Chicago’s Lessons for Latin America

Mexican students using a computer. (Photo: Mexico's Education Ministry)

The handling of the dispute with the teachers union in Chicago provides valuable lessons for Latin America.


Political tensions in Chicago – the third largest school district in the US – have boiled over in recent days as Mayor Rahm Emanuel squares off with the teachers unions over a number of proposed educational reforms. This battle, while it has captured national attention during a hard-fought election year, also presents some very interesting lessons for education reform efforts elsewhere in the world, and particularly in Latin America.

The fact that the mayor is a leading figure in the Democratic Party only amplifies the negative repercussions – Emanuel was President Obama’s chief of staff, and gave a high-level address at the recent Democratic National Convention. The timing of this conflict with one of the Democrats’ key constituencies could pose a thorny problem for an Obama reelection effort that is working hard to unite and mobilize its base.

Emanuel, like other reform-minded big-city mayors, has demanded longer days and longer school years, teacher evaluations and real consequences in terms of hiring and replacement. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), on the other hand, opposed the evaluation system and merit pay proposal, and argued for both salary increases and increased hiring in order to compensate for the longer hours.

The Chicago strike is particularly notable given the traditionally close relationship between teachers’ unions and the Democratic Party. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the two largest teachers unions that represent more than 3 million teachers. In 2008, the NEA was the top contributor to political races with $45 million – more than 90 percent of which went to Democratic campaigns. Yet President Obama and many of his allies – including, now, Emanuel – have embraced education reform, pushing for more accountability.

In this sense, the political landscape of education reform is shifting. The implications are not limited to the United States, but rather shed light on how poorly performing educational systems – like much of Latin America – can begin to tackle the problem.

First, the Chicago experience highlights the importance of keeping education reform from being a strictly partisan issue. It can’t be held hostage to party politics, because children can’t wait to improve their skills and increase their chances of finding a job in a highly competitive economy. Rahm Emanuel is serving as an excellent example of a public servant pushing for reform despite what is widely regarded as bad timing for his party leadership and his local power base.

Chicago is demonstrating in real time how much the debate around education reform has changed in the US. Democratic mayors, governors, and now the President himself are embracing ideas pushed until recently only by Republicans. Latin American policymakers should pay attention. Improving quality is an urgent matter, with long-term implications for national growth. Emanuel is showing that politicians can side with students over well-funded unions and narrow political agendas. Latino politicians in the right and left should follow his lead.

Second, it is becoming clear that while poverty and socioeconomic factors heavily influence student performance, we shouldn’t use those realities – present in Chicago just like in every Latin American country – as an excuse to delay moving forward with education reform. Teachers are fundamental in determining the quality of student learning, even in the most disadvantageous environment. As Nicholas Kristof argues in the New York Times, “there’s now solid evidence that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of teachers, even within high-poverty schools”. Effective teachers should be rewarded, and principals should have a greater say in their school’s personnel decisions.

And in order to determine effective teachers, better evaluation and assessments are necessary. Thus, a third conclusion: students’ scores and performance should count in judging teacher quality. The teacher’s value lies in their contribution to a student’s learning. The link between the two is probably the most important data point in the education system, yet a solid grasp of the connection is almost completely lacking in most Latin American countries.

Finally, we have to realize that education is ultimately about children, not the adults that administer it. In Chicago, the challenge has always been the absenteeism of children, the students that missed classes – these are the victims. In Latin America, we need to refocus the debate on the students themselves, and away from the teachers, the government officials, or the governing coalition. Latin American students rank in the bottom third of the OECD’s PISA education rankings, meaning that this generation won’t be able to compete. This crisis has to remain the focus.

The Chicago debate reveals the responsibilities of the various stakeholders in the education system. Emanuel admits that unions have the right to defend their members’ salaries and ensure fair labor conditions. But that doesn’t mean their responsibility should extend to defining the curriculum, creating their own evaluation systems, or determining the level of private sector involvement. This is a problem across Latin America, where unions have become judge and jury in any education policy. “I deal with seventeen teacher unions in Buenos Aires” says Esteban Bullrich, the city’s Minister of Education, “but I clarified to them over and over that our discussion are about teacher salaries and the working condition in the classrooms. For other reforms, like curriculum reform, or the inclusion of technology in the classroom, I have the relevant technical teams and experts leading those initiatives. They can protest, and you bet they do, but a teachers union simply doesn’t have a role there.”

At bottom, the Chicago dispute demonstrates that the best way to move the quality of education forward is for government, teacher and parents to work together, not in opposition. In the words of Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, “to transform the US public education system, we all need to change. The stakes are too high to for us to keep fighting each other.” Certainly, the same is even truer in Latin America.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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