It has been difficult to discern what specific details are left on the table in the Chicago teachers’ negotiations. Broadly, we know the union leadership resents Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s enthusiasm for non-unionized charter schools and neighborhood school closings. It is also clear that professional evaluation is a big issue, as it is in states and cities across the country. To what extent should teachers be judged by their students’ test scores, as opposed to by more holistic measures? Job security, especially for teachers in schools that will be shut down, has been eroding, which the CTU sees as a calamity, yet many reformers applaud. And of course, there is pay. Is it fair for teachers to demand regular raises when unemployment is so high, and budgets at every level of government are strapped?
I’m not going to pronounce on these questions today, but I do want to offer a quick history of teacher unionism to keep things in perspective. The modern teachers’ union movement began in Chicago in 1897, and many of the problems back then — from low school budgets to testing to debates over classroom autonomy — remain more than salient today.
In 1800, 90 percent of American schoolteachers were men; by 1900, three-quarters were women. The feminization of teaching—a job once filled primarily by transient young men, often saving up to finance a legal or medical education—was, in large part, why education became one of the few white-collar unionized professions in the United States. Here’s how it happened, and why it happened in Chicago.
Around 1830, the American political, business, and intellectual elite began to come to a consensus that state governments should guarantee all children a free, basic education. Businesses wanted literate workers, and there was the idea that education would reduce social ills like intemperance and crime. But more than that, Common Schools reformers believed the young nation’s tenuous experiment in popular democracy required informed citizens, voters able to balance competing claims, judge the character of candidates for political office, and generally put the long term common good above short term, individual gain. (Like today’s education reformers, Common Schoolers were an idealistic group.)
The inescapable reality, however, was that schools were expensive, and Americans, then as now, didn’t like high taxes. So in order to rapidly open many more schools, states, cities, and towns made the conscious choice to hire mostly female teachers, who were cheaper to employ. To sell that idea to a public wary of women working outside the home, and accustomed to corporal punishment and other stereotypically masculine ways of retaining control over a classroom, Common School reformers like Horace Mann, the Whig politician, and Catharine Beecher, the public intellectual, wrote and spoke ad nauseam about women’s moral superiority. As a schoolteacher, Mann lectured, a woman would be like an angel, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!” Male teachers, Beecher liked to say, were “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, and utterly incompetent.”
This bracing rhetoric covered up an ugly reality of pay discrimination. Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years at $875 annually (about $23,000 adjusted for inflation), less than a skilled manual laborer could earn.
The nation’s first teachers’-only union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was founded by two pissed off lady educators, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin. They split the CTF from the administrator-dominated National Education Association in 1897. Haley, a sixth-grade teacher, became a national political force after she launched an investigation into the school system’s budget. She found that major Chicago corporations, including the Chicago Tribune and the city’s railroad, gas, and electrical utilities, had been issued 100-year “leases” of land owned by the Chicago public schools for far-below the market rate, and were paying no taxes whatsoever on the land. Haley’s successful lawsuit against Chicago’s leading corporations, and her decision to ally the Chicago Teachers’ Federation with the blue-collar AFL-CIO Chicago Federation of Labor established teacher unionism as a potent force in American urban politics, and earned her the ire of the conservative elite. One businessman called her “a nasty, unladylike woman.” But Haley knew that because female teachers couldn’t vote, they needed the muscle of the male-dominated labor movement to back them up in their efforts to win higher pay and more say over how schools were run.
Amid these tensions, in November 1902, the Andrew Jackson School on Chicago’s West Side hosted the nation’s first ever teachers’ strike. Superintendent Edwin Cooley had replaced a popular female principal at the school with a man sent from the central district office. On Halloween, Janice McKeon, a longtime teacher with deep ties to the predominantly Irish neighborhood, booted a student from her 55-person class for using profanity against another child. When the new principal sent the offender back to class—and McKeon refused to let him enter the room—she was suspended without pay for 30 days. A week later, on Nov. 7, 400 students, parents, and teachers protested outside the school in support of McKeon, giving a boost to the newly formed CTF.
Political reformers of this period looked at the chaos of urban school systems and concluded that young, non-college educated women weren’t tough, ambitious, or intellectual enough to be effective teachers. Men like Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Columbia University president and standardized testing-enthusiast Nicholas Murray Butler, and Harvard president Charles William Eliot vowed to once again attract a higher-class (read: male) professional to the K-12 classroom, and to turn education into a “science” governed by standardized teaching practices and measured by test scores. Margaret Haley, however, saw female educators not as the problem with poverty-stricken schools, but as part of the solution. She wanted to try a different way of running schools, one that increased budgets, but also relied less on technocratic centralization and more on the instincts of individual educators with ties to the communities in which they worked.
For awhile, the early CTF found a partner in Chicago schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young, a fiercely intellectual high school teacher who earned a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and became a disciple of John Dewey, the founding philosopher of American progressive education. Young led the Chicago system from 1909 to 1915, and worked with the teachers’ union to institute a pedagogy based on theories of the whole child, which emphasized a broad curriculum and project-based learning. She allowed “teacher councils” within each school to set priorities, arguing that empowering teachers would help students achieve joy in learning. “In order that teachers may delight in awakening the spirits of children, they must themselves be awake,” Young said. She also resisted attempts by business leaders to direct working class children to a narrowly conceived version of vocational education, and she continuously fought corporate efforts to pay lower school taxes. Ultimately, business interests on the school board succeeded in pushing Young out of office.
There are some obvious parallels between the teacher labor battles of the past and those of today. First, teaching remains an overwhelmingly female profession, one that is often understood more as a romantic calling than as a career like any other, in which pay, autonomy, and working conditions matter. Second, raising taxes is typically a political nonstarter; in a system serving an extremely needy population, there is perpetually the need to do more with far less than would be ideal.
But there are also clear differences. Today’s teachers, though they earn less than other college-educated workers, do make a stable, middle-class salary. They are working within a knowledge economy that rewards worker flexibility and lifelong learning; it would be counterproductive, both for students and for the strength of organized labor, for local teachers’ unions to hang on to old notions of rigid job security and near nonexistent teacher evaluation. (Many teachers’ unions do have their own proposals for how to evaluate teachers, through processes like peer evaluation and portfolios of students' work. There are also good ideas from other quarters, like much more rigorous classroom observations.) And while large class sizes remain a problem, many high-poverty schools in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are actually experiencing rapid declines in enrollment, in part because of competition from charters. This help explains the push for school closures and teacher workforce reductions.
Teachers’ unions are among the most controversial institutions in American public life. I hope to demystify them in my upcoming book. There is much more to say, but for now I will stop here.
Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley by Kate Rousmaniere
Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 by Marjorie Murphy