Saturday, September 08, 2007

Tough Liberal - a look at Al Shanker, union leader

Originally posted on dailykos, and also posted elsewhere

In 1973, I was in a movie theater near Philadelphia watching the new Woody Allen film “Sleeper.” A man name Miles Monroe awakens after 200 years to a world that has been devastated by nuclear war. When Allen’s character inquires what caused the war he is informed that is was caused "when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear device." As someone who lived in New York during the period of major school conflict, I was laughing so hard I came out of my seat as others, not as familiar with Shanker, stared at me. And for far too many, that line from Woody Allen encapsulates their knowledge of and reaction to Albert Shanker, which is perhaps why Richard Kahlenberg begins his remarkable biography of Shanker by reminding the reader of how that clip represents the attitude of many New York liberals toward Shanker: that he was “a hothead and union thug” (p.1) for his part in the New York City school strikes of 1967 and 1968.

That is the opening paragraph of a review I did of a new biography of Al Shanker, longtime leader of the American Federation of Teachers. In this posting I will explore the book and the man about which it is written.

I began with the opening paragraph of a review I did for Education Review of Richard Kahlenberg's new bio, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. I had mentioned the incident in the movie theater when I was contacted by Columbia University Press to see if I would be interested in reading the book. What is striking is the role that movie clip plays in the book. The next paragraph of my review reads as follows:
Clearly Allen’s criticism stung Shanker. During the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975, the city could only maintain its financial independence if the United Federation of Teachers, led by Shanker, was willing to purchase $150 million of Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds as part of the bailout necessary to convince banks to lend the city sufficient money to prevent default. This had been mandated by a provision of law declared unconstitutional, and the teachers did not have to voluntarily commit. When Shanker chose to help the city, he received a lot of criticism from the press. Thus it is worth quoting the passage from p. 185 that offers Shanker’s response:

Shanker told Newsweek: “Woody Allen said if I had a nuclear weapon in my hand I would use it. Here I had it and I didn’t use it.”

By the way, since I hold the copyright on the review, I am not bound by fair use in what I choose to quote. I do not intend to merely reproduce what I wrote for Education Review, since I have provided you a link.

I began reading the book with an antipathy towards Shanker. I had lived in New York until 1971, and thus had been present for much of the disruption in that city's schools during the period of time he led the Unied Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the National Federation of Teachers, to whose leadership he later ascended. I had family teaching in the city's schools who were not Shanker fans. I had also watched his later career as he rose to the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO under George Meany, offered continued support for the war in Vietnam, opposed McGovern in 1972, and served as perhaps one of the most prominent advocates of the standards movement. I had read far too many of his "Where We Stand" columns in the New York Times with which I had found myself in strong disagreement. I knew he had been an early advocate of charter schools, and was a key supporter of No Child Left Behind, perhaps one reason some Democrats were willing to go along with that proposal.

And yet as is often the case with notable public figures, the picture of Al Shanker I carried in my mind was quite incomplete, and thus almost a caricature. At the time my impression of him was being formed I was not a classroom teacher. Thus I missed in my reading of his columns things with which I now find myself in agreement. And as a teacher, I have to acknowledge that Shanker more than any other person is responsible for what collective bargaining rights we public school educators have. When he began his efforts in New York the vast majority of teachers were not members of teachers' unions. Now nationally most are, with the AFT and NEA being two of the largest unions around. After reading the exceedingly well documented biography, I also realized that there were positions advocated by Shanker with which I found myself agreeing.

Much of the negative liberal attitude towards Al Shanker was formed during the dispute over the Ocean-Hill Brownsville community district in New York City, during which there was a major conflict between a largely Jewish group of teachers and a local administration and community that was largely African-American. Shanker was accused by some of being a racist, which was patently unfair. This was a man who came from the socialist and social democratic traditions, who was a founding member of the Congress of Racial Equality while an undergraduate at the U of Illinois in 1947, who who worked closely with people like Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr before, during and after the incident which gave rise to the unfortunate portrayal indicated by the Allen movie quote.

I have some quibbles with the book, which I discuss in the review and which you can read there. On the whole I think it well worth reading. As I wrote in my final paragraph
Albert Shanker received posthumously this nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. For better or worse, he was a major player in the shaping of this nation’s educational policies for the more than four decades. Before reading this biography, I was somewhat inclined to think the worse of Shanker's efforts. It is a testament to Kahlenberg’s research and writing that I now see how Al Shanker played a positive role in his lifelong crusade to defend and improve public education. I am in many ways the beneficiary of that commitment. My own career as a public school teacher has been shaped in ways I had not known were influenced by Shanker. Anyone seriously interested in education history and education policy would do well to take the time to at least examine this book. Those who do will likely be inclined , as was I, to read the entire work.

As a teacher I try to empower my students to view people and history without filtering them through prior prejudicial attitudes. That is, while it is inevitable that we may have prior perceptions (positive or negative) about people and events, I believe that to be intellectually honest we must be willing to go beyond those, to examine people and events in their own context, which might be quite different than ours. I try to have my students learn how to disagree however strongly they feel on issues without it descending into disagreeable attacks on persons inorder to win rhetorical points: in politics we should remember that today's fiercest opponent might in some future battle be our strongest ally. There is still much about Al Shanker with which I have my difficulties. I can now, after reading Kahlenberg's excellent biography, understand the background for many of Shanker's position: as a Social Democrat he believed he understood the dangers of communism in ways that some liberals did not; this shaped his response to Vietnam in a way I happen to believe was wrong. Similarly, I can look at positions he took on education and while understanding the motivation behind them and at times even agreeing in part, nevertheless remain critical of the implications of those positions, implications to which, despite his intellectual brilliance (Shanker was ABD in Philosophy at Columbia and clearly was an influential public intellectual), he seemed oblivious.

Let me offer from the review and example of how I address the consequences of some of Shanker's ideas:
In the final chapter, "The Legacy of Albert Shanker," Kalhlenberg describes Shanker’s three main contributions as “helping to create modern teachers’ unions, helping to reform public education, and helping to preserve public education.” He goes on to write that these “made him the most important voice in education in the past half century” (p. 391). Kahlenberg acknowledges that Shanker did not solve many of the problems that still confront public schools, especially in inner cities, but argues that “he was in the thick of the major efforts to address the problems and fought off a number of bad ideas that would have made things worse” (p. 391). It is on the last point that many educators and analysts might choose to disagree.

I am a public school teacher. I am not sure that looking at the body of evidence I would agree that Shanker’s support of public school choice through charters necessarily staved off a movement to vouchers: there exist a number of voucher programs already, including in two major urban centers, Milwaukee and Cleveland. Similarly, Shanker’s willingness to support the idea of national standards and possibly even a national test has led to what I consider some dangerous movement in the direction of such a national dictates on education. Moreover, given battles over such issues as the nature of science instruction (not an issue addressed by Shanker) and history standards (he was on Lynne Cheney’s side in that battle), I am unwilling to grant increased power over education to the federal government. I acknowledge that my reaction is shaped as much by my experience and philosophy as was Shanker’s.

And in fairness, let me also offer how I found myself in agreement, at least in part:
Nevertheless, the more I read about Shanker, the more I found myself in agreement on important issues. In his understanding of accountability, he was unwilling to hold teachers accountable if students were not. True, but this does not go far enough. Shanker's failure to see high stakes testing for what it truly is could lead to the situation where teachers are graded based on the same tests used to determine graduation or promotion―the situation for high schools in Maryland where I teach. He ignored what we know about the distortion and corruption of both testing and curriculum that such a high stakes approach engenders. And yet, seeing the interconnectedness of responsibility is a step far beyond that of many advocates of a punitive approach to testing, such as many supporters of No Child Left Behind. I agree with Shanker that it is unwise to allow private entities to manage public schools. He correctly saw that such companies might take a cookie-cutter approach to hold down their costs, actions exactly contrary to the vision he had of using charter schools as a means of flexibility to meet the needs of students and communities. Shanker wanted a progressive, class-based coalition to increase opportunity and, hence, economic equity. He worried that using only race-based forms of affirmative action would not resolve the real problems, even for those minorities whose impoverished circumstances most warranted help. I have over the years come to understand the importance of economic inequity in this country, and realize that race is often only a proxy because of the historic inequities that have been passed down. I teach African-American students where both parents have advanced degrees and white students who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school; and it is clear to me that while the latter need the kind of help offered by affirmative action, the former probably do not, despite continued elements of racism in our society.

Santayana once opined that those who did not learn history were destined to repeat it. I think far too often in our political battles we tend to rely only on that history which we think reinforces the positions we wish to advocate. In our selectivity we may miss important lessons and thus as Santayana notes repeat the mistakes of the past. I wonder if we looked more completely at the events and person of the past whether our perceptions of what we should assay might not be different. Reading a book about Al Shanker challenged my thinking. I still think he was wrong in how he advocated for standards, but I also understand that his motivation was to preserve public education and to enhance the role played by and thus the respect for public school teachers. Unlike some with whom he worked I have no doubt about his dedication to that purpose. And I think an examination of some of the battles he went through - including being jailed on behalf of his teachers - might remind us that those who have gone before us have often paid a heavy price in order to give us rights and liberties we too often take for granted, until they are threatened.

We live in a time in which labor rights are increasingly under threat. For too long there was a distinct chasm between much of labor and other parts of the liberal coalition. Those who attended Yearlykos in Chicago have seen how that is changing - the presence of both Teachers' unions, the Teamsters, SEIU, and so on, enable us to recognize the common interests we have in working together on many issues, even if we might disagree on others. Al Shanker's life and work were evidence of the importance of such an approach, which is one reason I feel comfortable advocating reading this long book to an audience which comes to this site mainly for political reasons.

I have no idea what response this posting will receive. I will post it at a number of sites because I think the book is worthy of attention.

And I thank you for your patience in reading this far.


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