What Would Al Shanker Do?

One of the reasons Candidate Obama was so appealing was his call for participants in our democracy to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Though he hasn’t always lived up to that standard, it’s a worthy objective—and one we education reformers should keep in mind too.

In that spirit, I strongly encourage you to read Richard Kahlenberg‘s brilliant 2007 biography of Albert Shanker, Tough Liberal. Or, if you don’t have time to tackle its 500 pages, listen to this 45-minute interview with Kahlenberg instead. (It’s the third offering of the Education Next Book Club, a new long-form podcast that I’m hosting. Previous editions featured Richard Whitmire on The Bee Eater and Dan Willingham on Why Don’t Students Like School?)

What struck me most about the book was the status of the teaching profession before Shanker and his colleagues won the right to collectively bargain in 1960. Teachers made the same wages as car washers; autocratic principals harassed teachers on a daily basis; and teachers could be fired on a whim. I was also fascinated by the story of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy—whereby black leaders demanding “community control” wanted to fire many white, Jewish teachers—and the scars it might leave in terms of teachers’ psychology around job protections.

Of course, things are much better for teachers today, what with much higher (if still mediocre) salaries, generous benefits, and over-the-top job security. So I can certainly understand, a la Wisconsin, teachers’ fears of going back to the bad old days. (I can also acknowledge that the current era isn’t necessarily the good ole’ days either, what with policymakers constantly getting in teachers’ business, a bureaucratic system that excels at making inane and annoying decisions, and plenty of administrators who can’t manage their way out of a paper bag.)

As a child of the 1980s, the union rhetoric around teachers’ “voice” and “rights” and “solidarity” never made much sense to me. I’m much more drawn to discussions of “effectiveness” and “innovation” and “flexibility.” But reading this biography of Shanker—which is in many respects a history of the teacher-union movement—reminded me that for plenty of people, this rhetoric is heartfelt. Maybe there are a few union leaders who are fat cats out to protect their privileges. But I suspect that most of them—even the ones most dead set against reform—are merely operating out of a set of assumptions that go back to the 1950s. And if we reformers don’t understand those assumptions and why they made sense at one time, we’ll never be able to change their minds.

—Mike Petrilli

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