Rahm Emanual’s Inaugural

Originally published in New Ground 136, May — June, 2011, as “Letter from the Editor”. Note the emphasis Emanual placed on the importance of Chicago Public School’s CEO.

by Bob Roman

At Rahm Emanual’s inaugural speech, he declared three priorities for his first term as Mayor of Chicago: education, public safety, and efficiency. Education is clearly his first priority. “The decisions we make in the next two or three years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next twenty or thirty,” he said. “In shaping that future, our children, and their schools, must come first.”

Considering that the unemployment rate rises radically the less education you have, there is a real temptation to suppose that if everyone had PhDs, we’d be halfway down the road to utopia. Any Tunisian cab driver could tell Mr. Emanual, it ain’t necessarily so.

But how does our new Mayor propose to fulfill his goal? First is management: “To lead our efforts in Chicago, we have a courageous new schools CEO, and a strong and highly qualified new school board, with zero tolerance for the status quo and a proven track record of results to back it up.” Next are teachers: “My responsibility is to provide our children with highly qualified and motivated teachers and I will work day and night to meet that obligation.” And then comes parents: “For teachers to succeed, they must have parents as partners. Working together, we will create a seamless partnership, from the classroom to the family room, to help our children learn and succeed.”

Two things spoke loudly by their absence, items that seem absent from most discussions of school reform these days.

The first is the students themselves, as actors in the educational process. These days students seem to be reduced to objects to be manipulated, pumped up, planed down, buffed, polished, and molded to spec. The teacher is now a worker under management discipline. The school is now an assembly line. But it’s obvious to anyone in a classroom that if the kids do not buy into the project, there’s not much you can do but fail. As a group, kids are not stupid, no more so than adults. If an education seems attainable and relevant to their perceived future life possibilities, they’ll typically buy into schooling; otherwise, you’re selling home electronics to someone off the grid.

Also notably absent: the school’s community. Mr. Emanuel mentions parents as if they are teachers’ aides. But parents, and non-parents, do much the same calculations that the kids do, and they come up with similar conclusions. If college seems fiscally unlikely, it may be more important that the kids learn how to fit in so they can be “good” assembly line workers or cubical rats. In other more despairing neighborhoods, it may be more important that the kids are off the streets and relatively safe in school. Academics are fine but, rationally, they may be the community’s second or third priority.

The bottom line is a stark choice. You can consign a plurality to a majority of your children to the trash heap while concealing what you’re doing. Or you can make race and class irrelevant to a child’s future prospects. Which do you choose?

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