Beat reporters step up in Chicago strike

There’s nothing like a bitter teachers’ strike – and one chockablock with national ideo-politico implications – to bring out the best, and not-so-best, in the newsrooms of the Midwest’s largest media market.

Initial coverage of the seven-day Chicago teachers strike largely consisted of by-the-numbers spot news and predictable sidebars of the kind assistant city editors reflexively assign.

“STRIKE” screamed the tab Sun-Times in 18-pica bold Sept.10, the morning after Chicago Teachers Union negotiators rejected the school board’s last offer, sending 26,000 teachers to the picket lines and 350,000 students to – where?

That was one staple of Day 1 strike coverage: Where to send the kids if you’re a working mother? Others included the potential impact on prep football schedules, and whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel should have stayed in Chicago negotiating during the previous week instead of preening before party faithful at the Democratic National Committee convention in Charlotte.

These first stories were done capably enough, though it wasn’t until the next day’s print editions, and that night’s public radio and TV panel discussions, that the rest of us got some real insight into what really was going on behind closed doors.

It likely took those 48 hours for editors to stop acting like firehouse dogs – Hat! Coat! Talk to parents! – and start listening closely to their beat reporters.

Beat reporters. Remember them? Big newsrooms used to have rows of them, plus those stationed remotely at “building beats,” such as police headquarters and criminal courts. They were tasked with developing real sources and mastering the details of complex urban systems.

But with the collapse of print’s business model and consequent downsizing of staff, too many of these beats have disappeared or been telescoped into broad catch-alls such as “women’s issues” or “politics.”

Fortunately, Chicago’s two metro dailies still have genuine education writers – Diane Rado and Noreen Ahmed-Ullah at the Tribune, Rosalind Rossi at the Sun-Times – who managed, after the initial “Oh, my God!” din, to point out that, ta-dah: Money was not the main issue. The school board was ready early on to come through with 4 percent annual raises, though it remains to be seen how they’ll pay for it.

It turned out the strike primarily was about impending layoffs. Specifically, it was about which teachers would be losing their jobs as more and more underperforming and half-empty inner-city public schools are closed – and as more and more non-union charter schools are opened.

If there was a true scoop during two weeks of breathless blanket coverage, it was the Trib’s front-page revelation – a triple byline affair led by Ahmed-Ullah – that the Emanuel administration is quietly planning to close up to 120 of the system’s 600 schools and open 60 additional publicly funded (but privately managed) non-union charter schools over the next five years.

Much of the story was based on an obscure but finely detailed grant application that Chicago Public Schools submitted recently to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It was this revelation – that the strike was really about the rapid advance of charter schools, and how the shrinking public system intended to evaluate which teachers would stay and which go – that gave the story true national sweep.

Most big-city public school systems, after all, are dealing with similar dilemmas. Business and civic leaders are constantly calling for reform. Of course they are: Nearly half of Chicago public school students are dropping out of high school before graduation – and many of those who do graduate are unable to read an instructional manual, much less navigate a mechanical blueprint or enterprise software.

Business and civic reformers have been quick to blame incompetent but union-protected teachers. In Chicago they’ve been loudly supported by the Tribune’s editorial page, which has long thundered against the impossibly complex rules governing the firing of teachers and a pay system that rewards longevity rather than educational results.

Adding to the story’s national scope is the fact that President Obama has supported expansion of charters, which tap about two-thirds of their funding from public school budgets but need not abide by union work rules and pay scales. The president’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, pushed the idea while serving as chief executive officer of Chicago schools under former Mayor Richard M. Daley. And the Obama administration’s signature school reform initiative, “Race to the Top,” counts charters among the innovations local districts can implement to win competitively awarded federal grants.

Then again, public employee unions, of which teachers’ unions are a huge faction, have been reliable supporters of the Democratic Party. Yet here was Emanuel, a former White House chief-of-staff and national Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire, going toe-to-toe with the CTU and its hard-line leader Karen Lewis.

It’s little wonder that Stephanie Banchero, a former Tribune education writer, had no trouble winning front-page play, day after day, for her insightful coverage of the strike for the Wall Street Journal. The lede of her end-of-strike story Sept. 19 called the Chicago dispute emblematic of “the intensifying national debate over how teachers are evaluated, hired and fired.”

On the jump page she even squeezed in details of the key compromise on teacher evaluations. A teacher’s students’ scores on standardized tests will be weighted at 25 percent, 30 percent and 35 percent in successive years of the new four-year contract. Moreover, when a school is closed, even teachers with so-so evaluations will be given advanced standing for rehiring by principals at surviving schools. This was a win for the union because Emanuel and the school board, led by banker David Vitale, had insisted that school principals, who are to be held accountable for academic results, be given near-total control over hiring.

Few media outlets delved so deeply into the arcana of teacher evaluation formulas, hiring criterion and pay scales. The television O-and-Os relied mainly on fresh daily video of boisterous, red-shirted teachers on the picket lines carrying “Shame on Rahm” signs. (And, of course, news-you-can-use mini-features on temporary daycare opportunities.)

Leave it to Chicago’s WBEZ (91.5 FM) public radio to organize several more-than-you-ever-thought-you-wanted-to-know seminars on teacher evaluation, test scores and – importantly in a system where four of five students come from low-income minority families – the poverty/achievement link. Not everyone wants to spend afternoons listening to radio host Steve Edwards interview national experts on the nexus between poverty, test results and the proposition that better teachers can significantly move the needle.

But it’s good to know Chicago’s media milieu is rich enough that folks interested in root causes can get insights such as those offered by one of Edwards’ expert guests. Education researcher and author Paul Tough explained that “chaotic, unstable, violent and difficult” home environments tend to produce in children a “toxic stress” that stunts formation of the “executive function skills” crucial for success in school.

Good schools and better teachers are important, sure. But the educational crisis afflicting Chicago and America’s other major cities won’t be solved by jiggering teacher evaluations, or even by opening more charter schools.

Good beat reporters doubtless get this. Let’s hope they’re still around to explain it to the rest of us.

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