Shanker's troubled legacy

The late teachers union leader had the courage to change his mind on merit pay and national testing. But his powerful union is still more interested in providing lifetime job security for its members than making sure they know how to teach.

Published February 28, 1997 8:23PM (EST)

one Saturday evening in 1973, I sat in a movie theater in Madison, Wisc., watching Woody Allen's then-current film, "Sleeper." Playing a sort of science-fiction Rip Van Winkle, Allen rises from two centuries of slumber to find that the world he once knew has been destroyed. "A man by the name of Albert Shanker," someone explains to Allen, "got hold of a nuclear warhead."

I, and a few other New York expatriates, erupted into laughter. None of us could forget the image of Albert Shanker that was seared into our consciousness during the virtual civil war over community control of public schools that traumatized New York in the late 1960s.

Shanker, as president of the city teachers union, filled our television screens nightly, denouncing the black leaders who had ousted white teachers and principals from a Brooklyn district experimenting with community control and leading three citywide teachers' strikes in protest. Bullhorn in hand, Shanker pilloried his opponents as union-busters, bigots and anti-Semites, becoming a hero to the city's white-ethnic middle class, but also contributing to a rupture between African-Americans and Jews in New York that has never truly healed.

When Shanker died last Saturday, the obituaries quoted Woody Allen's line as a bit of trivia, if at all. By 1997, Shanker had successfully recast his image to that of a thoughtful moderate and the sort of union leader who merits the sobriquet "statesman of labor." From his national pulpit as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Shanker preached common sense in the education debate -- national standards, firm discipline, smaller classes. With such allies as the education historian Diane Ravitch, Shanker occupied the reasonable center between left-wingers who disparage any standards as a form of class or racial oppression and right-wingers who want no federal involvement in education except in the form of vouchers for children to attend private school. Most significantly of all, Shanker had placed his imprimatur on such policies as merit pay and national testing for teachers, the very programs that teachers unions tend to reflexively oppose.

Yet for all Shanker's efforts, there is still a profound gap between his own willingness to endorse ideas that once were anathema to him as a union leader and the way teachers unions still operate.

It's far too simple to argue that public education would dramatically improve if only the unions vanished. Shanker's famous clout at the bargaining table brought tens of thousands of New York's educators into the middle class -- and set a standard in wages and benefits that affected contracts in districts around the country. While teaching should be an act of idealism, thanks largely to Shanker, it no longer need be one of charity.

Still, the reality that I have observed in schools from the slums of Manhattan's Lower East Side to the wealthy suburbs west of Chicago is that unionized teachers want the benefits of unionization without the responsibility to perform. I recently spent a number of days observing teachers in Ewing High School, which serves a blue-collar suburb just outside Trenton, N.J. It is the sort of school that occupies that economic and academic zone I call the "middle of the middle," while trying
to adjust to the demise of local factories that used to hire a goodly share of its graduates.

Following two average students through their school day, from Spanish to algebra to social studies to English, I saw a striking disparity between a corps of young teachers using innovative lessons and a group of veterans who devoted much of each class to reviewing the previous night's homework. The younger teachers had been recruited by a principal who had arrived at Ewing just three years earlier with a mission to upgrade the school for the Information Age. The older ones all had lifetime tenure: As a result, the principal could not fire them without a lengthy, costly legal battle, and he could not even really pressure them to improve.

While immersing myself during the 1987-88 academic year in New York's Seward Park High School, an underfunded, overcrowded catch-basin for immigrants and the underclass, I had seen an even more dramatic polarity. Many teachers seemed equal to any faculty member I could imagine at an elite public school, like New Trier outside Chicago, or a private academy such as Andover. An English teacher had her students enraptured by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bobbie Ann Mason; a colleague in social studies had his class synthesizing the history of the Spanish-American War from original source documents. These gifted educators accomplished all this despite a load of more than 150 students a day.

Yet the chapter chairperson -- teachers union lingo for the shop steward -- lived a far cushier life. Relieved of one course per year by dint of her union position and two others through an administrative appointment, assigned to lead reading classes that were capped by federal law at 20 pupils apiece, she encountered only a few more students daily then her rank-and-file did each period. Was it any coincidence, then, that the most committed teachers regarded her not as their champion but as something of an enemy? Or that at year's end, in rebellion, they threw her out of office?

The mutiny may have solved Seward Park's problem, but it left in place a larger one. In New York City, as in cities large and small around the country, the teachers union essentially operates schools jointly with administrators and school-board members. There is nothing wrong with that in theory, and I have met the occasional union president who is also a gifted, inventive educator. More often in my experience, though, the union worries mostly about salaries, benefits and, most corrosively, lifetime job security.

Seward Park's principal once showed me the case file on a teacher he had been trying to fire. The ledger was three inches thick, one for each year the case had dragged on. Many principals no longer bothered to confront the incompetents on their staff. At most, they swapped poor teachers with other principals -- a process known as "trading turkeys" -- or transferred them to desk jobs at the Board of Education. Between 1979 and 1988, only 31 teachers, out of a work force of 60,000, were dismissed.

The method of "school-based management," brought from Miami to New York in the early 1990s by then-Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, was hailed nationally as a panacea, because it was supposed to bring the expertise of individual teachers to bear on school administration. But it changed little, except for making the teachers unions even more powerful. Fernandez himself keenly understood that his true reform -- the creation of smaller, more specialized high schools -- could only proceed with the tolerance of Shanker's former union.

One reason those smaller schools were necessary was the utter failure of school decentralization in New York. In the wake of the vicious battle over community control, the State Legislature divided New York's system into one in which the high schools still reported to a central board but the 32 elementary and middle-school districts were governed by elected boards. To this day, it is rare that more than 6 or 7 percent of registered voters turn out for school board elections. Candidates backed by the teachers union invariably win. Several boards have been suspended for corruption and drug use.

More damaging than any insult Woody Allen could hurl at Shanker was the boast Shanker himself once made: "We wrote the decentralization law." He might as well have taken credit for Bedlam.

Put in national terms, then, the legacy of Shanker can be found less among his allies than his enemies. Republicans were not wrong during the last election when they asked how President Clinton could pursue education reform while he and other Democrats enjoy larger donations from teachers unions than from almost any other source. It also explains the common cause that otherwise liberal blacks in Milwaukee and Cleveland have formed with white conservatives to create voucher programs. The partnership reveals just how skeptical many people have grown of promises of reform made by an educational establishment that includes the union to which Albert Shanker devoted his life.


It's not the teachers, stupid. It's the fact that we get no respect.

Editor's note: Recently, Salon published a column by David Horowitz, "It's the Teachers, Stupid," in which he blamed "a massive failure of teachers to teach" for the low standards in American schools. As part of a reform program, Horowitz called for
"reductions in pay" and "wholesale firings" of teachers and school administrators. The response has provoked a heated debate in Salon's Table Talk, and has also generated an unprecedented number of e-mails from teachers and former teachers. Here is one of them.


with all due respect:

I quit teaching because the long hours and ridiculous pay were not worth
the strain on my nerves. I don't know where you looked for your
research, Mr. Horowitz, but I worked a lot more hours than just the six
hours I spent with my students. I spent at least three hours every day
going over my plans and adjusting them. I spent another hour and a half
going over the work turned in by my students and recording the results
in my gradebook. I spent many sleepless nights wondering if any of my
students would get shot in their sleep by some stupid gang idiot. The
kids came to school every day with horror stories of the killings that
happened in their neighborhood every day.

Perhaps the reason those who are currently teaching are perceived as
"functional illiterates" by you and others like you is that the five
years of college required in the state of California to earn a teaching
credential, not to mention the need to renew that credential every five
years, seems a waste when you consider the conditions one is asked to
work in, and the pay one is asked to accept. I do not
know what the average salary is in California these days, but my first
year, in 1983, after five years of college, I was paid $15,000. An
engineering graduate with five years of college was making twice that
much and working half as many hours daily. And, yes, I do count all the
time I spent working on school-related things as work time, whether I
was in the classroom, in the workroom, at the library or at home.

When you make teaching such an unattractive career, how can you expect
to attract the best and brightest? Take it from me, the sense of
"mission" and dedication wears off very quickly in the light of cold,
hard economic reality. In my case, I was too caring, I spent too much
time worrying about my students, and my husband suggested rather
strongly that substituting would be better, given his military career,
and the fact that we'd have to move on short notice.

I am not even substituting at the moment, because the local schools (I am currently in the Oklahoma City area) do not want substitute teachers, they want baby-sitters. They will allow anyone with a high school diploma to substitute. That told me
right there that I do not want to work for these folks. In
California, you have to have a bachelor's degree, and you have to
pass the CBEST in order to receive the emergency teaching credential
that allows you to substitute. At least there, I knew I was
expected to teach, not baby-sit.

Finally, let me say this, the problem with most of today's students is
that no one holds them responsible for anything. Not their parents, not
the schools, not the law. These kids have learned that they can get
away with anything, and so they do. They goof off and don't pay
attention in class, and then they wonder why they can't get jobs or get
into college when they graduate. I feel very strongly that you should
not be allowed to pass a student on to the next grade until he or she
demonstrates proficiency in a standardized list of skills. It should
not matter what age the student is, if he or she cannot demonstrate the
required proficiency, then he or she should repeat the same grade. If students
realize that they are responsible for their own educations, not their
teachers, not their parents, then they will start paying attention, and
they will demand that the teachers live up to their needs.

It is amazing how easy it is to be a wonderful teacher if your students are
eager to learn. I was lucky. My students liked me, they paid
attention and even learned something along the way because they wanted
to please me. And let me assure you, my students knew that to please
me they had to complete all their work to the best of their ability,
and to ask questions if they had a problem.

By the way, I am currently volunteering as a literacy tutor in my local
library. One of my students is a high school graduate who reads on
about a third-grade level. This student freely admits that the reason
his reading is so poor is that he goofed around in class. To which I
added, "And someone let you get away with it."

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

MORE FROM Samuel G. Freedman

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