Why Does Joel Klein Keep Misrepresenting Al Shanker?

Outgoing New York City Chancellor Klein loves to try to wrap himself in the mantle of Al Shanker. He is especially fond of pulling clipped Shanker quotes out of his hat—and out of context—when speaking about his favorite education “reforms." At first this may seem puzzling, because the ex-Chancellor is disinclined to give either the United Federation of Teachers or its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, credit for much of anything except intransigence. It must be an inconvenient truth for Klein that Shanker devoted his life to making both organizations into the strong and aggressive advocates for teachers and teaching that they continue to be.

In "What I Learned at the Barricades," a December 6 Wall Street Journal column, Klein leads up to his latest Shanker references with a characteristic litany of inaccurate claims – ones that Al would be quick to correct:

First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential." And “Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc —aren’t going to get the job done.
Really? It’s hard to imagine which barricades Klein learned at. There is plenty of evidence to support the impact of all of these.

But, for those of us who knew and worked closely with Al (I did from 1967-1984 and from 1989 until his death in 1997), what’s truly galling is Klein’s distorted use of Al’s thinking to shore up a simplistic, narrowly punitive agenda that Shanker would have discredited.

Klein says:

Albert Shanker, the legendary teachers union head, was right when he said that education has to be, first and foremost, about accountability for ‘student outcomes.’ This means there must be ’consequences if children or adults don’t perform.
Check the quotes carefully here for who is saying what.  Al did advocate for a focus on student outcomes. But, he wanted all of the system’s players to be held accountable for results, and those who came up short – including students -- to face consequences.

Mainly, Al’s “first and foremost” goal was that a rational and coherent educational system be put in place. This meant first, set high standards that are understood by all, then make sure that those standards are well implemented—including the development of a rich core curriculum (which Shanker understood to be paramount, even if Klein does not).  Be sure to provide teacher training designed to help teachers teach that curriculum well, institute periodic assessments to ensure that students were learning it, and guarantee appropriate class sizes, materials, resources and supports.

It was in this context that everyone involved in the education process—students, teachers, parents, principals, chancellors, state and local politicians—could be held accountable. For students, this meant accountability for serious work habits—for showing up at school on time and willing to learn, for paying attention in class, for working hard on assignments. For parents, this meant being accountable for creating a home environment that is supportive of learning, for instilling their children with the belief that education is important, for establishing rules their children must follow. 

He thought that teachers should be held accountable too, but that this could only happen if administrators—principals, superintendents, chancellors, mayors—were also held responsible for providing teachers with the standards-based system and supports that they would need to get the job done right and if students and parents would step up to the plate.  He believed that this would require a change in the culture of schooling, and he was right. 

Klein proves that he understands none of this, by going on to say that, when he came to the chancellorship:

. . . there was zero accountability. Instead, bureaucrats, unions and politicians had their way, and they blamed poor results on students and their families.
In the world according to Joel Klein, teachers and their unions should be held accountable, but asking for accountability from anyone else is just “making excuses."

But why bother with quoting Al Shanker? And, as noted, this is hardly the first time for Joel Klein.

Maybe he thinks that Shanker’s successors at the UFT and AFT will be put on the defensive this way.  Maybe he hopes that they will find it tougher to dispute a position that their own “legendary leader” supposedly took. It’s a particularly cheap ploy when Al isn’t around to set the record straight himself.

If so, Klein underestimates today’s union leaders. They know only too well that Al would be appalled by much of what Klein has done to his beloved New York City schools, especially the way he treated its teachers.  And they have been admirably vocal in their attempts to hold him accountable.

Besides, there are enough of us old-timers around who can still say: “I knew Al Shanker." If Klein wants to keep quoting Shanker, he should keep that in mind.