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Illinois Education and Labor Leader Challenges Misleading Narrative of "Failing Schools" at City Club of Chicago

November 18, 2013
Illinois education and labor leader challenges misleading narrative of "failing schools" at City Club of Chicago
IFT President Dan Montgomery highlights international report which states that nations with strongest student performance invest more in education and have strongest teachers’ unions.
CHICAGO – At a speech before the City Club of Chicago today, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery urged attendees to reject the convenient narrative that “schools and teachers are failing our students” and think more critically about an upcoming international report about American education. He also discussed how and why we must strengthen neighborhood schools and reclaim the promise of public education.
Montgomery focused his remarks on the upcoming December 3rd release of the Organization of Economic Cooperation of Development's (OECD) PISA results (Program for International Student Assessment) next month, a sweeping report on global student achievement. In recent years, the U.S. has not placed in the top tier of countries. Montgomery said he doesn’t expect our ranking to change for the better this year, since our policies on education and poverty haven’t much either.
“When the PISA report comes out next month, you inevitably will hear a frenzy of so-called ‘education reformers’ quickly surmise that given the United States’ ranking, teachers and schools must be failing our students,” said Montgomery, a high school English teacher of nearly 20 years. “We hear this false conclusion and snappy soundbite every time a new international comparison of education achievement is published. It’s convenient to skip over the details and land at this platitude, but it’s simply not true. The pages that follow the cover sheet of rankings will provide important detail. For instance, the United States has the highest poverty rate among the developed nations that participate in PISA, a factor that has a very significant impact on academic performance. When you apply poverty indicators, U.S. schools come out on top in every category."
There is also the issue of equity in resources and funding disparities from school-to-school. Since 2008, OECD countries on average increased education spending by 5%, while the U.S. decreased our investment by 1%.
While the U.S. appears to spend more than other countries, the OECD and other international comparisons seldom note that U.S. spending is high because of the skyrocketing cost of universities and colleges, which pushes our spending beyond other nations. For K-12, the U.S. is on par with other countries.
But funding alone does not ensure success. The OECD has said that a nation’s commitment to high education performance can be measured by how it treats its educators.
In 2010, OECD wrote that "the fact is that many of the countries with the strongest student performance also have the strongest teachers’ unions, beginning with Japan and Finland … Indeed, the higher a country is on the world’s education league tables, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers as trusted professional partners.”

The OECD states that if a country wants better academic achievement, “it is incumbent on the political and social leaders to persuade the citizens that choices need to be made that value education more than other areas of national interest.” 
“The OECD doesn’t prescribe austerity. It doesn’t prescribe destroying public institutions, and they don’t say ‘government’ or ‘union’ are dirty words,” Montgomery explained. "Public schools are there – and need to remain there – to provide quality education for every child, no matter where they are born. And the quality of that education must not be based on the value of the land where a student lives.”
The OECD is an international organization of 34 member countries dedicated to global economic development. They assess common challenges, develop suggested solutions, and provide results for governments to implement. OECD administers and analyzes the PISA tests, a standard benchmark in education. PISA measures capability in reading, math, and science. The test is given to randomly selected 15-year olds from more than 70 participating countries. The U.S. sample includes roughly 165 schools and 4,200 students. OECD also surveys principals, parents, and other stakeholders – but not teachers.

In order to move our country and state forward, Montgomery proposed several strategies: truly universal pre-kindergarten, fair taxation (where the wealthy pay higher rates and those at lower incomes pay less), adequate and equitable public school funding that doesn’t overly rely on property taxes, and a higher education funding mechanism that allows for any Illinois high school graduate with good grades to attend and graduate from an Illinois public college or university – without debt.
But we can’t do it alone, Montgomery said.
"One of my heroes is the late Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT and a true public intellectual and leader,” he concluded. “Interestingly, Shanker was very close to the business community. The leaders of IBM, Xerox and others respected him and loved working with him. They liked Shanker’s emphasis on high standards and treating teaching as a true profession. Where are the major business leaders today who praise unions, let alone union leaders? We need community groups, parents, and the business community to rethink the narrative that unions are bad.  

What we don’t need are more misguided policies attacking teachers or more standardized tests. Rather, we all need to fight for great public schools in every neighborhood. We need to address the devastating and broad effects of poverty. We need to work together.  A vibrant American democracy truly depends on it."

Video of Montgomery’s speech will be available online at and

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The Illinois Federation of Teachers represents 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals in PreK-12 school districts throughout Illinois, faculty and staff at Illinois’ community colleges and universities, public employees under every statewide elected constitutional officer, and retirees.
President Dan Montgomery has worked tirelessly on behalf of public education and the rights of working men and women for more than two decades. In addition to being a union leader at the state and national levels, Montgomery is a dedicated and experienced educator who taught high school English for 18 years in Skokie, IL.
Founded in 1903, the City Club of Chicago is a non-profit organization that provides a forum for the discussion of civic and public affairs in Chicago and the State of Illinois.




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