Carol Felsenthal
On politics

CTU President Karen Lewis: Race, Class at Center of Education Debate

In part two of my conversation with the Chicago Teachers Union president, she shares about her time at Dartmouth College, why she left the classroom for the CTU job, her thoughts on the poverty gap, and more…

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen LewisIn part one of my conversation with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, she discussed her views on Rahm Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the longer school day. Below is an edited transcript of the rest of our chat, in which the former high-school chemistry teacher shares about her time at Dartmouth College, why she left the classroom for the CTU job, her thoughts on the poverty gap, and more.

CF: You left the classroom in June 2010 to take over the CTU. Were you growing weary of teaching?
KL:
I was perfectly happy being a King High School chemistry teacher…. I had died and gone to teacher heaven. I had great relationships with my parents and my students. I felt completely supported by the administration and by my colleagues.

CF: Do you imagine yourself going back to be a classroom teacher?
KL:
Yes. My term is up in 2013, and I’ll make a decision whether to run again.

CF: So tell me about your life before teaching and the union.
KL:
I left Kenwood after my junior year and went to… Mt. Holyoke and [then] transferred to Dartmouth, just as it was going coed.  

CF: What was your major at Dartmouth?
KL:
I always say graduation. I don’t really remember Dartmouth that well. It was a really awful experience. I’m the only black woman in my class. So it was like being a complete and total pioneer…. I barely graduated…. I changed my major about every 15 minutes. But Dartmouth was an interesting experience. It just taught me that you have to persevere…. People did not want us there. The faculty and the students did not vote for coeducation; the trustees did, so there was a lot of hostility toward us.

CF: And then what?
KL:
I got married right after graduation and moved with my first husband [since deceased] to Oklahoma…. His father and my grandmother grew up in a small black town in Oklahoma. They had known each other for years. I always say my first marriage was arranged because they got us together…. I met my second husband at school…. Now that one was really arranged because the kids got us together. I met him when I was teaching at Lane Tech….. He taught there for 30-some years.

CF: Your early work life?
KL:
I worked in a variety of places… and then I decided I wanted to go to medical school, so I took all my classes over again, and I… went to medical school for two years here at UIC, hated every minute of it…. And I said, “Well, let me teach until I figure out what I want to do,” because I didn’t want to do what my parents did…. I just fell madly in love with teaching. I loved chemistry; I could explain it to kids who maybe struggle with math and science. I taught AP but also loved teaching regular…. I adore teenagers…. I found that [girls] were really good at [chemistry], and I think I was always shocked by this whole idea that girls aren’t as good at it as boys are. And a lot of girls told me it was because of stuff I told them [that they pursued science]…. My father [taught drafting and shop at Kenwood] was a proto-feminist. He did not see any difference between boys and girls…. We [Lewis has one younger sister] used to go to the All-Star game at Soldier Field. I was about eight, and I’d say,  “Daddy there are no girls on the field.”  “Oh, don’t worry about that, there will be girls playing when you get going.” He really believed that…. He taught me how to bat left-handed when I was a little kid because he said, “In the major leagues, right field is always shorter; you have an advantage.” I never knew I wasn’t going to play major league ball.

CF: So how did you end up out of the classroom and in the Union job?
KL:
At Lane [she taught there for 15 years] I ran for and won election to the local school council. It was a very frustrating experience because the teacher voice was absolutely dismissed; there was an agenda that was already there…. I ran for the associate delegate job when it came open. And then I eventually became the delegate at Lane, and there were some things that I would see… that were not good for kids, and I also saw this whole trend of starting to blame teachers for everything. I also saw that there was more and more added to teachers’ plates, but I didn’t see the support to come along with it. 

CF: What’s a typical day like for you? How many days a week do you work?
KL:
A 12- to 16-hour day is what I’m working right now…. If I get a Sunday off, I’m all excited…. Plus, I do tons of reading and trying to keep up with all the latest in policy…. [Like] Diane Ravich’s book… She’s very clear about the effects of poverty on children, and it’s so disingenuous to me that the people here don’t want to deal with [it]… They say, “No excuses.” This has given them an excuse not to address the issues of poverty…. We’re talking about an achievement gap, but we don’t want to talk about the poverty gap…. I went to… a [all-teachers] book club…. We were doing some readings by professors here who were actually looking at this path of school closings…. and it turns out it’s a real estate issue. It’s not an issue of the schools are bad. There were areas that were being gentrified throughout the city, so they started closing schools in these areas, and then we see this pattern nationwide…. Chicago’s the incubator for a whole bunch of madness, so we decided that we had to do something about it, and we approached the union and said, “What are you doing?” We would just like the union to come out to the school closing hearings, and nobody was there…. [The hearings] were so perfunctory. You know the decision’s already been made, so the parents sort of beg for their schools…. Nobody from the board there, other than somebody who looked 15 and said, “I’m representing the CEO.”  No board members… no union members….. Our group started going to all these school closing hearings, and going to all the charter school opening hearings and testifying…. We wanted to move our union in a much more organizing model as opposed to just a straight business model. ….We said, “Well maybe we should consider an electoral strategy.” I’d been elected as a member of the executive board [of the CTU]…. I never worked here. I didn’t want to work here. I just wanted to see change in the schools. I also saw this huge trend of bullying principals, of just running roughshod over people and frightening teachers….  When I first started teaching, teachers were very outspoken, and they would advocate for kids and advocate for a better curriculum…. Then, all the sudden, I just started seeing fear because principals were like,  “I will fire you.”

CF: In the just-published Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs met with President Obama and told him that the American education system was “crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs also told Obama that principals should be allowed to hire and fire teachers based on merit.
KL:
I know. Most business people feel that way.… Unions are pesky. And god forbid there be some democracy. The problem is that public education is the last of… any part of democracy in this country because rich people have bought everything. They bought access to the politicians, … to government, on a level that’s unprecedented….  When people talk about merit, what are they talking about? They’re talking about whether I like you or not; whether you are my friend…. Principals have the ability to hire, and they utilize [it] as a way of controlling people. They’ll say, “If you’re not happy here, you could always go here.” The fact is that unions are demonized because the people that really run this country would like nothing more than to have complete and total control over everything.

CF: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appeal is based [in part] on his encounter with that teacher where he basically shouted her down and told her to shut up. How are you finding Gov. Quinn?
KL:
So nice; he’s a very nice man…. He has said from day one that he would never sign a bill that would end collective bargaining…. I think Gov. Quinn has grown into his position. I don’t think he ever thought he was going to be the governor.… I think it takes time to grow into roles of leadership, and I think he’s doing that.

CF: Tell me about Occupy Chicago, what role will it play.
KL:
Occupy Wall Street and the whole concept of the 99 percent is an extraordinarily important movement…. It’s almost nonpolitical. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have—that we are in country right now that has one party, and that is the party of money, and we have two branches of it…. College graduates have no jobs to go to; people who have been working for years and years [are unemployed]…. We have this problem in Chicago, with teachers who are in their 40s and 50s, and, quite frankly, predominantly black, who have been laid off…. We’re seeing the decline in what used to be the middle class, but this huge rise in the immense amount of wealth, and with it, the political power to buy not only the political piece but to buy the media, to… get people to buy into a message that is against their self-interest.

CF: You’re rooting for this movement?
KL:
I am. I think what’s going to happen is that this movement will grow, and more and more, people will be a part of it. And at some point, the people who are in a position of power are going to have to start taking us seriously, and they’re going to have to make changes in the way they do business.

CF: How do feel about the Obama presidency?
KL:
I don’t really have a lot of faith in politics right now…. The political process doesn’t favor us. We have, in terms of education, failed policies by this president, by the previous president, by the previous president….. If you look at the top ten richest people in America, nine of the top ten people have invested tons of their money in so-called education reform. And you have to ask yourself, why are they so interested in education reform, and especially public education? You look at Bill Gates. He didn’t go to public school; he certainly doesn’t send his children to public school.… He pushed all this money around the small schools [movement]… and when that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, what did he do? Did he come on TV and say, “My bad, I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” No, now he’s come up with something else.… He has corrupted the educational academic side. [Researchers, Lewis argues, will find what the funding source wants so they can keep getting funded.]…. The Waltons; Warren Buffett, by virtue of the fact that he’s given a lot of money to Bill Gates’ foundation; Eli Broad; all of these people who have been putting money and money and money into education. And all they come up with is, “Let’s just get rid of all the teachers; let’s have a national curriculum; let’s test people to death.” None of this stuff works; not only does it not work, it exacerbates the problem.… Standardized tests have been disguised as merit when they’re just ranking and sorting, and they’re disguising race and class privilege. We don’t want to have those discussions….. We don’t have honest discussions about education in this country because we don’t want to have honest discussions about race and class.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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2 years ago
Posted by Carl Lambrecht

People choose the car they want to buy. The same people should have a voucher to choose the school for their children.

2 years ago
Posted by Jeremy Peters

What happens when that car doesn't work? I guess it's your fault you bought that car. THEN you run to government regulators... when YOU are negatively impacted. Public school reform is incredibly complicated stuff to sort out, even for the financially stable and well-educated members of society. But the simplest and most responsible lens through which to evaluate policy decisions should ALWAYS be: what conditions best support real student learning, for any specific population? Contrary to perspectives represented in the mainstream media, by policy wonks and neo-liberal operatives, the answer is NOT a massive uprooting of the few remaining public institutions that serve as a source of stability and support for those struggling on the fringe of society (a growing demographic by the way). But again, I guess we'll all start to care once it impacts us PERSONALLY, say in the form of a home invasion, rape or other horrible act of criminal violence. I suppose then we can always build more prisons... private ones at that!

2 years ago
Posted by Carl Lambrecht

You change the car. If the school does not function well. You change to another school. School choice is for all. Just like car choice.

2 years ago
Posted by BigBob411

Kind of scary that Karen Lewis is the President of the CTU. It sounds like she habitually didn't (or couldn't) get along at various colleges, was confused as to what she wanted to do with her life (or how to do it), and now she's leading the most important union affecting our City, our children, and our future?? My goodness, she seems all about "NO" and very little about "we can discuss that". There isn't a business person or political leader that she seems to have any respect for. Sigh. I understand her job is to "protect" her membership...but what about the fact that teachers are public employees deeply involved in the "public good"?

2 years ago
Posted by jimbo108

Here is an older, yet more in-depth look at Lewis' positions on many issues facing teachers, students and the forces surrounding education.

Anyone can glean that Lewis is a dedicated leader and teacher from this article, but in the ultimate issue, it is not about her or if one likes her or not, it is about what society wants to do about educating their children.

Do we want politicians who have no idea what is going on in a classroom making decisions? This article examines this and other essential issues.

http://www.examiner.com/democrat-in-chicago/spotlight-karen-lewis-candidate-for-president-of-chicago-teachers-union

2 years ago
Posted by WM

This is on uncooperative and nasty dispositioned woman. If the children of our cities are so important, why is it the teachers unions always want more money first? Seems as if we want our kinds to be smarter, we need to go back to the way we were, teaching longer and harder, hiring better teacher who are concerned with learning first, money second, and not "dumbing down" tests so the scores look better. The grading curve is no longer a bow, it is a valley where you sometimes need to get just over 50% to pass...what a joke. When I was a kid, we had to study hard and long to pass a test, or have to take extra after class time to learn and retake it, not have the system dumb it down. Making tests easier and school days shorter are not the way to make our kids smarter...and don't even get me started on several study hall periods a day as "credits" toward graduation, what idiots come up with this stuff?

So I ranted a bit, but this scary "educator" needs to be replaced with someone who wants to make our children work harder and longer if necessary and bring their test and class scores up, not bring the curve down. You don't see the Japanese or Chinese lowering grading curves to make their students appear smarter, so why do we? False positives are just that - FALSE! Get rid of this broad and get a real educator concerned for the CHILDREN FIRST!!!

2 years ago
Posted by WM

This is an uncooperative and nasty woman with a mean disposition. If the children of our cities are so important, why is it the teachers unions always want more money first? Seems as if we want our kinds to be smarter, we need to go back to the way we were, teaching longer and harder, hiring better teacher who are concerned with learning first, money second, and not "dumbing down" tests so the scores look better. The grading curve is no longer a bow, it is a valley where you sometimes need to get just over 50% to pass...what a joke. When I was a kid, we had to study hard and long to pass a test, or have to take extra after class time to learn and retake it, not have the system dumb it down. Making tests easier and school days shorter are not the way to make our kids smarter...and don't even get me started on several study hall periods a day as "credits" toward graduation, what idiots come up with this stuff?

So I ranted a bit, but this scary "educator" needs to be replaced with someone who wants to make our children work harder and longer if necessary and bring their test and class scores up, not bring the curve down. You don't see the Japanese or Chinese lowering grading curves to make their students appear smarter, so why do we? False positives are just that - FALSE! Get rid of this broad and get a real educator concerned for the CHILDREN FIRST!!!

2 years ago
Posted by EFB3500

There are very few CEOs. I can never figure out why a working person is against unions. Unions are the only way to bargain with the bosses. When you are one of 25,000 employees, you do not have a voice loud enough to get the boss to hear you. When a union of 25,000 says something the boss listens. Job wanted to do away with unions so he could be in control of the minds, body and souls of society. During the Union organizing years in the early part of the 20th century the business owners hired armies of thugs to beat and kill the workers who stood up for the working person's rights. The same thing will happen today if Rahm and the others are allowed to break the Unions. I voted for Rahm but he has turned out to be dictator worse than Daily. All the Republicans that want to break the unions and privatize education have jobs, health care, pensions and social security. I would like to hear what they would say if all of the benefits were taken away and they would have to live in poverty like millions of people in this country are experiencing right now.

2 years ago
Posted by Satoria9

This is scary. If education in Chicago is going to improvement the leadership, including the union needs to operation from the premise that pointing the finger at the monster is a waste of time and energy.

11 months ago
Posted by phoenix rises

"We don’t have honest discussions about education in this country because we don’t want to have honest discussions about race and class," she says. I wonder if Ms. Lewis will answer to the following:

On Sunday, April 28, 2013, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis denied the existence of "rubber rooms" in Chicago's Public Schools district on a Facebook thread. In an interview with CBS reporter Kristyn Hartman on September 22, 2009, then CPS spokesperson Monique Bond also denied their existence. But the Hartman piece, with undercover video, demonstrated that "rubber rooms" did in fact exist in the district, despite the fact that "CPS denied CBS 2 access to a re-assignment room" (aka "rubber room"), despite articles that appear on the matter with a simple Google search. So why the cover-up?

"Rubber rooms" (aka "reassignment centers" for teachers or "Camp Beverly" centers as they have been called in Chicago) do exist in District 299, as they do in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, being more a process than a place, whereas teachers are placed in kafkaesque limbo for prolonged periods of time at the expense of their students, their careers and taxpayer dollars while substantiated false claims are drummed up against them. For the sake of transparency and honest government and union activity, the union and district must answer this and more: 1) What are the demographics of these reassignment centers in Chicago for teachers dating from, say, 1999 to present time along the lines of PRECISE POPULATION NUMBERS, RACE, and AGE? 2) What is the usual duration of time for a teacher in "re-assignment." 3) What sort of representation does the union provide to teachers in this process? and 4) What sort of treatment does the district provide to these teachers?


The FB thread:

1/2 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151650628651528&set=a.10151650628531528.1073741834.767971527&type=3&theater

2/2 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151650680371528&set=a.10151650628531528.1073741834.767971527&type=3&theater


Rubber Rooms/Reassignment Centers for Teachers:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reassignment_centers


CBS Kristyn Hartman Report on Chicago Rubber Rooms:
http://www.studentsfirst.us/news/contentview.asp?c=222951

Rubber Room Documentary:
http://www.rubberroommovie.com/

Betsy Combier: paralegal, advocate for individual and collective rights, and an investigative reporter:
http://nycrubberroomreporter.blogspot.com/

Substance News Article on Rubber Rooms as Constructed Propaganda Campaign:
http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=1061

City of Chicago District 299 Demographics 2000-2012:
http://iirc.niu.edu/District.aspx?source=About_Educators&source2=Teacher_Demographics&districtID=15016299025&level=D

AND

mka123088 wrote:

"The Los Angeles Unified School District has taken hundreds of teachers out of their classrooms over the past few years under allegations of misconduct or child-abuse. However, little to none of these accusations have been verified, and many of the teachers have been held in limbo for over a year without any explanation or due process of law.

This stalling tactic is used to remove any teacher who becomes problematic to the agenda of maximizing the profits of the privatized school and prison industrial complex. This means any teacher who is making too much money, becoming too politically active and best of all; educating children."

http://www.laweekly.com/2012-12-06/news/rubber-room-lausd-teacher-confessions-denials/2/

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