Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Open Left 9/4/2007

Front page blog post at Open Left:

Reading Liberally Page Turner, Labor Edition: Tough Liberal
By Steve Perez, Edwize

When Al Shanker began teaching in East Harlem in the early 1950s, he could have made more money washing cars. But if you really want a sense of how poorly teachers were treated 60 years ago, before the rise of teacher unionism, then consider this: Pregnant teachers were forced to leave the profession - without pay - for two years.

In honor of Labor Day and the start of school, I want to take a minute of your time to recommend a new biography: Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard Kahlenberg.

Tough Liberal tells the twin stories of Al Shanker and modern teacher unionism. From the time he helped found the UFT in the 60s through his tenure as President of the AFT up until his death in 1997, Shanker was a force in every important debate over public education.

We often talk about teacher unions as having formed in the early 1900s. But it wasn't until the 1960s that teachers won collective bargaining rights. What stood in the way? The law barred public employees from striking, and so school boards refused to negotiate with teachers unions.

Shanker and his union brothers and sisters decided to force the issue by striking. He bet that the public would side with teachers when they weighed how badly teachers were treated - the low pay, the lack of dignity on the job, the poor working conditions - against the inconvenience a strike would cause, and that the New York City school board would be forced to negotiate.

This was a big gamble. Win and the school board would be forced to the table; lose and the teachers at the core of the union would lose their jobs and the union would lose its credibility. From Tough Liberal:

In 1960, when collective bargaining for teachers was generally thought impossible because it was illegal for public employees to go on strike, Shanker and a handful of other teachers in New York City convinced several thousand colleagues to break the law and risk being fired. Because the school board could not dismiss all the striking teachers, it backed down and eventually recognized the right of the UFT to bargain on behalf of teachers. Other teachers joined on, and from 1960 to 1968, union representation grew from 5 percent of New York City's teaching staff to 97 percent. With collective bargaining came a huge change in the culture of teaching. Teachers were accustomed to being pushed around: they were poorly paid, forced to eat their lunches while supervising students, and told to bring a doctor's note if they were out sick. Collective bargaining brought them higher salaries and also greater dignity.

. . .

The influence of Shanker and his colleagues was felt far beyond New York City, as the UFT's example caught fire and teachers pushed for collective bargaining in Detroit, Philadelphia, and city after city. The nation's largest teachers' organization, the National Education Association (NEA), was adamantly opposed to collective bargaining. But as NEA leaders witnessed the AFT's dramatic gains in membership, the NEA was forced to reverse its position or risk losing its preeminent status.

Al Shanker went to jail for the strike, but he won the bet.

Skip ahead to 1983. Ronald Reagan had appointed a National Commission on Excellence in Education to look at America's schools. The report they released, A Nation at Risk, painted a bleak view of an education system threatened by "a rising tide of mediocrity."

This report was a shot in the battle to privatize public schools. Shanker could have responded by threatening a showdown. He wasn't shy about striking, and he would have been in good company digging in his heels.

Instead, he chose to subvert the right's attack with reform proposals that would give teachers more say in improving schools. From Tough Liberal:

When unions were attacked for protecting incompetent teachers, Shanker backed a controversial "peer-review" plan, in which master teachers would evaluate incoming and veteran teachers, weeding out those not up to the job. He also astounded critics when he proposed a rigorous national competency exam for new teachers, a concept anathema to the NEA. When unions were attacked for opposing efforts to reward talent through "merit pay" of teachers, Shanker devised a plan to recognize superior performance with greater pay without leaving the decisions open to favoritism by principals. He proposed what would become the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which provides for teachers what board certification does for doctors. Each of these policies was offered not merely as a defensive maneuver against critics of teachers' unions but as part of an affirmative vision to make teaching not just an occupation but a true profession.

Shanker also proposed innovations to restructure schools and in 1988 popularized the idea of charter schools, public schools that would be set up by groups of teachers and be permitted to experiment with different educational approaches.

. . .

Shanker's greatest impact on education reform came with his decision to embrace a system of education standards, testing, and accountability comparable to what most leading European and Asian nations had. There was enormous resistance to standards from the left (civil-rights groups, education professors, the NEA) and from the right (advocates of local control and states' rights). But Shanker broke with the education establishment and joined with governors and business leaders to push what today, remarkably, has become the leading education reform in the United States.

As a result, education is still in the public sphere and a function of government. Contrast this to our deregulated energy system and the rampant union busting of the 1980s. Shanker's reform proposals have guided the changes in American schools for the past 25 years. The right's push to privatize schools and their opening salvo in that fight, private school vouchers, has failed to gain traction.

But it was a mixed victory. Even Shanker felt that many of his proposals were distorted in an attempt to make schools more like assembly lines and teachers like cogs in charge of quality control. Witness No Child Left Behind, where national testing goes from being a yardstick to help schools discover what they could be doing better to being the sole focus in the classroom.

I hope these two stories have whetted your interest for Tough Liberal. Reading the book, I think you'll often find yourself nodding in agreement. But Shanker was a controversial figure, and you won't always agree with his choices (I didn't). That's part of why I think you should read it.

Al Shanker operated on a public stage. He wasn't afraid to engage in public fights for what he believed in: protecting teachers and improving schools, as well as the larger ideas of democracy and school as a place where children learn how to be full participants in democracy. He constantly wrestled with how best to do that, and how best to make his argument to teachers and the broader public.

Bloggers face the same challenge of how to influence public debate and public policy. Reading Tough Liberal and debating Shanker's choices is an opportunity to look into the past and use it to guide our future. I hope you enjoy the book, but, even more, I hope it spurs debate on the challenges we face today.

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For more Labor Day reading check out David Sirota's recommended reading list and UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor's Labor Day blog post at the DMIBLOG.

Steve Perez is the Web Outreach Coordinator at the United Federation of Teachers and blogs regularly at Edwize. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the UFT.