2007-10-05 / Columnists

School Scope

Where Is Al Shanker When We Need Him Most?
By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott Wave editor Howard Schwach in "From the Editor's Desk" made this comment about Al Shanker on September 14. "He would have never let the UFT get away with some of its more recent activities and acquiescence to Department of Education foolishness had he still been alive."

Schwach points to Shanker's core beliefs: "He believed in educating students to become citizens. He did not believe in educating students on how to take a test."

In writing a review of Richard Kahlenberg's new book on Shanker, "Tough Liberal", I am immersed in "All Shanker, All the time" as I wade through this fascinating pro-Shanker tome.

Shanker was the founder of the standards "let's test all the time" movement in the early 80's, when he embraced the Nation at Risk report. Shanker was also the originator of the idea of charter schools, a concept that is so Balkanizing the nation's schools. Ironically, Shanker used the same word to criticize community control in the late 60's and early 70's. (Dealing with issues related to the 1967 and 1968 strikes, my first two years in the system, would take five columns. I'll leave it alone for now.)

Shanker was in favor of total centralized control and would have been very comfortable with mayoral control, which Randi Weingarten also supports. Close examination of both Shanker and Weingarten would show the leaf has not strayed too far from the tree - other than in terms of style. Oh yes, and foreign policy. But more on that later. Schwach is making the same error so many people make about the current union leadership or the current BloomKlein administration: they listen to what they say, not watch what they do. Looking at Shanker's career, there are enormous contradictions between his stated core beliefs and his actions.

Okay, time for full disclosure: I was part of the opposition to Shanker from the time I became involved in union politics in 1970. The very first demonstration I ever attended was May 1, 1971 (okay, I sort of missed the 60's) at UFT headquarters protesting Shanker's support for the Vietnam War.

In 1974, a bunch of us went up to Toronto to see Shanker's coronation as President of the American Federation of Teachers when he had his former mentor Dave Selden dumped. Why? Selden was considered too dovish. (Well, it's not all that simple but there's no time to go into it here.) Shanker proceeded to purge the AFT of ideological dissidents, forging it into an instrument of his foreign policy views. Shanker did not give up his presidency of the UFT for 11 years. (I predict Weingarten will follow in his footsteps when she becomes president of the AFT next July.)

In 1976, in the midst of the fiscal crisis in NYC that led to over 15,000 teacher layoffs, Shanker endorsed Henry Jackson, one of the leading Senate cold warriors and advocates of high levels of defense spending (also known as the Senator from Boeing.) In my school alone, we had lost 13 teachers, as all elementary schools had most of their cluster positions and preps cut and schools were forced to close early two days a week. I spoke at the UFT Delegate Assembly at the outrage of supporting a candidate in favor of high defense spending in the midst of catastrophic cuts in school funding. Did we learn anything from the recently concluded Vietnam War, which fueled so many domestic cuts and the growing rampant inflation? I pointed to the fact that we cannot have guns and butter.

Shanker chose guns all the time.

Shanker opposed left totalitarianism, but seemed willing to tolerate rightwing regimes, as long as they were anti-Communist.

In the late 70's I came across George Schmidt's pamphlet, "The American Federation of Teachers and the CIA," which pointed to the use of the AFT as a conduit of funds to promote dual unions in countries where the left-dominated unions reigned, a divisive tactic that often led to the weakening and even destruction of union movements abroad. The most onerous example was the destabilization and overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile and the start of a reign of terror. Shankerites would say, "Better dead than red."

This is one major area in which Weingarten, on the surface, seems to differ from Shanker. Recently, the UFT executive Board passed a resolution supporting an upcoming antiwar march in NY, to the howls of protest from original Shanker colleague Abe Levine, who is still fighting the Vietnam war.

In the past few years George Schmidt and I have become political allies, as he has fought against mayoral control in Chicago for the past 12 years. It was Schmidt's warnings that led me to vehemently oppose Weingarten's support of mayoral control and ultimately, to a break in what had been a fairly cordial relationship with her. "Substance," Schmidt's monthly newspaper aimed at Chicago teachers, has become an instrument in the battle against high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind.

Which takes us to the role Shanker played in today's world of No Child Left behind, initially backed by the AFT which continues to back it, calling for it to be reformed, not abolished.

Lois Weiner, a former NYC teacher and college professor, authored a seminal piece a few years ago called, "Neoliberalism, Teacher Unionism, and the Future of Public Education"

To quote Weiner: Shanker contends that U.S. schools are far worse than those in OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] nations because we offer too much access to higher education, or as he formulates the problem, we have an insufficient amount of academic "tracking." We don't start early enough to put students into programs that prepare them for their vocational destinies, so he advocates putting all students into vocational tracks sometime between grades 5 and 9. In their earlier grades, they should have a curriculum based on E.D. Hirsch's project for "cultural literacy." Although he maintains that in these tracks students must all be held to "high standards," his use of Hirsch's curriculum signifies that instead of engaging first-hand with primary sources, reading, appreciating, and perhaps creating literature, students will memorize facts about the "great" (white men) of history, the arts, and science. He bemoans the absence of a system of high-stakes tests with really harsh penalties for failure, the absence of mandatory national curriculum standards, and the presence of far too much tolerance for student misconduct. Shanker assails the laxity of the pre-NCLB curriculum standards, which were additionally problematic for being left to the states to execute.

Shanker adds that some standards can be too "vague -for example, 'Learn to appreciate literature.'" Note how Shanker's breezy dismissal of the standard about appreciating literature echoes the OECD's rejection of international assessment in "reading for literary experience." Although Shanker used his weekly column in the New York Times, paid for by the membership, to ridicule the national standards developed by professional organizations of teachers of the arts, rejecting them as grandiose and unrealistic, his own children attended school in a suburban district with excellent arts programs - and no E.D. Hirsch curricula. Union members had not formally endorsed many of the positions Shanker adopted, for instance rejection of the standards in the arts, and recent surveys of teachers, in cities, suburbs, and rural schools find even less support now than there was at the time Shanker advocated many of his positions about standards and testing. Yet because of the AFT's bureaucratic deformation, of which the indictments for graft in the Miami and Washington, D.C. locals are shamefully graphic illustrations, the opposition to the AFT's vocal, unwavering support for testing and "high standards" scarcely registers at the national level. Most of the biggest locals are so bureaucratic that rank and file challenges to the leadership must be about fundamental practices of democracy, in order for classroom teachers' voices on issues of educational policy to be heard.

Weiner points to the alliance of both Democrats and Republicans in the backing of NCLB, which shifts the struggle from procuring adequate funding, to bridging the racial gap in education, to "let's blame the teachers and the schools and punish them for not succeeding." The "no excuses" arguments - like poverty factors-are not factors; the "it's all about teacher quality and low expectations" argument.

All the problems in education can be fixed by an attitude readjustment, not by drastic reductions in class size. In other words, a shift from a fight for full funding, which Shanker advocated through the late 60's, to the abandonment of this fight and an assumption that throwing money at the problem will not solve it.

Kahlenberg writes about the conditions Shanker found when he started teaching. "Shanker was assaulted by a student, but when he asked for help from the principal he was told, 'This would not have happened if you had motivated your students.'" That was 1952. "Administrators were in a position to play favorites, assigning some teachers to 'administrative assignments' and others to the most violent classes. At long drawn out faculty conferences "teachers sat there seething."

Reminds you of conditions today, where the principal is king and the UFT put up nary a fight as the union has been decimated at the school level by BloomKlein. Back to the future.

Schwach seems to think Shanker would have rigorously fought the reorganization. I'm not so sure.

The very unionism Shanker helped build in the 50's and 60's, that finally gave teachers some protection from authoritarian principals, has, to a great extent, been undermined by the very policies Shanker pushed in the name of educational reform.

Oh, and I don't have time to go into what is one of Shanker's greatest contradictions. The supposed believer in democracy and the fighter against Communist (only) totalitarian governments (Chile's Pinochet was ok) established one of the most totalitarian union regimes in the labor movement with his Unity Caucus' total control of every instrument of power within the UFT.

Return to top


Email Us
Contact Us

Copyright 1999 - 2014 Wave Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved

Neighborhoods | History