Our guest author today is Edith (Eadie) Shanker, Albert Shanker’s widow and a retired New York City teacher.
A few months ago, in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Joel Klein invoked Al Shanker’s name as an educator in support of today’s charter school “reform” efforts. Klein wanted the public to believe that Al was the originator of the charter school concept (he wasn’t) and that he would today be supportive of the charter school ”reform” ideology now being spread around New York City and the country as a panacea for low student achievement. Conveniently, Klein did not indicate that Al denounced the idea of charters when it became clear that the concept had changed and was being hijacked by corporate and business interests. In Al’s view, such hijacking would result in the privatization of public education and, ultimately, its destruction - all without improving student outcomes.
Now, in his recent Atlantic magazine article, Klein trots out a quotation attributed to Al (said in jest if at all) to support the stereotype that, as a union leader, Al cared only about “protecting” the union’s members, including “bad” teachers. Using this alleged quotation – “when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children” - Klein not only plays fast and loose with Al’s reputation as a union leader but also as a sterling educator. (To be a true expert on Al’s views on how to improve education for children - and how to be a union leader - Klein could check out 27 years’ worth of his “Where We Stand” columns in the New York Times.)
So, on the one hand, Klein touts Al as a great education reformer who’s ostensibly an advocate for charter schools – presumably in the interests of the children (this characterization suits Klein’s search for unlikely allies on the subject). But, on the other hand, Klein also wants us to think that Shanker the union leader subscribed to a narrow agenda of just defending members, absent any concern about how good they are or whether they deliver for students. It seems that Klein’s inconsistent portrait of Al is more about the particular use he wants to make of a memorable iconic figure than the real union leader I knew so well.
Ironically, Klein’s dishonest gesture raises the question of whose job it is to represent the children. If Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein had not been so busy trying to “reform” public education in New York City - mostly in unproven and generally unsuccessful ways - they might have done a better job of improving education throughout the city by addressing the needs of teachers and students (curriculum, professional development, wraparound medical and social support services). At bottom, one suspects that they were at a loss as to what to do. When you don’t know what to do, reorganizing must seem like a simple answer.
Will it take three decades to determine that this latest “reform” has failed, as it did with the community control reorganization movement that lasted from the 70s through the 90s, when it was finally acknowledged to be a failure (and reversed)? The root causes of many students’ poor achievement are complex. Experts know that more often than not failure is the result of conditions that are beyond remedy by even the most dedicated teachers. The tragedy for our all our children may be that once the Humpty Dumpty of public education falls and is shattered it may never be put back together.
As an educator, children’s advocate and union leader, saving public education for the sake of future generations and our democracy was the mission that tied Al Shanker’s roles and ideas together. Joel Klein should not try to take that away from him, especially when he is not here to speak for himself.