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Book illuminates teacher union's role in NY struggles over teacher selection, diversity
by Ron Whitehorne <http://www.thenotebook.org/
In 1968, the United Federation of Teachers <http://uft.org> (UFT) went on
strike over the involuntary transfer of 19 teachers by a newly empowered
community-controlled school board in New York City's Ocean Hill-Brownsville
neighborhood. The controversies at the heart of that bitter struggle
in current debates over the methods of teacher selection, the role of
seniority and due process in teacher assignment, and the appropriateness of
affirmative action in the composition of urban teaching corps.
Then, as now, the role of educators of color in urban school districts was
an issue that sparked controversy. In recounting how rules for teacher
selection evolved in New York, Christina Collins' book,
Merit and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920-1980, illuminates the
failure of the city's teachers' unions to effectively challenge the
exclusion and marginalization of African American teachers.
The lack of strong union-community coalitions around education issues may in
part be a legacy of that failure.
The role of the Board of Examiners in teacher selection
At the heart of the centralized system created by municipal reformers to
replace control by Tammany Hall <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
was the Board of Examiners
tested applicants and created the eligibility lists that governed
appointments to schools. While certification elsewhere in the state was
conferred by graduation from a credentialed college or university, New York
City required applicants to also pass a test administered by the Board.
Passing the test was difficult for most applicants. Significantly, passing
rates rose in periods of teacher shortage and fell dramatically when jobs
were scarce. In 1934, only 5 percent of applicants passed the elementary
The test consisted of a largely multiple-choice written exam covering
subject-matter knowledge, pedagogy, child psychology, and education theory.
A practice lesson taught to a randomly assigned class was also required.
Finally, there was an interview in which, among other things, candidates had
to demonstrate correct pronunciation of a list of words. According to
Collins, "candidates could be failed if their speech was 'stumbling,'
'nasal,' 'monotonous,' 'guttural,' 'harsh', 'cutting', or 'unsympathetic.'"
Collins also cites "appearance, neatness, breeding, energy and alertness" as
criteria. Additionally, small stature, curvature of the spine, and a range
of other physical traits were grounds for rejection.
Consequences of the Board's approach
Both Jewish and African American candidates were especially victimized by
the Board's methods. Many candidates reported being failed for not meeting
the Board's standard for correct pronunciation or inflection. Many Jewish
candidates also believed they were targeted for holding, or being alleged to
hold, left-wing political views.
While in the 1930s both the Teachers Union
and the rival Teachers Guild, which later became the UFT, were opposed to
the testing regime, the Guild's attitude evolved over time to one of
support. UFT President Albert Shanker, who was failed several times in the
oral exam for "poor speech patterns," nevertheless became a zealous defender
of the exam.
The reasons for this shift, Collins explains, are rooted in the upward
mobility of White, Jewish teachers in the post-war period. With a strong
foothold in the system before the war, the shortages in the period
afterwards provided opportunities for entry and advancement, including
becoming test examiners. In the minds of many teachers, these gains became
associated with the meritocratic regime headquartered in the Board of
But for African Americans, who continued to be screened out by the exam, and
when appointed were concentrated in segregated schools, the city's system of
teacher selection and assignment continued to be a sore point. A 1951
Teachers Union survey found that African Americans made up only 1.5 percent
of the regularly appointed teaching staff and 91percent of them were
employed in "predominantly Negro schools."
Continued discrimination on the oral exam and the expense of test prep
courses widely used by White applicants, were practices that accounted for
high failure rates according to critics. State and city commissions on
integration, concerned about the low numbers of Black teachers and the
segregation in assignments, questioned the relevance of tests that
overvalued arcane knowledge ( "...the correct definitions for agglutination,
scurf, and aileron.").
There was no evidence, critics noted, that correlated test performance with
success in urban classrooms. Mounting concern over segregation and the
quality of education in schools serving minority students led to challenges
of how teachers were hired and deployed.
The schools serving poor, predominantly minority communities had the highest
concentration of new and inexperienced teachers. Typically, teachers left
these schools as soon as they acquired enough seniority to do so. Informal
networks that enabled some teachers to "shop around" for schools and the
district's residency policy that allowed teachers to turn down assignments
that were more than a certain distance from where they lived favored White
teachers over their Black counterparts.
The union's opposition to reform
The Guild and then UFT acknowledged that the low numbers of African American
teachers and the pattern of segregation were problems, but opposed all the
proposals for reform. They opposed eliminating the Board of Examiners and
its testing regime, they opposed a rotation scheme that would have ensured a
more equitable distribution of experienced teachers, and they opposed any
modification of the residency policy. Modifying the transfer policies, the
UFT argued, would only make the problem worse by alienating teachers and
driving them out of the city.
In the 1960s, affirmative action
increasing the numbers of minority teachers. The UFT saw affirmative action
as a quota policy that called to mind the quota of an earlier time that had
been used to limit Jewish access to many institutions, and firmly opposed
The 1960s also saw the rise of the community control movement in which
African Americans sought decentralization of school governance
community boards control over hiring and deployment of teachers. The union
saw this as another form of a quota system and a return to the era of
political patronage that would threaten the meritocratic regime.
The battle was joined over these issues when the community board in Ocean
Hill-Brownsville dismissed 19 white teachers.
The strike effectively destroyed the ethnic alliances that had governed New
York politics since the New Deal. This story has been told in depth in
several other works, notably Jerry Podair's
Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville-Crisis. The
strength of Collins's book is providing historical context.
What stands out in her narrative is the political failure of Shanker and the
UFT leadership. The UFT raised many real problems and issues with the
various proposals to address racial inequality in the hiring and assignment
of teachers. But they had no counter proposal other than Blacks "waiting
their turn" as European immigrant groups had done. In the mind of Al
Shanker, the system had worked for Jews and, over time and given patience,
it would work for Blacks too.
The UFT responded to charges of racism during this period by pointing to its
record of support for civil rights legislation and the southern freedom
movement, all of which was true. However, its defense of important elements
of the racial status quo in the New York school system is also true and had
far reaching consequences.
In an epilogue, Collins brings the story up to date. In 1990, the Board of
Examiners was finally eliminated with the blessing of the UFT. In the 1990s,
the diversity of New York's teachers increased. In 1992, 19 percent of the
city's teachers were African American and 11 percent Hispanic. White Jewish
teachers no longer made up a majority of the teacher corps. However there
continued to be a pattern of concentration of minority teachers in
predominantly minority schools.
She also notes that these gains have been eroded in recent years, primarily
due to the rise of standardized testing for certification demanded by No
Child Left Behind and the erosion of affirmative action and remedial
programs. And, as in earlier times, a debate continues about the role of
ethnicity and "cultural competence" in developing effective urban teaching
Chistina Collins, who was a graduate student intern at the Notebook in 2006,
has produced a valuable resource for all of us who want to participate in
these continuing debates.