Assessing the Legacy of Albert Shanker, ‘Tough Liberal’
Albert Shanker helped found the United Federation of Teachers and made it into one of the most powerful political forces in the American labor movement and in New York City education. But he didn’t stop there. Until his death in 1997 at age 68, he expounded ideas about education that helped shape the standards-based movement for educational accountability today. He also promoted a muscular foreign policy that is often not found today on the American left.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, the author of “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy,” a new biography of Shanker, advanced these arguments on Monday night during a wide-ranging panel discussion at the New-York Historical Society. He was joined by Michael Tomasky, the editor of Guardian America, and by the New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein.
“When Albert Shanker began teaching in the ’50s, teachers were very poorly paid and were subject to often times autocratic principals,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “He overcame some significant obstacles to collective bargaining for teachers and created a national movement that today is probably the most politically potent force in education.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, Mr. Kahlenberg said, Shanker “became the leading education reformer in the country. He was able to challenge his constituency, to get them to look beyond their narrow interests as teachers and really be concerned about what was best for kids and students.”
Mr. Kahlenberg maintained that Shanker’s commitment to unions and public schools, opposition to racial preferences and hawkishness on national security are a rare combination on the left today. “He was a liberal to the end of his days; he believed in public schools and trade unions as essential instruments in promoting more equality in the society -– but he also had a certain tough-mindedness that I think is sometimes lacking among liberals today,” Mr. Kahlenberg said.
Surely, Shanker was not universally loved, Mr. Tomasky pointed out. Mr. Kahlenberg replied:
He’s someone who had enemies across the political spectrum. He got into fights with right-wing proponents of vouchers and privatization and people who attacked unions. He got in a lot of big fights with people on the left for foreign policy. For his support of solidarity in Poland, some people accused him of being a C.I.A. agent, for which I found no evidence. He was denounced as a racist for his positions on issues like racial quotas and also on the divisive 1968 teachers’ strike over community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Mr. Kahlenberg, who conducted scores of interviews for his book, added, “There was no evidence that I could find that he had a racist bone in his body.” Shanker marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and protested racial segregation, Mr. Kahlenberg noted.
Mr. Klein praised the new biography effusively.
“I think Albert Shanker was one of the truly great heroes of education reform in America,” Mr. Klein said. “I carry around this file annotated with all of my little stickies from various Shanker writings, which I read almost from the day I became chancellor.”
Shanker “had a sense of the dimensions of the challenge we face in public education,” Mr. Klein said. He added:
Unlike a lot of people in America, he didn’t underestimate the power of education to transform the lives of kids from the most struggling, challenged backgrounds. Today there are far too many people who use poverty, and the dysfunctionality of poverty, as an excuse. Shanker was not an excuse maker. He set enormously high expectations, and secondly, he was the one who called for the second revolution in public education.
Mr. Klein noted that Shanker realized that the teachers’ union would pay “a terrible price” if it did not use its political power to advance the common good.
“Time and time again, he called for bold, some would say radical, transformative solutions,” Mr. Klein said. He added:
I wish the national discussion were nearly remotely as robust as the kind of discussion Shanker would have conducted in educational reform in America. Today in America, we have a racial and ethnic achievement gap 53 years after Brown that is staggering. And small-bore, apologetic solutions are not going to be adequate to meet the challenges we are going to face. And Albert Shanker flagged that for us more than a decade go.
Mr. Klein, who became the first chancellor since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won control of the city’s public school system in 2002, disbanding the Board of Education, said that Shanker spoke in favor of mayoral control of urban school systems — an idea now very much in vogue — in 1995.
“He recognized correctly that school board politics were the politics of paralysis,” Mr. Klein said. “What he saw the need for was powerful leadership, publicly accountable, and no one in the city is more publicly accountable than the mayor. You can agree with his policies or disagree with them, but there is not a diffusion of responsibilities.”
(The United Federation of Teachers, under its current president, Randi Weingarten, backed the State Legislature’s decision to give the mayor control of the schools, but has occasionally clashed with Mr. Klein’s handling of the Education Department since then.)
Mr. Kahlenberg recounted the basic details of Shanker’s life. Shanker was born into a working-class family in Queens. His father delivered newspapers; his mother was a seamstress and a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Mr. Kahlenberg said:
She went from very tough circumstances to a situation where she was earning a decent living and had regular working hours. So he saw the power of that. He saw an instance in his own family where someone wasn’t able to take his God-given talents as far as he’d like. He had that as a cautionary tale. He went to school knowing only Yiddish, and so he learned English the hard way. In public schools, kids made fun of him for not knowing English. He later in life was a critic of bilingual education because he felt kids were separated out too much, and he thought that the assimilation process was very important. He did well in public schools and tested into Stuyvesant and then went on to the University of Illinois, where he became involved in socialist politics. He became involved in the civil rights movement, protesting segregation. Then he came back to Columbia University for a Ph.D. program in philosophy. He couldn’t finish his Ph.D. dissertation. He wasn’t cut out for that. He said he ran out of time and ran out of money. And so he went into teaching in the public schools on a temporary basis. This was quite a fall for him, because he went from the rarefied environment of an Ivy League Ph.D. program into a tough school in East Harlem. He saw the way teachers were treated. He had one assistant principal who literally stood with binoculars across the courtyard and spied on him while he was teaching. He said, along with others, “We need to unionize.”
There were at least three obstacles to unionization at the time. Teachers saw themselves as college-educated professionals, and many felt that a union would be beneath them. It was -– and still is -– illegal for public employees to go on strike, and teachers who walked off the job faced losing their jobs under state law. Finally, there was tremendous disunity among teachers, with 106 groups representing teachers in some way; many of those groups were organized along racial or ethnic lines.
Mr. Kahlenberg also recounted the history of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, which was a searing event in the history of New York Ctiy liberalism and left deep wounds for decades. It began in November 1967, when Mayor John V. Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy, then the head of the Ford Foundation, “formed a strange alliance with the black power movement in demanding more community control of the schools,” Mr. Kahlenberg said.
In an experiment, a local panel in Ocean Hill-Brownsville -– a predominantly black neighborhood in Central Brooklyn –- was given control of the local schools. In May 1968, the local panel summarily dismissed 19 educators, all of them white, without any formal hearing or presentation of charges. Mr. Kahlenberg recalled:
New York City liberals were split. This was not far from the days when many African-Americans were being hosed in Alabama and Mississippi, and some liberals wanted to essentially do whatever it was that the black community wanted. And then there were others who said: ‘We can’t take this too far. We can’t just fire people without any good cause.” Part of the Bundy idea was that you could also hire with race as a factor. Albert Shanker stood up against this and said that certain principles were at stake. One is the right for unions to protect members against arbitrary dismissal. Another is the idea that we should ultimately try to integrate schools.
Shanker led the union on a bitter strike that shut down school for a total of 36 days, sending a million students home. Ultimately, the union was victorious. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in local control came to an end, but it left deep rifts in the city, particularly between blacks and Jews, who at the time made up a majority of the city’s educators.
Mr. Klein, who was an assistant attorney general for antitrust matters in the Clinton administration, said the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis was “was part of a pivotal transformation in the Democratic Party,” when liberals became fractured over how strong a stance the United States should take against communism.
Although the local panel was disbanded, one legacy of that period was decentralization of the city’s school system into 32 largely autonomous school districts. “I think it set education back in the city significantly,” Mr. Klein said. “At the same time it did lead to a lot of power patronage that got dispersed into the school districts and that was very hard to undo. The plight of this city’s neediest kids was not improved in any significant way by decentralization.”
He added: “There are still too many people trying to pursue too many divergent agendas. We are still not healed from some of the wounds of ’68.”
Mr. Tomasky, the moderator, asked whether education in Ocean Hill-Brownsville had improved since 1968. Mr. Klein said it had, but acknowledged that “Ocean Hill-Brownsville is still not at the place where I think most of us would like to see students performing.”
Mr. Kahlenberg said that Shanker tried to heal some of the racial wounds of the 1968 crisis by pushing to organize and improve the skills of so-called paraprofessionals, also known as teacher’s aides. Most of the teacher’s aides at the time were black.
At another point in the discussion, Mr. Kahlenberg noted that Shanker’s name was mentioned, rather famously, in a 1973 Woody Allen movie, “Sleeper,” in which Mr. Allen’s character goes to sleep for 200 years and wakes up to learn that the world as he had known it had been destroyed after a man the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.
“I hasten to add that the bulk of the research for my book found that he was anything but a madman,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “He was, indeed, a visionary.”
Mr. Kahlenberg said that Shanker used his position from the ’70s to the ’90s to support educational innovation. He admitted that some teachers were not up to the job and recommended a then-pioneering peer review system, whereby teachers would be evaluated by their colleagues. Those performing unsatisfactorily would get help, but if they continued to struggle, they would be dismissed.
Shanker also became sympathetic to the need for national educational standards, a forerunner to today’s No Child Left Behind law. (Mr. Kahlenberg said he believed Shanker would not be entirely happy with No Child Left Behind, because the law provides for sanctions for schools and teachers if students do not perform, but provides no consequences for the students themselves.)
Mr. Kahlenberg suggested that Shanker’s strong anti-Communist views are insufficiently appreciated today, in the post-cold-war era. Labor leaders like Shanker and George Meany and Lane Kirkland of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. “didn’t hate the Communists because the Communists were for a more egalitarian society,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “They hated the Communists because they’d taken this beautiful idea of democracy and economic democracy and subverted it and become authoritarian, totalitarian, in nation after nation.”
Mr. Klein returned to the subject of educational reform: “Today, teaching to the test has become the shibboleth that everybody says, ‘How awful that is,’” he said. “Albert Shanker said a long time ago: If the test is great, teach to the test. Now we should certainly argue about the quality of the test.”
Mr. Klein added, “Long before anyone I know of was calling for pay for performance, Albert Shanker argued in a brilliant speech at the Pew Forum for merit pay that would be considered radical today.”
The audience members included Shanker’s widow, Eadie, and Eugenia Kemble, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute.
In response to a question from Ms. Kemble, Mr. Klein noted that Shanker had long called for greater professionalization in teaching, which would lead to higher morale.
“This is acquaintance and a wonderful Jeffersonian idea that the states ought to be responsible for education, but everybody who looks at is understands that as a result of that, standards have eroded and we all have a different understanding of what it means to be proficient.”
Mr. Klein, like Shanker, grew up in a humble family in Queens. His father dropped out of high school in the Bronx and became a Postal Service worker because he had to support his family during the Depression.
“Education is truly transformative when it works the way it worked for kids like myself,” Mr. Klein said. “We will never fix poverty unless we fix education – Albert Shanker knew that.”
In response to another question, from George Altomare, a labor leader who knew Shanker, Mr. Klein said the teacher tenure system still makes it too hard to remove teachers who are inadequate.
“The system as it works now makes it almost impossible to eliminate an incompetent teacher,” Mr. Klein said.
I asked the panelists how Shanker would have responded to two trends: the increasing segregation of urban school systems as the federal courts have moved away from race-conscious integration policies, and the growing popularity of alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America.
Mr. Kahlenberg said Shanker was an early supporter of magnet schools that would devote resources to disadvantaged children from around the city. He said he believed Shanker would support programs to integrate the schools socioeconomically, if not racially.
“It seems to, logically, if you’re for more integration but concerned about methods which are race-specific, one way to ring about that integration would be to ensure an economic mix in the schools,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “He did write about the importance of having kids from different backgrounds come together.”
Mr. Klein said that Shanker liked the idea of having more young teachers who work in the system for a few years –- whether to fulfill a personal ideal, repay student loans or another reason -– and fewer lifelong teachers. “You’d have these four-, five-, six-year teachers that would basically be supported by these master teachers,” Mr. Klein said. “It was a bifurcated model and one that really hasn’t fully been adopted.”