Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, by Richard Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press, 524 pp., $29.95)

When Albert Shanker died of cancer ten years ago at 68, he was hailed as one of the commanding figures in American public education during the second half of the twentieth century. It’s hard to think of anything about the management of big-city public school districts today that doesn’t bear the mark—for better or worse—of the gifted New York City teacher who went on to become president of the million-member American Federation of Teachers. Shanker made teachers’ unions a force to be reckoned with—not only in education, but also in state legislatures and in Democratic Party politics. In the sixties and seventies, he was a fierce combatant in the culture wars over race and America’s role in the world, which would eventually fracture the postwar liberal political coalition. And in his spare time, Shanker also wrote millions of words on what works in education, expressing views that were usually far ahead of AFT members’ thinking.

Richard Kahlenberg’s admiring, meticulously researched biography of Shanker is a good read, partly because it tells a classic American story. It’s an uplifting narrative about a nerdy Jewish kid from a poor immigrant family whose oratorical and political skills led him to national power and influence. Shanker’s story is also testimony to the vibrancy of our democracy, showing how ordinary people at the grass roots can effect change in the nation’s most important institutions. On another level, one that Kahlenberg probably did not intend, the book is also a cautionary tale of how even the most idealistic movement for change can mutate into a bureaucratic interest group that ends up defending the status quo.

One of Kahlenberg’s more surprising revelations is that Al Shanker got involved in teacher unionism only by chance. In 1953, the 24-year-old Columbia University graduate student in philosophy was bogged down on his doctoral dissertation and struggling financially. So he took a position as a substitute math teacher at P.S. 179 in East Harlem, near the Columbia campus. Shanker fully intended to finish his dissertation (on the American social philosopher Elijah Jordan) and resume an academic career when he had saved enough money. Instead, he found his lifetime vocation in the schools.

The New York City public school system that Shanker worked for presented a paradox. On the one hand, the system enjoyed a reputation as one of the best and most stable in the nation, with a highly qualified staff. Throughout the twentieth century, the schools had successfully assimilated and educated the children of generations of poor immigrants. Yet the teachers who produced that extraordinary achievement were dreadfully treated, poorly paid (Shanker’s salary was $68 per week), and becoming extremely restive over their hostile working conditions. When Shanker started teaching, dozens of separate teachers’ organizations, including several competing unions, were agitating to improve those conditions. But the teachers were handicapped by their own disunity and by the absence of collective bargaining rights.

Shanker joined the anti-communist, social-democratic Teachers Guild—the largest of the other unions was communist-dominated—which represented only 2,500 teachers of the city’s 40,000. His oratorical skills, nurtured on the Stuyvesant High School debate team, rapidly propelled him to a leadership position. Shanker and his Guild comrades proved to be the savviest and boldest of the competing factions, calling a strike to gain collective bargaining rights from the city and eventually winning the election to become the sole bargaining agent for all of the teachers. After merging with another teachers’ organization during the struggle, the Guild changed its name to the United Federation of Teachers.

Shanker’s UFT negotiated its first teachers’ contract in 1962, securing a $995 pay increase and a duty-free lunch period. Modest as those management concessions may have seemed, they ushered in what Kahlenberg correctly calls a “different world” in public education. Collective bargaining spread quickly to other school districts, and within a few decades public school teachers became the most unionized employees in the nation. In addition to higher pay and benefit packages, teachers got contracts giving them more say about decisions—such as class size, hiring and firing, and transfer rights—that had previously been the exclusive prerogative of management.

The UFT made the first big breakthrough to collective bargaining recognition partly because New York was a labor town and Mayor Robert Wagner was a pro-labor, New Deal–style Democrat. But within a few years, Shanker became the union’s president and was facing off with Mayor John Lindsay, a leading figure of the emerging sixties-style liberalism. The issue: who would control the schools in the city’s minority neighborhoods? “Limousine liberal” Lindsay accepted the idea, first promoted by the Ford Foundation and supported in the streets by black-power activists, that poor, minority students would do better academically in schools run by members of their own race. When an experimental school district in Ocean Hill–Brownsville operating under “community control” arbitrarily fired white Jewish teachers, Shanker took his union out in a citywide strike.

Like almost every other liberal and leftist commentator at the time, I attacked Shanker for acting against the black community’s interests. (Kahlenberg quotes from an article I wrote for Ramparts.) And like all those commentators, I was dead wrong. Shanker’s stand against black racism and his defense of due-process rights for his teachers was one of the more sane and courageous acts of that troubled time. Except for a few allies in the civil rights community, such as Bayard Rustin, Shanker had the entire liberal and cultural establishment of the city, including the New York Times, against him. Yet Shanker’s teachers followed his leadership in a long and costly strike that eventually forced the city to intervene and reinstate the fired teachers.

The consequences of the Ocean Hill–Brownsville struggle were enormous for both political liberalism and public education. The city’s working-class white ethnics empathized with the striking teachers and recoiled at the racial and anti-Semitic epithets voiced by the black-education activists, including the notorious Sonny Carson. Ocean Hill–Brownsville contributed to their move away from the liberal orbit, and many eventually became Reagan Democrats. The teachers’ union became even more powerful and was able to insist on new legislation preventing the arbitrary firing of teachers. Unfortunately, the new legislation also made it virtually impossible to fire teachers for nonarbitrary reasons, such as incompetence.

After taking over the American Federation of Teachers (while still holding on to the UFT presidency), Shanker had a national platform to expound on his education ideas. He was the first to propose reforms such as charter schools, national testing, and a core-knowledge curriculum. Against the multiculturalists, he eloquently defended the value of teaching a common American culture in the public schools. Thus Shanker stood apart from other teachers’ union leaders as a serious school reformer.

The problem with Kahlenberg’s analysis is that he conflates Shanker’s admirable educational ideas with uncritical praise for the institution of teacher unionism in general. He claims that the advent of strong teachers’ unions with exclusive bargaining rights improved American public education because it raised teacher salaries, brought better candidates into the profession, reduced class sizes, and “helped promote the democratic message of public education.”

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. When Al Shanker went into teaching in the 1950s, there were fewer than 40,000 teachers for the city schools’ 1.1 million children. Today, there are still about 1.1 million kids in the schools, but partly as a result of the power of the union that Shanker created, they now have 83,000 teachers. Moreover, the top teacher salary has scaled over $100,000. It’s not at all apparent, to say the least, that this huge gain in teacher-student ratios and teacher compensation has improved the performance of schools in the past half-century. And in praising Shanker’s union for promoting the “democratic message of public education,” Kahlenberg fails to note that the American Federation of Teachers represents only one-third of teachers’ union members in the U.S. The other two-thirds belong to the National Education Association, which mostly promotes the idea that America is a terribly flawed country and stands firmly against Shanker’s ideas, including the Americanization of students in the public schools.

Shanker’s exemplary career shows that it is wrong to demonize teachers’ unions as the principal cause of all our public education woes. But that doesn’t mean that the unions should get off the hook when they use their political power for destructive purposes, such as blocking reasonable school-choice experiments or defending inflexible contractual-work rules that harm kids. In fact, the main lesson I took away from this fascinating biography was that if Al Shanker were still with us, at least one of the two national teachers’ unions would likely be demonstrating more flexibility and openness to educational change in the interests of the nation’s children.


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