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Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy. (Columbia University Press, September 2007, 552 pages, $29.99)
When the protagonist of Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper wakes up 200 years in the future, he learns that a madman named Albert Shanker has destroyed civilization with a nuclear bomb. It was Shanker's reward for spending the previous decade and a half leading
In 1962, Shanker won the first collective bargaining for teachers in a major city and encouraged the rapid spread of teacher unionism throughout the nation, at a time when many people didn't believe public employees could be organized on a large scale. Within a decade, some 70 percent of the nation's teachers were unionized, and the political and educational contours of public education changed permanently.
But Shanker, we learn in Richard Kahlenberg's sympathetic biography of the labor leader, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy, was not a stereotypical union boss. He graduated from
He was a man who found time to read eight newspapers a day, who over the course of his career wrote 1,300 often-erudite columns on a wide range of education and other issues in the New York Times and the
But as Kahlenberg's thoroughly researched and clearly written narrative makes clear, Shanker's many contributions to the public debates of his day were always linked either directly or indirectly to the preservation of unions and the well-being of their members. And as Shanker himself acknowledged over the course of his career, what's best for teachers unions hasn’t always jibed with the interests of the nation's public schools or its students.
Teachers unions have become the most powerful force in public education, and they have over the years won a modicum of improvement in the working lives of their members, mostly in the blue-collar categories of wages, hours, and working conditions. Public education got labor unions because it deserved them; in the pre-bargaining era, teachers in many school systems were ill-paid and ill-treated.
But the rise of teacher unionism intensified an already-strong bureaucratic ethos in public education, stripping public schools of the strong shared incentives to educate students well that pervade the nation's best private and charter schools. And teachers unions have repeatedly used their power to block sensible reforms, driving away many potentially powerful allies of public education in the process.
A Kahlenberg anecdote from Shanker's militant early years in
The smartest, and long the most militant, teacher unionist in America became convinced that in the end the best way for teachers unions to promote their members' interests was to align themselves with the interests of students, that only if they work to improve public education and in particular the quality of public school teaching, can they hope to make a meaningful difference in the lives of public school teachers. In the wake of an enduring national disenchantment with public education's performance and a deepening conviction that teachers unions bore a great deal of responsibility for the problem, Shanker came to conclude that this was the only course. But for the most part, his message fell, and continues to fall, on deaf ears within the teachers union movement.
To the young Shanker, unions were "just below God," he would say later in life. He grew up speaking Yiddish in a Polish immigrant family amidst the anti-Semitic brutality and isolation of a tough Catholic enclave in
To Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank, it was the power of union collectivism to promote economic justice, civil rights, and upward mobility that drove—and justified—Shanker's militant teachers union leadership in New York and the sometimes controversial and seemingly contradictory stances that formed what Kahlenberg calls Shanker's "tough liberalism."
Shanker, for example, campaigned with Martin Luther King during the civil rights era but led an all-out fight to defeat an attempt by local black school officials in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the late 1960s to replace nearly two dozen white teachers with blacks under a campaign by black activists and liberal institutions like the Ford Foundation to expand the power of New York City's black communities. To Shanker, the move exposed his members to the same capricious hiring and firing practices that he had worked so hard to end, threatened his union’s citywide collective-bargaining contract, and exposed white teachers to the same employment discrimination that blacks had faced.
Shanker prevailed, but only after the three 1968 strikes left the city's students at home for 20 percent of the school year and its race relations in a shambles: the fired white teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville were all white Jews (Jews had gravitated to teaching in New York because they had faced less discrimination there than in the private sector), and the UFT's attack on the teacher firings drove a wedge between blacks and Jews in New York that continued for years. Shanker was branded a racist.
But he was unrepentant, and he went on to fight other battles in
Not surprisingly, Shanker's union-first brand of liberalism led him to have an ambivalent relationship with the Left. He joined liberals in supporting universal health care and a higher minimum wage, in fighting private school vouchers (they weakened public education, he argued, and threatened public school teachers' jobs) and in lobbying for more public school funding.
But he often sided with conservatives, in opposing the forced busing of students to desegregate public schools (in part because it produced white flight to suburbs, which hurt the American Federation of Teachers' mostly urban local affiliates), in attacking bilingual education and multiculturalism in the curriculum (they balkanized public education, he contended, undermined its capacity to create a common educational experience, its most important rationale), and in advocating aggressive school discipline policies (because they helped teachers and improved public education's image). Shanker helped launch charter schools as a way of giving teachers more leadership opportunities in schools, but later repudiated them for what he saw as their anti-public education, anti-union biases.
Shanker's tight walk between the Left and the Right extended to foreign affairs. He was a socialist, but also a fervent anti-communist because totalitarian regimes, he said, disdained the rights of workers and quashed free labor unions. He supported the Vietnam War and the Solidarity Movement in
Shanker's tough liberalism led him to reject the McGovern-Carter wing of the Democratic Party on the grounds that it alienated white working-class voters. In this sense, Shanker was a Democratic bellweather: Bill Clinton campaigned on a distinctly Shanker-esque platform when he ran to the center in winning the White House in 1992.
Kahlenberg, the author of three previous books (including a well-received memoir of his time at
In the 1980s, a spate of national reports revealed serious flaws in public education and led Shanker to advocate an end to the hard-edged, industrial-style unionism, the I-represent-teachers-not-children stance that he had introduced into teaching two decades earlier. The public's broken faith in public education had to be restored, he told his members, and that meant taking steps to improve the quality of public school teachers and teaching—even if those steps conflicted with traditional union policies and priorities. Teachers unions' survival was at stake, Shanker said: "It's like being a strong man on a sinking ship; being strong doesn't do you much good."
While the rival National Education Association (NEA) and other major education organizations condemned the reports, Shanker expressed openness to both their indictments of public schools and their recommendations for reform. He alone among leaders in the education establishment realized that the stakes for public education were suddenly a lot higher.
Shanker sought to create a new brand of teacher unionism, one that safeguarded union members but also invested unions with far more responsibility for the quality of the teaching profession. He proposed a spate of "teacher quality" reforms in a string of major speeches: tough entrance tests for both new and veteran teachers, a national board for advanced certification, performance pay based on peer review, a "streamlining" of due-process protections and other measures that broke sharply with traditional union practices. The recommendations were far different than the hard-nosed rhetoric that landed him in Woody Allen's Sleeper.
But Shanker was unable to sell the bulk of his new unionism to his rank and file, despite his tremendous power as president of the American Federation of Teachers. The NEA, more than three times the size of Shanker's AFT and the dominant teachers union in every state other than
So in the last years of his life Shanker largely abandoned his teaching-reform crusade and lent his energies to a fledging movement to establish rigorous standards for students throughout the nation. Doing so, he reasoned, would signal the AFT's commitment to strengthening public education, put pressure on public education to improve from within, and produce stronger students, and thus, down the road, supply public education with more highly qualified public school teachers.
Shanker wanted national standards and a system of rigorous national exams of the sort found in many European and Asian nations because he believed that states, left to their own devices, would produce mostly low standards and strong incentives for schools to ignore the performance of their best and worst students—exactly what has happened under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The centralized standards that Shanker sought are looming on the education horizon; the logic of moving in that direction is undeniable. Had Shanker lived, we no doubt would have embraced such a system more quickly.
And Shanker's admonitions about teacher reform are no less relevant today. Unless the AFT and the NEA and their thousands of state and local affiliates finally cast off the blue-collar mantle that Shanker bequeathed them and begin to not just tolerate but actively promote the sorts of changes in public schooling and public school teaching—including tougher entrance requirements, tougher on-the-job evaluations, performance-based pay, career ladders, and streamlined dismissals—that Shanker sought, the features of white-collar work, public education may become, as Shanker warned, a permanent educational backwater. Certainly, as one measure of public education's status, private school vouchers and charter schools are much more prevalent today than during Shanker's time.
Today's unions would do well to heed the central lesson of their famous founding father: what's best for the nation's students is also best for their unionized teachers.