Karen Lewis, 2013 Prinz Speaker at Elmhurst College

In the midst of an existential crisis for the Chicago Public Schools, one of my current educational heroes, CTU President Karen Lewis, came out to the suburbs tonight and delivered the 2013 Andrew K. Prinz Guestship for Political Awareness lecturer at Elmhurst College.  She spoke of the commitment and rewards of teaching, the systemic social problems that beset public schools, and her vision of what is possible when communities regain control of schooling, a precious resource.

The National Board Certified Lewis framed the current crisis as a result of powerful, monied interests hijacking education policy by changing its narrative. Until the 1990s, she noted, there was never talk of “failing schools,” only failing students.  Changing the paradigm gained acceptance of vouchers and “choice” for parents, and business-run charter schools that now threaten the very existence of public schooling in urban districts like Chicago’s.

The narrative advanced by the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations, Lewis said, ignores the context of schools–the communities  and families they serve–and atomizes a school’s function with a business-like focus on measurable outcomes, and “no excuses” bottom-line efficiency models.  Doing so blinds the uncritical listener to the elephant in the room, “deep, generational poverty,” which 23% of American children grow into, and which results in disruption and chaos that shuts down executive functioning in the brain. Until we address the problems in the urban community, in health, social services, and jobs, the “under-performing” schools that serve it will never improve.

Addressing the disingenuous and distracting “reforms” of corporate philanthropy, Lewis said that “more than a choice, or a chance, our kids deserve a guarantee of a high-quality public school,” one that is properly funded and democratically run.  When a school is closed or “merged” with another in a hostile neighborhood (for Chicago, she said, is a city full of Capulets and Montagues), two-thirds of students end up in an even lower-performing school. And in a school closing–which breaks socio-emotional ties in lives already full of stress and uncertainty–there is a shameful number of students who will opt out of schooling rather than risk the scary travel to school in another gang’s turf. 70,000 students, K through 12, have  thus been lost to CPS rosters, Lewis claimed.  

In the Q & A session after her speech, Lewis expressed her belief that while there is nothing wrong with students from elite universities volunteering their expertise in urban schools, programs like Teach for America err in replacing dedicated professionals with lightly trained, un-committed participants.  She called the program, which has earned praise from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama, “Teach for A While,” since that is what most participants, do, padding their resume on the way to a career far from the inner cities. In countries that really care about their education, such programs are not heard of. “There’s no ‘Teach for Finland,’” she said, “or ‘Teach for Singapore.”

The evening ended with Lewis looking forward to a better CPS and a better public school system nationwide. Real educational reform requires elected, representative school boards, adequate, equal funding, and governance in the schools that is transparent and democratic.

Thank goodness for women like Lewis, who speak truth to power about our society’s most important resource–the future represented by our children.

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