school who can barely read. So there’s something wrong. I mean, what do you think’s wrong? And how should it be fixed?

LEWIS: Okay. So, first of all, we have to stop thinking of school buildings as magic castles where the real world doesn’t penetrate. So when you have students that come into your classroom who may be hungry, who may be angry at the world, who may have not just–we used to have this problem: there was an absent father, and Mom’s struggling. We have kids that don’t have mothers. We have kids that have moms in jail. So we cannot pretend that those factors, that there are all these other factors [sic]. And this is what has happened in our country. We have turned this whole thing around and said, bad teachers, bad teachers, bad schools, when we haven’t even begun to look at decades and decades and decades of abject poverty that lends itself to students who do not necessarily perform well. So the key is, if I’ve got a kid who comes into kindergarten who does not know his colors, does not know his shapes, he is already three years behind other children who have come to school, live in other neighborhoods, and have parents that have done this kind of work with them. So there’s no such thing as “even playing field”. So if a chiald–.

JAY: So what can you do to–I mean, you’re not going to have a grand solution, but what are some of the steps that could be made?

LEWIS: Well, you have to teach children where they are. The problem is that we’ve got this new thing where we have a canned curriculum. Every teacher’s on the same page every day: you’re on this page; you’re on this page. First of all, that’s not teaching; that’s reading. What they’re trying to do is de-professionalize teaching and make teaching teacher-proof. So if we’re–here’s what they really want. They want to bring in young people fresh out of school who’ve got great ideas and maybe some passion, put them in a classroom for two or three years, and have them move on. It takes more than that to hit your stride as a teacher. It takes a while. So if we’re constantly turning over faculty, getting all these new people in, who do they learn from? Who mentors them? Who shows them really good classroom management skills? You can’t teach children if they’re all bouncing off the walls. So what do we know? The research tells us smaller class size, experienced teachers, and constant resources working with students. All of those things cost money. Right now we have situations where the governments have been starved of resources and revenue for years and years and years and years. Now add on that the recent economic crash, and what you have now is this perfect storm of disaster, where now we’re going to pile more kids into classrooms, we’re going to have fewer resources to go. I mean, just the fact that that if you go into some schools in areas of poverty, the buildings themselves are in disrepair, how does one learn in a place that’s depressing in the first place?

JAY: And I guess as long as you have more and more kids going to private schools and charter schools, then less and less people give a damn what happens in the public schools.

LEWIS: Well, and that’s been going on in Chicago for quite some time. So there’s this whole idea of all my taxes are going to fund the public schools; my kids aren’t in public schools; I don’t care. And that is a problem. We can either educate our children now or we can continue to build prisons.

JAY: So how disillusioned are Chicago teachers with their favorite son?

LEWIS: I think there are quite a few who are extraordinarily upset. I think there’s another group of people that are hoping he will get it right, but that he’s just listening to the wrong people. As far as I’m concerned, he’s taken the Bush “No Child Left Behind,” or as I like to call it, No Child Left Untested, or No Child Left Standing, and gone to ten on this. While this sounds reasonable, the accountability, testing, da-da-da-da-da, underneath it we have flawed instruments. Tests are supposed to be diagnostic. They’re supposed to tell me what I need to do in order to take a child to the next step. They’re not to be used to make decisions about personnel, closing buildings. High-stakes testing is just so–for example, in Illinois, for high schools we use the ACT [American College Testing]. You cannot get people from the ACT to go on record and say this test should be used to make high-stakes decisions about schools, whether it’s evaluation of teachers, whether it’s the evaluation of the school itself, whether schools should be closed because of the ACT. I’m still waiting for that letter from them. And they will not go on record saying that, because they know it’s not true. If we have people who are not educators running the system, they have to have data because they don’t know anything about curriculum, they don’t know anything about children, they don’t know anything about how children learn, and they don’t know anything about development. So they have to have data, because they don’t know anything else.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

LEWIS: Thank you for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Karen Lewis is a president of Chicago Teachers Union and a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King College Prep, Chicago, IL.