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Kahlenberg, Richard D. (2007). Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. NY, NY: Columbia University Press.

Pp. 524     $30     ISBN 78-0-231-33496-5

Reviewed by Kenneth J. Bernstein

September 5, 2007

In 1973, I was in a movie theater near Philadelphia watching the new Woody Allen film “Sleeper.” A man name Miles Monroe awakens after 200 years to a world that has been devastated by nuclear war. When Allen’s character inquires what caused the war he is informed that is was caused "when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear device." As someone who lived in New York during the period of major school conflict, I was laughing so hard I came out of my seat as others, not as familiar with Shanker, stared at me. And for far too many, that line from Woody Allen encapsulates their knowledge of and reaction to Albert Shanker, which is perhaps why Richard Kahlenberg begins his remarkable biography of Shanker by reminding the reader of how that clip represents the attitude of many New York liberals toward Shanker: that he was “a hothead and union thug” (p.1) for his part in the New York City school strikes of 1967 and 1968.

Clearly Allen’s criticism stung Shanker. During the New York City fiscal crisis of 1975, the city could only maintain its financial independence if the United Federation of Teachers, led by Shanker, was willing to purchase $150 million of Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds as part of the bailout necessary to convince banks to lend the city sufficient money to prevent default. This had been mandated by a provision of law declared unconstitutional, and the teachers did not have to voluntarily commit. When Shanker chose to help the city, he received a lot of criticism from the press. Thus it is worth quoting the passage from p. 185 that offers Shanker’s response:

Shanker told Newsweek: “Woody Allen said if I had a nuclear weapon in my hand I would use it. Here I had it and I didn’t use it.”

This biography is remarkable. It is also thorough, exceedingly well sourced and documented, and offers perhaps the first complete picture of Albert Shanker available to those who, like me, did not know him personally. I have my quibbles with the book, but they are far outweighed by its value.

First, why should we care enough about Albert Shanker ten years after his death in 1997 to read through a biography of more than 400 pages of text and another 82 of end notes with a bibliography that extends another 14 pages? Because, simply put, Shanker is probably the most important single figure in American public education since John Dewey, and may in fact have had a greater influence.

Consider briefly his accomplishments. Shanker was the man most responsible for obtaining collective bargaining rights for most American teachers. He headed local (United Federation of Teachers in NYC), national (American Federation of Teachers) and international (International Federation of Free Teachers Unions) teacher unions. And we should be clear: Shanker insisted on the idea of unions, which is one reason he also became a key member of the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. But this only begins to examine his influence. It was his advocacy of an idea first proposed by Myron Liberman several decades earlier that led to the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards―disclosure: I am nationally board certified―as a means of providing some level of merit pay for teachers of higher quality. He was hugely influential in Bill Clinton's formulation of education ideas. His support of No Child Left Behind was a major influence in that proposal becoming law. He was an early advocate of charter schools run by educators, hoping thereby to block advancement of voucher proposals. He would later express disappointment in how charters had developed; he strongly opposed the idea of educational management companies running what should still be considered public schools. For his entire lifetime, he was a supporter of affirmative action as a means to right past wrongs and discrimination. He was also one important voice arguing that affirmative action needed to transition from being race-based to being economics-based. His union also bought space in The New York Times so that Shanker could run his “Where We Stand” columns in the Week in Review section. Kahlenberg notes that these were probably the first such paid columns in the Times. The column, which began in 1970 and ended shortly before his death in 1997, was enormously influential in education policy and politics more generally.


Richard D. Kahlenberg

Some of the negative attitude many have towards Shanker came about because of his positions on issues outside of education. His role in defending (largely Jewish) teachers against removal by a (Black) local school board in Ocean Hill–Brownsville and his opposition to quotas of any kind in hiring or retaining of teachers tarred him as a racist in the eyes of many. Such accusations were ironic considering his life-long commitment to civil rights and his close association with such giants of the Civil Rights movement as A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bayard Rustin. He also supported Vietnam, opposed McGovern’s nomination, and opposed the Democratic party rules McGovern had helped draft. All of these are thoroughly covered by Kahlenberg.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is the context that Kahlenberg provides for understanding why Shanker acted as he did. He provides the expected biographical background, which in Shanker’s case is critical. He grew up in poverty, and it was education, debating, and the Boy Scouts that empowered him to play the meaningful role he played in the larger society. And the framework for that life was his life-long commitments as a Social Democrat.

Al Shanker came from the kind of setting from which many American Social Democrats and Socialists arose. They were committed to a society that was more equitable than that in which they found themselves. They were opposed to discrimination because many of them experienced it in their own lives. Kahlenberg describes (p. 20) an incident in which the 8-year-old Al was almost lynched because he was Jewish. But these Social Democrats were also strongly opposed to communism in any form, and were often its fiercest opponents. While he briefly flirted with being pro-Soviet in high school, Shanker read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and absorbed the writer's antipathy towards Communists. He read widely, including The Partisan Review, while still in high school. The commitment to the ideals of Social Democracy is central to any understanding of Al Shanker, and it is one of the great strengths of this book that Kahlenberg provides the material to enable that understanding.

Shanker attended the University of Illinois immediately after the Second World War, entering as a history major but eventually switching to philosophy (in which he eventually became "All But Dissertation" at Columbia University). He was an active socialist, chairing the Socialist Study Club, joining the Young People’s Socialist League, and in 1947 becoming a charter member of the Congress of Racial Equality. In the final paragraph of his chapter on "The Early Years," which ends with Shanker dropping out of his doctoral program at Columbia, Kahlenberg summarizes the major influences that set Shanker on the course that would eventually come to define his life's work and his contribution to society:

In 1952 , as he prepared to enter the adult work world for the first time in his life, Albert Shanker had learned certain things. He knew the reality of discrimination and the need to stamp it out. He understood the value of public schools as a way of providing a path out of poverty for kids who worked hard and had talent. He knew the importance of labor unions and government in defending the interests of workers. He hadn’t figured everything out. He was still trying to grapple with his Socialist idealism and pacifism and his awareness of the dark side of human nature. But that would be resolved in time. And one more thing: he knew, from Boy Scouts, from the debate team, and from the Socialist Club, the he could be a leader and that people would follow him on the strength of his ideas. He left Columbia as engaged with books and ideas as ever, but also with a desire to translate thought into action. (p. 31)

I marked many passages in this book, far too many to reference in a review such as this. I have noted how well researched and documented it is. Kahlenberg received major cooperation from many of Al Shanker’s close associates (e.g., Bella Rosenberg and Sandy Feldman of the AFT), his family, even his critics. A list of those with whom he spoke and to whose papers he had access gives a sense of the breadth of the role Al Shanker played in American public life. I had forgotten that Linda Chavez had edited two publications for the AFT before working in the Reagan administration. While I had known that many of the so-called neo-Conservatives had roots in the Cold War liberalism which was so important to Shanker, I had not known of his personal and professional relationships with people such as Midge Decter. I was not surprised to learn that his work intersected with that of many major figures in education: E. D. Hirsch, Chester Finn, Diane Ravich, Keith Geiger, Linda Darling-Hammond, Bob Chase, Mark Tucker, Richard Rothstein. The book provides a broad and detailed perspective on the life and work of Al Shanker, including many of his flaws. Shanker himself acknowledged that he was far more committed to his work than to his family, and we read the testimony of his children and his widow to that effect.

We are also reminded that despite his commitment to union activism, Shanker was as much an intellectual committed to the life of the mind as he was to his union work. He saw the two as interconnected. Unlike John Dewey, whose writing greatly influence his own thinking, Shanker did not write books; nevertheless the collection of his writings would fill several volumes. He was, however, very much of a public intellectual, using his columns, speeches, and other outlets as a means of propagating his ideas and of initiating important discussions about public issues ranging far beyond those of the role of teachers in schools and his specific union responsibilities.

In the final chapter, "The Legacy of Albert Shanker," Kalhlenberg describes Shanker’s three main contributions as “helping to create modern teachers’ unions, helping to reform public education, and helping to preserve public education.” He goes on to write that these “made him the most important voice in education in the past half century” (p. 391). Kahlenberg acknowledges that Shanker did not solve many of the problems that still confront public schools, especially in inner cities, but argues that “he was in the thick of the major efforts to address the problems and fought off a number of bad ideas that would have made things worse” (p. 391). It is on the last point that many educators and analysts might choose to disagree.

I am a public school teacher. I am not sure that looking at the body of evidence I would agree that Shanker’s support of public school choice through charters necessarily staved off a movement to vouchers: there exist a number of voucher programs already, including in two major urban centers, Milwaukee and Cleveland. Similarly, Shanker’s willingness to support the idea of national standards and possibly even a national test has led to what I consider some dangerous movement in the direction of such a national dictates on education. Moreover, given battles over such issues as the nature of science instruction (not an issue addressed by Shanker) and history standards (he was on Lynne Cheney’s side in that battle), I am unwilling to grant increased power over education to the federal government. I acknowledge that my reaction is shaped as much by my experience and philosophy as was Shanker’s. And it is perhaps here that I have my one quibble with Kahlenberg’s otherwise exemplary book. At times, Kahlenberg treats Shanker's midset a bit too uncritically. Shanker’s failings are on full display, along with his successes. I am not saying that Kahlenberg's portrayal of Shanker is unbalanced. But consider the following:

By pulling back on foreign matters, labor lost something very important. The Sweeney victory, Will Marshall argues, meant “the end of the most attractive features of Kirkland-Shankerism, which was this kind of assertive internationalist policy.” Labor’s distinctive voice on the left, favoring a robust foreign policy, was stilled. For Shanker the loss was devastating. The AFL-CIO, which had been the great bulwark against the extreme left in the Democratic Party, had now itself been lost. (p. 360)

This passage strikes me as insufficiently critical of the role played by the Democratic Leadership Council, for whom at least indirectly Will Marshall is a key figure and spokesman. The Leadership Council pushed the Democratic party away from its labor roots, a path which it took after the disastrous election of 1984. Even while writing from the vantage point of 2007, Kahlenberg seems to ignore that it was by not following the prescriptions of the DLC that the Democrats achieved their successes in the election of 2006, an election in which the Senate candidate who most followed the DLC guidance, Harold Ford (who now heads the DLC), lost while candidates, such as Jim Webb and Jon Tester, who distanced themselves from positions advocated by the DLC won. In fairness, Kahlenberg does discuss (pp. 291-292) where Shanker disagreed with the DLC (over labor issues) and why he instead was an organizer of a rival group, the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. Far more objectionable to me is the assertion by Kahlenberg on that

Today the Democratic Party has economic populists such as organized labor in one camp and advocates of a tough foreign policy and mainstream American values such as the DLC in another, but no one – like Al Shanker – who stand [sic] for both. Today, Shanker’s cold war international orientation, his colorblind outlook, and his redistributionist economic policy is seen as “outdated” in a post-cold-war world of increasing racial diversity and market-based thinking. (pp. 397-98)

As one fairly active in Democratic political affairs, I disagree with the first sentence. First Kahlenberg is uncritically accepting the DLC argument that it stands for “mainstream” values, and yet, as noted above, the candidate lost the election who most espoused those values as formulated by the DLC. Second, it is difficult to argue successfully that Senator Jim Webb is not in favor of a tough foreign policy. His disagreement with DLC types is on the question of effective foreign policy, an issue with which he has been involved for much of his adult life. To accept uncritically an argument such as the one Kahlenberg is making here surprised me. As a result I wondered a bit if other places in the book were perhaps shaped by this uncritical acceptance of what I believe has been shown to be an inaccurate understanding by the DLC and its supporters both of mainstream values and of what a true “tough” foreign policy might look like. While I am reasonably certain that the book is not distorted, I thought it worthwhile to highlight my concern, even as I recognize that my reaction is shaped both by my antipathy towards the DLC despite a personal relationship with its immediate past leader (Tom Vilsack) and by my heavy involvement in Webb’s Senate campaign.

One task biographers face is whether they can fairly and honestly portray the subject of the work while making the reader sympathetic to the person about whom they are writing. Kahlenberg deserves very high marks on this score. I began the book with an antipathy towards Al Shanker that goes back to when my family was involved with the teachers’ strikes during the late 1960s; they who were not very complimentary towards what he did. And yet the more I read, the more sympathetic toward Shanker I became. I am still not a strong fan, and find much of what he did objectionable. For example, Shanker’s statement that “Teaching to the test is something positive when you have really good tests” (p. 328) or his willingness to support the conclusions of A Nation at Risk on the grounds that unless educators acknowledged the deficiencies of schools meaningful improvements are not possible. Richard Rothstein sees things more clearly:

…if a teachers union goal is to mobilize support for public education and its employees, denunciation of public school performance is a questionable strategy. (p. 279)

With regard to A nation at Risk, Shanker provided legitimacy for rhetoric that was not even supported by the very data in the report itself, and gave license to media reports that our public schools would weaken our economy vis a vis our rivals in Asia―a prediction that has proven remarkably inaccurate.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Shanker, the more I found myself in agreement on important issues. In his understanding of accountability, he was unwilling to hold teachers accountable if students were not. True, but this does not go far enough. Shanker's failure to see high stakes testing for what it truly is could lead to the situation where teachers are graded based on the same tests used to determine graduation or promotion―the situation for high schools in Maryland where I teach. He ignored what we know about the distortion and corruption of both testing and curriculum that such a high stakes approach engenders. And yet, seeing the interconnectedness of responsibility is a step far beyond that of many advocates of a punitive approach to testing, such as many supporters of No Child Left Behind. I agree with Shanker that it is unwise to allow private entities to manage public schools. He correctly saw that such companies might take a cookie-cutter approach to hold down their costs, actions exactly contrary to the vision he had of using charter schools as a means of flexibility to meet the needs of students and communities. Shanker wanted a progressive, class-based coalition to increase opportunity and, hence, economic equity. He worried that using only race-based forms of affirmative action would not resolve the real problems, even for those minorities whose impoverished circumstances most warranted help. I have over the years come to understand the importance of economic inequity in this country, and realize that race is often only a proxy because of the historic inequities that have been passed down. I teach African-American students where both parents have advanced degrees and white students who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school; and it is clear to me that while the latter need the kind of help offered by affirmative action, the former probably do not, despite continued elements of racism in our society.

I took my time reading this volume. Even with the minor quibbles already noted, I found the time spent more than justified. Because of the important role Al Shanker played in education in this nation, the book also serves as a good overview of a great deal of educational history. Because he wore the hats of a labor leader and, at times, that of an important voice in Democratic politics, it is also useful as a source on those topics as well. But I must add again that I find Kahlenberg somewhat too uncritical of some positions taken by both Shanker and the DLC.

Albert Shanker received posthumously this nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. For better or worse, he was a major player in the shaping of this nation’s educational policies for the more than four decades. Before reading this biography, I was somewhat inclined to think the worse of Shanker's efforts. It is a testament to Kahlenberg’s research and writing that I now see how Al Shanker played a positive role in his lifelong crusade to defend and improve public education. I am in many ways the beneficiary of that commitment. My own career as a public school teacher has been shaped in ways I had not known were influenced by Shanker. Anyone seriously interested in education history and education policy would do well to take the time to at least examine this book. Those who do will likely be inclined , as was I, to read the entire work.


Kenneth J. Bernstein

About the Reviewer

Kenneth J. Bernstein is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher. He holds degrees in music from Haverford, Religions from St. Charles Seminary, and teaching from Johns Hopkins University. He did extensive doctoral studies in educational administration and policy studies at The Catholic University of America, and additional studies in reading education at the University of Virginia. He has served as a peer reviewer for a number of professional publications, including Current Issues in Education and Teachers College Record. He is coauthor of Rotberg, I; Bernstein, K. J. & Ritter, S. B. (July, 2001). No Child Left Behind: Views about the potential impact of the Bush administration's education proposals. Washington, DC: Institute for Education Policy Studies.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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