“Tough Liberal”, a new biography of pioneering teachers union leader Al Shanker, hit bookshelves last month and sparked a wave of reflections on Shanker’s contributions to American public education. More than any other individual, the hard-charging leader of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers made teachers unions a force to be reckoned with in cities throughout the country — even if those unions ended up being more obstructionist that Shanker would have liked.
Shanker’s own biographer, Richard Kahlenberg, admits that the system the UFT/AFT leader helped put in place doesn’t always put kids first:
Teacher union power did come with a downside: some union contracts have made it virtually impossible to fire incompetent teachers; and some unions have been resistant to efforts to reward superior teachers, or to impose teacher accountability measures, such as those contained in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Kahlenberg attempts to defend Shanker’s role in the union movement by highlighting his controversial (to his fellow unionists) support for tough standards for schools and teachers (foreshadowing No Child Left Behind), but is forced to admit that “too many teacher unions have failed to follow Shanker’s lead on those important issues and have put their own interests before those of kids.”
Washington Monthly contributor Tim Noah drives home the fact of Shanker-the-reformer’s helplessness before the unions he built up:
A less heartening reality, Kahlenberg points out, is that the locals operating under Shanker were under no particular obligation to enact the policies advocated by their idealistic president. Shanker gave up leadership of the UFT (which he’d maintained on ascending to AFT president) just a few years after he began his standards crusade, and so ended up with no real authority to put his reforms into action at the ground level. According to Kahlenberg, “the vast majority of AFT’s 2,200 autonomous locals did not pick up on the most controversial reforms.” Education writer Thomas Toch has written that Shanker gave up on reforming the teaching profession by the early 1990s. Kahlenberg disputes this, but Shanker himself told Toch, “Convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do. I would go into a state, talk up reform, and as soon as I left, the union attorney would come in and say, ‘We’ve got a great tenure law, let’s keep it.'”