Richard Kahlenberg's biography of Albert Shanker.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 1 2007 12:21 PM

The Man Who Transformed American Education

What Albert Shanker has to teach us today.

Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.

He was the greatest union organizer of the latter half of the 20th century. In the span of a single decade, the 1960s, Albert Shanker did for public school teachers what Walter Reuther did for autoworkers. At a time when organizing public sector employees was considered virtually impossible (most civic employees were forbidden, by law, from striking), he transformed the New York Teachers Guild, the union John Dewey had founded: A 2,500-member organization with zero clout became a 70,000-member army that enjoyed collective bargaining and would strike on his command.

In the process, Shanker transformed American education. His efforts significantly boosted teacher salaries, equalized pay between men and women, assured minimal standards in schools (not least by capping class sizes), and forced the National Educational Association, the nation's most powerful teachers' union, to embrace collective bargaining. He also encouraged his sometimes reluctant membership to embrace necessary reform; the American Federation of Teachers, under Shanker's leadership until his death in 1997, backed provisions for ousting incompetent teachers, public school choice, and the standards movement. And unlike Reuther's UAW, Shanker's union has held onto its gains. Today, there isn't a teacher in America whose life hasn't been touched by Shanker's own.

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Why, then, isn't Shanker better remembered as the giant he was? The answer goes some way toward explaining why now, more than ever, his legacy needs resurrecting. In the late 1960s, despite some 20 years as an ardent civil rights activist, Shanker suddenly found himself vilified as a racist and reactionary after he called a series of crippling walkouts in New York. The strikes protested the dismissal without cause of a mostly white, Jewish group of teachers by community activists, most of whom were black. The activists were demanding "local control" of their impoverished schools, and the crisis came to a bitter head in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn. Although the firings were clearly illegal, liberals (with a few exceptions, such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, who endured attacks within the black community for their support of Shanker) abandoned labor to side with the community activists.

Shanker survived the epithets—he was always intellectually fearless—but his reputation never quite recovered from an even worse blow: becoming a liberal joke, literally, in Woody Allen's 1973 Sleeper, as a result of the strikes. In the film, Allen's character wakes up 200 years in the future to discover that civilization, as he had previously known it, was destroyed after "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."

As a punch line, Shanker was the precursor to a thousand jokes on Leno and Letterman. But Shanker was ahead of his time in far more important ways. As history and hindsight eventually proved, he was right about "local control." It did not boost black achievement in poor schools, as its advocates had hoped, and the logic of the black separatists only led, as Shanker also predicted, to racial retrenchment among whites.

Indeed, as Richard Kahlenberg persuasively argues in his timely new biography, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, Shanker was right, again and again, on the major issues of his day, though few heeded his warnings. (Disclosure: I'm thanked in Kahlenberg's acknowledgements, because he conferred briefly with me about a piece I wrote years ago about Shanker, which he cites.) Most importantly, Shanker focused with rare clarity on the intersection of race and social class, and didn't flinch at what he saw to be the policy implications.

He believed passionately in the ideal of racial equality throughout his life, in part because of the extreme anti-Semitism he encountered as a child growing up in a poor Catholic neighborhood in Queens. He opposed racial "quotas," on principle, as reverse discrimination. But that does not mean he opposed affirmative action. He did not. Shanker recognized that the legacy of racism and sexism didn't just evaporate with the passage of the Civil Rights or Voting Rights acts, and he believed there was a genuine need to redress past wrongs.

However, Shanker believed that the best measure of this legacy was poverty, and that affirmative action should be based on class instead of race or gender. Such an approach, he reasoned, would invariably cover those still suffering the worst of discrimination's effects, without alienating other Americans, many of them also poor, who were crucial to any Democratic coalition.

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