The Lone Changer
How Albert Shanker became a champion of education reform—but couldn’t bring his union with him.
By Tim Noah
lbert Shanker, who died in 1997, was the last labor leader to command the nation’s attention. Can you name the president of the United Auto Workers? I bet not. How about the president of the United Mine Workers? When I was introduced to a man named John Sweeney at a party a few years back I fell into a whirlpool of anxiety trying to place the name. We’d talked a full five minutes before I remembered he was president of the AFL-CIO. There’s no chance I would have committed the same social blunder in the presence of George Meany, who ran the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979. Nor would I have fumbled over the names Walter Reuther (president of the United Auto Workers from 1946 to 1970) or John L. Lewis (president of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960). Reuther and Lewis are major figures in American, not just labor, history. That likely won’t be true for their latter-day successors, Ron Gettelfinger and Cecil Roberts.
Shanker made his presence known, first in New York City and later in the whole country. Now Richard D. Kahlenberg, an education scholar, has favored Shanker with a deservedly admiring biography, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. The book explains thoroughly, though somewhat bloodlessly, why Shanker was an important figure both as a labor leader and as a leader in education policy. It also identifies Shanker as a significant (if controversial) figure in the tumultuous history of race relations during the 1960s.
Shanker initially came to the public’s attention as the hard-charging president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, which he helped found in 1960. A mere seven years later, the UFT was the largest union local in the entire AFL-CIO. Under Shanker, UFT members acquired one of the first collectively bargained teacher contracts in the nation. That was in 1961. By 1973, both starting and maximum salaries had nearly doubled. In that year, a New York City teacher could earn a salary equivalent to $90,000 in 2007 dollars. Largely because of the UFT’s success, national membership in teachers unions took off like a rocket through the 1960s.
Shanker’s hometown fame reached its plateau in 1968 when he led three citywide teacher strikes against a semiautonomous school district straddling two adjacent ghetto neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Ocean Hill (a largely abandoned area within Bedford-Stuyvesant) and Brownsville (a more populous but similarly low-income neighborhood). The Ocean Hill–Brownsville conflict turned on the extent to which local neighborhoods could exercise control over schools. “Community control” was a bland-sounding but divisive liberal idea promoted by McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation. Previously Bundy had been national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, in which capacity he’d advocated the swift escalation of U.S. troop presence in Vietnam. Possibly to expiate that sin, Bundy when he took the reins at the Ford Foundation reconciled himself publicly to black nationalism, a separatist doctrine that was displacing desegregation in the hearts of many blacks. The Ford Foundation, Bundy pledged, would “work with Negro leaders of good will and peaceful purpose without any anguished measurement of their position on the issue of a separated power of blackness as against the continuing claim to
integration.” New York City Mayor John Lindsay appointed Bundy chairman of a panel that called for decentralizing authority over the city schools, and the Ford Foundation gave out $334,000 in grants to support a community control experiment in Ocean Hill–Brownsville.
Community control was a doctrine born of defeat. White flight was confounding attempts to integrate New York City schools racially, and the city lacked sufficient funds for the sort of massive increase in school spending that might make a difference. Recognizing this, Lindsay and Bundy bowed to demands from local black leaders that low-income black neighborhoods be granted greater freedom to improve schools on their own. The trouble was that these newly empowered grassroots school boards were highly susceptible to takeover by fringe groups. It was the same problem then bedeviling Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, the agency created to wage the War on Poverty, which sought “maximum feasible participation” at the ground level. In the schools, though, a powerful constituency (teachers) was able to push back. In Ocean Hill–Brownsville, militants (led by a man who would later pronounce that “violent revolution is necessary to have America’s public institutions serve all its people”) gained control of the school board and began firing all the white teachers and replacing them with black teachers. Shanker pronounced this discriminatory and unacceptable; some of his opponents hurled back anti-Semitic smears (many of the white teachers were Jewish); and Shanker, perhaps rashly, made sure the smears received wide publicity. What began as a labor dispute devolved into a war between blacks and Jews “that lacerated the city and left wounds that have never fully healed,” New York Times reporter Steven R. Weisman would recall three decades later. Weisman’s judgment of Shanker for stirring the pot is much harsher than that of Kahlenberg, who sees Shanker as the episode’s hero. I lean more toward Kahlenberg’s view than Weisman’s, but Kahlenberg’s account would feel richer if it explored more fully the feelings on both sides. Ocean Hill–Brownsville was, among other things, the incubator in which neoconservatism began to evolve; Norman Podhoretz, then still a liberal, saw in the conflict “the formation of a new alliance between the patriciate [Bundy was a Boston Brahmin and onetime dean of Harvard College] and the underclass against the liberal center.”
Shanker himself never became a neoconservative. After successfully reinstating the fired teachers—the community control scheme lingered, in watered-down form, until Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it out of its misery five years ago—Shanker remained, as Kahlenberg terms him, a “tough liberal,” committed to economic equality and civil rights but opposed to racial quotas and communism. In the cultish parlance of the left, Shanker was a Schachtmanite democratic socialist who stood a whisker to the right of DSOC (pronounced Dee-sock, which stood for Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee; later it was reconstituted as the Democratic Socialists of America). In the early 1970s, Shanker joined the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), which was created in opposition to the Democratic Party’s ill-defined McGovernite wing. By the early 1980s virtually all the CDMers concluded that the McGovernites had swallowed the Democratic Party whole and switched their allegiance to the GOP. Not Shanker. When the Democratic Leadership Council was created in 1985, Shanker admired its hawkish foreign policy but was put off by its arms-length distance from the labor movement. A persistent theme in this book is that tough liberals today have no place to call home.
Kahlenberg devotes too much of Tough Liberal to charting Shanker’s steady course through these choppy ideological waters. I don’t dispute that the subtle ideological distinctions that Kahlenberg delineates possess significance, but they matter less in Shanker’s case because his influence never extended beyond the field of education. Kahlenberg dwells on them, I think, partly for structural reasons. After Ocean Hill–Brownsville, fifteen long years passed before the labor activist’s second act, wherein Shanker, now president of the UFT’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, became a leader in the education reform movement and strode onto the national stage. In chronicling the fifteen-year interregnum, Kahlenberg had to write about something. (There is, I’ll concede, an interesting entr’acte about the role Shanker played during New York City’s near default in 1975—the one that occasioned the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) But Kahlenberg skims too lightly over the extent to which Shanker, along with AFSCME’s Victor Gotbaum, created the crisis in the first place by driving up the cost of labor peace. (For that story, consult Ken Auletta’s 1979 book, The Streets Were Paved With Gold.)
In the mid-1980s, Shanker the rabble-rouser became Shanker the statesman. The catalyzing event for Shanker was the release of A Nation at Risk, a government report by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The president had hoped the committee would endorse his pet causes of school vouchers and school prayer, but instead the report stated in extremely blunt language that the schools were “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation ... If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The report recommended a toughening of high school curricula; an end to “social promotion”—that is, not holding kids back a grade when they weren’t cutting it; and instituting a merit-based pay scheme for teachers, as opposed to the existing scheme typically based on
seniority. Before A Nation at Risk, Shanker had taken a consistently defensive stance about the quality of the public schools, which of course was largely reflective of his own members’ competence. “Our public schools have, by any reasonable standard, enjoyed great success,” he said in 1971. According to Kahlenberg, similar public statements from Shanker can be found in 1974, 1975, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1982. But Kahlenberg says Shanker had gradually begun to understand that if public schools didn’t improve, voucher programs might spread nationwide and ultimately destroy public education altogether. “The report is right,” Shanker told his surprised staff. “We should say that before our members.”
Shanker began making statements that were remarkable for a union leader. “A lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent,” he said on one occasion. Shanker even flirted with the idea of subjecting not only prospective teachers to competency tests, but veteran teachers as well (though later, when I asked him about that while reporting on a profile for the New Republic, he dismissed the idea). Shanker also favored testing students. Although Shanker would die of cancer three years before George W. Bush was elected president, in 1994 Shanker assessed a proposal that strongly resembles Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Testing students was fine, Shanker wrote, but he had two reservations. The first was that it was unrealistic to expect that “all children—or even the majority” could “achieve at an advanced level.” The second was that when students flunked the test, the sanctions ought to fall on the students, not the teachers (who would already be accountable, in Shanker’s scheme, through teacher testing and peer-review panels). “We will totally oppose any system that says kids can do nothing and move along and not be held accountable,” he argued. These have, indeed, proven to be two significant vulnerabilities in No Child Left Behind.
Why did Shanker’s union brothers allow him to become a scourge of public education? Partly, Shanker joked, because teachers never believed, when Shanker railed against incompetents in the profession, that he was talking about them. A more serious explanation is that Shanker was drawing on a very deep well of support from his members. In building up the UFT and the AFT, Shanker had served jail time for calling illegal strikes. He had invited death threats by publicly criticizing black militants at a particularly tense moment in race relations. (This last inspired Woody Allen to insert into his 1973 movie, Sleeper, the gag that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” The joke was lost on non–New Yorkers, who had not yet heard of Shanker, but when Allen tried out the line using a number of different names at Elaine’s, the Upper East Side watering hole, Shanker’s name got the biggest laugh.) And of course, Shanker had given his union members a decent foothold in the middle class. In Shanker’s view, his members had acquired respect commensurate with their role as professionals in the field of education, and were ready to assume some responsibilities.
A less heartening reality, Kahlenberg points out, is that the locals operating under Shanker were under no particular obligation to enact the policies advocated by their idealistic president. Shanker gave up leadership of the UFT (which he’d maintained on ascending to AFT president) just a few years after he began his standards crusade, and so ended up with no real authority to put his reforms into action at the ground level. According to Kahlenberg, “the vast majority of AFT’s 2,200 autonomous locals did not pick up on the most controversial reforms.” Education writer Thomas Toch has written that Shanker gave up on reforming the teaching profession by the early 1990s. Kahlenberg disputes this, but Shanker himself told Toch, “Convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do. I would go into a state, talk up reform, and as soon as I left, the union attorney would come in and say, ‘We’ve got a great tenure law, let’s keep it.’ ”
Shanker’s public embrace of A Nation at Risk clearly made some difference. Since its publication, the number of states requiring two and a half years of math and science has at least doubled, and more homework is being assigned. Merit pay has been instituted in many states, though often more in name than result. SAT scores have risen a bit, but scores measured in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the best survey available of student
achievement through high school, have stayed flat. There are actually fewer teachers who bring specialized knowledge to the subjects they teach. Oh, and the president of the AFT? He’s a guy named Edward J. McElroy. Until I looked up his name just now, I’d never heard of him, either. ?
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Tim Noah, is a senior writer at Slate and editor of The Woman at the Washington Zoo, an anthology of writings by his late wife, Marjorie Williams.