Here’s a case of synchronicity in the public interest: Jonna Perrillo’s study Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (University of Chicago Press) is appearing just as the biggest teachers’ strike in a generation is coming to an end.
Despite its title, and its timing, the book is not a polemic but a historical study. Perrillo, an assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, goes through newspapers and union archives to document the clash of values within teachers’ organizations in New York City between the 1930s through the 1980s. The nation’s largest school system was where “two different strands of American liberal thought” emerged with special clarity, and fought it out with lasting consequences. One was “a faith in the power of coalitions of organized individuals to effect change”-- in particular, multiracial coalitions taking on de facto segregation and the unequal distribution of resources throughout the school system. The other was “a belief that institutions were color blind and, therefore, the best medium to promote equality, justice, and social advancement.” The latter perspective was more appealing to educators concerned with defending their status as professionals from demands by administrators or parents.
The conflict came to a head in the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 (also known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis) with aftershocks throughout public education that have still not ended. It’s much too soon to assess the impact of the strike now being suspended by the Chicago Teachers Union, but I got in touch with Perrillo to ask about the context of recent events. A transcript of the e-mail interview follows.
Q: How did you become interested in the history of teacher unionism? Was it your dissertation topic? It’s your first book, so that seems likely, but it doesn’t have that revised-dissertation feel. Either way, why did you stick your head into this particular hornets' nest?
A: You’re absolutely right. My dissertation was a study of a journal written for and by New York City high school teachers. It was published by the Board of Education from 1917 to 1973. What I wanted to do in my dissertation was to think about how teachers conceived of professionalism over time, and I really wanted to capture it in their own words. Examining the journal allowed me to do that, but it was too narrow of a study to work as a book.
When I started research for the book, I did so because I wanted to keep examining teachers’ thoughts on professionalism, and teacher unions offered a more expansive archive. I wasn’t just looking at teachers’ published writing — which comes with all sorts of baggage about who gets published and why — but also reports, minutes, correspondence, and all sorts of raw documents like that. I was interested in the union’s response to race and school quality as an organizing theme, more specifically, because I attended urban schools and because I taught in an all-black high school.
But when I came across some of the pieces I cite about teachers arguing with black mothers in the 1950s over their children’s failure in school, for example, I felt like I had hit a goldmine. Here teachers were talking about professionalism — and race — in ways that felt unedited, to say the least. I thought that I hadn’t just found something that spoke to the most critical issues in public schooling today but that truly captured the thoughts and experiences of many ordinary teachers and the frustrations they felt on the job.
Q: One way to sum up your analysis might be "civil rights and teacher professionalism as zero-sum game," i.e., one side's victory is the other's loss. That's what I jotted down while reading, but it's not quite right. At some point, the interaction between minority communities and teacher unionists became a zero-sum game. Is that closer to your understanding of it?
A: I think it did become a zero-sum game, and by a particular group of teachers. One thing I often have trouble remembering is that teacher unionists at times obstructed the efforts of black parents and activists, but other unionists — members of the Teachers Union, who would in the 1950s be labeled as communists and forced to resign — did as much to advance civil rights in the schools as anyone. They developed the first multicultural curriculums, they passed on easier job assignments to work in Harlem schools, and they publicly and routinely demonstrated against the racism and abuse that black students encountered in public schools.
Hundreds of teachers lost their jobs in the Red Scare waves of the 1950s and they did so, they often said, because they weren’t willing to be quiet about institutionalized racism. This doesn’t mean they were great classroom teachers, necessarily, but I want to remember these teachers because even if their politics weren’t mainstream, they offer a model of teachers using unions to fight for the best interests of children.
This is a different group of teachers than those who ultimately made civil rights and teacher professionalism into a zero-sum game. These teachers belonged to a different union — the Teachers Guild — which in the 1950s grew from a small organization to the basis of the modern United Federation of Teachers (the current teachers union for New York City). My book shows that they did this first by developing campaigns that fought assignments to minority schools for experienced teachers. Later, in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownville strikes, they fought black parents more directly over teacher assignments.
Between these two events, membership rolls exploded — so while one union was being dismantled, the other was growing. Clearly, these teachers came from a different political orientation that the Teachers Union, but the thing that I also try to capture is that on some level, they had a point: assignments in minority schools guaranteed them larger classes, fewer resources, less support staff, and often more classes than teachers in middle-class white schools. Resisting teacher assignments to struggling schools was ethically problematic, but they made a powerful argument about professionalism and professional agency, one that appealed to thousands of teachers.
This was the beginning of the zero sum game: when they decided that they would not just fight the Board of Education to get what they wanted, but the students’ best interests and the adults who advocated on behalf of their students. The Board of Education often played on this division, antagonizing both unionized teachers and black parents, all the while doing little to improve the schools.
Q: When friends who teach in the public schools vent about their experience, their biggest complaints are about having to “teach to the test,” with overcrowded classrooms and inadequate infrastructure close behind. Evidently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) did a good job in raising these issues with parents, to judge by interviews and photos in which parents expressed support for the strike. Your book shows similar alliances around quality-of-education problems with Harlem parents in the 1930s. Do you see a parallel between these experiences – or major differences that count more than any similarity?
A: What has struck me as especially noteworthy and important about the strikes is the support that many parents are expressing, either through joining parents in the protests (as you mention) or in testimonies of support that come across in interviews. And of the parents who do register frustration with the union, many are focused, understandably, on the stress and insecurity that comes with suddenly not having childcare means. Again, I completely understand and empathize with this, but I don’t see these parents welcoming any strike over any issue. So, all in all, it really couldn’t be more different from the 1968 New York City teacher strikes, which produced images of teachers and parents visibly angry, heckling each other on the street.
I do think that teachers [in Chicago] made a good case with parents, which begins simply with communicating to parents on the issues, as they had been doing all summer. But as you suggest, this worked because parents were already there. Like in the 1930s, teachers aren’t striking over where to teach but how, and parents and teachers share a lot of wide beliefs here. Small classes are better than large ones. Art, music, and physical education classes are beneficial, not expendable because they aren’t tested. Teachers shouldn’t be encouraged to teach to the test, and they shouldn’t be at greater risk of losing their job because they teach students who face greater economic and social challenges than others. These are easy ideas for parents to get behind because they aren’t just about benefittng teachers, they’re about doing right by children.
Q. People still argue about the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 – fiercely at times. (If they don’t throw chairs at each other about it, that’s only because of age.) Would you say a little more about it, for anyone who doesn’t know what it was about?
A: The entire nation watched the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes, much as we have all noticed what is happening in Chicago, though the 1968 strikes lasted two months. And then to follow that, New York City teachers went on strike again over salary and contract issues in the 1970s as the city was in the midst of a deep fiscal crisis, against [United Federation of Teachers leader] Albert Shanker’s recommendations.
The two strikes were over very different sets of problems, but they both inspired teachers in other cities to protest more, as well. Because of unionists’ effectiveness in getting what they wanted from these strikes, and with the overwhelmingly majority of teachers in the nation belonging to unions by the 1970s, the American Federation of Teachers [which grew out of the UFT] became one of the most important special interest groups to Democratic politicians. But this didn’t mean that teacher unions became more popular as they became more powerful; in fact the opposite was often true.
I think it’s not coincidental that the decades that followed saw the birth of the school choice movement, which is tied to the CTU’s agenda. Even if parents didn’t feel radically different about the individuals who taught their own children, the profession suffered because the public image of the teacher, via the New York strikes and others, had grown so poor. Public school teachers were seen as isolationist, uncooperative, and more concerned about their professional agency than students’ welfare. School choice advocates argued to parents that they could find a more professional and dedicated group of teachers if they left the system. Some parents, fed up with the resistance unions had posed to their local school reform movements, were ready to leave behind schools that they had spent decades trying to reform.
Elected officials were often drawn to school choice for many of the same reasons, and because union officials were often more powerful than they were. And so I think a lot of what has defined education politics and school reform over the last thirty years can be tied to union activism in the 1960s and 1970s.
For this reason, I think the Chicago strikes have marked a powerful change in the public image of the unionized teacher. Some columnists have argued that the strike is a battle of wills between the mayor (and his appointees) and the union, but I don’t think that’s right. A good amount of the reporting has been focused on the issues rather than each side’s representatives and here, again, parental support of the union — and the union’s attention to children’s welfare — has been critical. The CTU has done a good job of presenting themselves as advocates of students and teachers, not isolationists. This isn’t just what the CTU needed to do to get business done; it is what teacher unions need to do to stay relevant in a political landscape in which the education stakeholders and educational institutions have grown increasingly diversified and in which unions have lost many of their traditional sources of influence and authority.
Q: What is your sense of recent developments in Chicago? How do they look, given the history you've studied? [Note: This interview was completed during the final minutes of Monday, Sept. 17th, before the vote to suspend the strike.]
A: If the strike can’t be resolved quickly enough, the CTU runs the risk of parents feeling like any schooling is better than no schooling. It’s difficult for parents to hold fast to long-term goals — such as the far-reaching gains that would result from better teacher evaluation systems — when the immediate situation represents a real crisis for them. So much of what teachers are striking for amounts to a change in education culture and their role in decision-making, and while these aren’t easy decisions to make quickly, that is what needs to happen. It’s a high-stakes, high-pressure situation, and I imagine there are some very heated discussions and disagreements between union delegates behind closed doors.
What is equally if not more threatening, though, is the mayor’s attempt on Monday to seek an injunction based on the rationale that teachers are only legally able to strike over economic issues. While strikes should always be the last effort, it seems clear that in many municipalities, unions -- and teachers on the whole - -really have reached the end of the road. They have been largely ineffective in countering a political movement that has been incredibly punitive towards teachers while doing too little to address the systematic economic and social challenges of many urban areas.
This injunction, if upheld, would relegate teacher union activism strictly to the economic realm, and in the process, would be devastating to the CTU and possibly to unions more largely. For one thing it would give teachers no real means to advocate on issues that are most important to their students and the local communities that their schools serve. For another, it would force unions to become the kind of protectionist, self-serving organizations that their critics already, and incorrectly, claim that they already are. If you read the speeches of Chicago Teachers Federation President Margaret Haley [in the early 20th century] or early New York City unionists, for that matter, you see that they were always interested in much more than bread and butter issues. They fought for improved and more inclusive curriculums, for school integration policies, and for a place at the education-policy making table.
As member of the civic body, we have the right to support or oppose any given strike. But I don’t believe we have the right to tell teacher unions what they should stand for, or that they aren’t allowed to care about education issues with the same passion as salary gains, or that they can’t use the most effective tool at their disposal to fight for what they see as ethical injustices towards the children they serve. To do so would be profoundly undemocratic, not to mention bad for schools.
Talk to personal trainers these days, and they will tell you that while bulging biceps and carved calves are valuable, what really matters is the strength of your core, the central muscles that ensure the body's stability and balance, the platform on which everything depends.
On that word "core" I want to hang an analogy that applies the notion of an indispensable platform to teaching and learning. In 2010 the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers unveiled the Common Core State Standards, adopted now by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The standards represent one of the most promising developments in the decades-long effort to improve our country’s public schools. You may be thinking that you've heard that before. In the 1980s and 90s states throughout the nation adopted curriculum standards that were supposed to transform education. Yet here we are today still struggling with the persistent problem of academic underachievement. Why did our earlier efforts to establish standards not have the intended effect, and how are these new standards different?
Some states developed robust, muscular learning goals; others turned out rather anemic and feeble guidelines. For example, on the vital skill of discerning cause and effect, one state specified three detailed goals: explain how a cause and effect relationship differs from a sequence of events, distinguish between long-term and short-term cause and effect relationships, and show causal connections between particular historical events and ideas and larger trends and developments. In contrast, another state simply asked students to relate the causes and consequences of historical events to subsequent events. Similarly, when it came to student performance assessments, some states adopted evaluations that require students to do heavy lifting; others asked students to do little more than breathe. The state-by-state unevenness of standards and their evaluative instruments rendered them ineffective as engines of coordinated national reform.
The Common Core State Standards are not designed to supplant any of those standards, weak or strong. Instead, they seek to bolster all standards, not by identifying content-specific goals but by promoting an "integrated model of literacy" that encompasses skills in writing, speaking, and listening. At their heart, however, is the skill of “close, attentive reading” that will enable students to “pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally,” a skill as necessary in the workplace as in the classroom.
So how might these standards, based on a "vision of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century," change teaching? For one thing, they emphasize the close reading of complex, challenging texts in all subjects, including math and science. To illustrate what close reading might look like in a high school class, consider how a teacher might apply it to the Declaration of Independence. After discussing the Declaration’s role in the American Revolution, she might zero in on its structure and language. She might examine the logic of its argument, leading students to discover that it is actually a three-part syllogism with a major premise — when a government destroys the inalienable rights of the people, the people have a right to abolish it — a minor premise — the King of Great Britain is destroying our rights — and an inevitable conclusion — therefore we have a right to abolish his rule.
She might ask students to critique the rhetorical impact of Jefferson’s use of repetition, or she might help them unpack the word "people" to see how Jefferson employs it to suggest unity among thirteen contentious colonies. In keeping with the standards, throughout the discussion she would ask students to support their responses by citing evidence from the Declaration itself.
This sort of teaching would help students understand the structure of a text, assess the logic of an argument, and develop an awareness of how language is consciously deployed to achieve meaning and impact. If students entered college with even a rudimentary grasp of those skills, they would have a substantial head start in mastering college-level writing. Every freshman composition teacher in the nation would rejoice. I know because I taught freshman comp for years. My colleagues and I did not expect to turn out prose stylists in two semesters, but if we inculcated the skills I mentioned, we headed into summer satisfied with job well-done.
The rigorous and sophisticated instruction called for by the new standards will, in many cases, require considerable teacher training, just one of the many expenses involved in implementing them. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if states will spend the millions required at a time when they are cutting education budgets. Evidence suggests that they will and, in fact, are. California is shifting administrative funds to cover some implementation costs, and the Santa Fe school district is devoting federal funds to Common Core teacher training. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels is leading education reform initiatives that include the standards. New York has developed EngageNY, a website that provides implementation resources to teachers, principals, and administrators. Kentucky has aligned its teacher education programs to comport with the standards. The list goes on.
It is important to stress that the Common Core Standards are not mandated by the federal government or anyone else. Moreover, they do not represent an effort to micromanage the classroom or tell teachers what to teach. Focusing on essential skills, they leave plenty of room for teachers and curriculum specialists to develop specific content, those bulging biceps and carved calves. As their name indicates, the Standards concentrate on the core, the sophisticated literacy that prepares students for college and career and that constitutes the indispensable intellectual platform on which everything depends.
Richard R. Schramm is vice president for education programs at the National Humanities Center.
I am an Edu-Traitor. I am a college professor. What I am about to say may well be perceived as supporting attitudes thought to be against the interests and well-being of college professors. Here goes: I do not think going to university should be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education. The importance of going to college should be intrinsically the rationale by which we justify public support of higher education. Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many. But it is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a B.S., BA, or a graduate and professional degree.
Do I think it is criminal that we are de-funding higher education now? Yes. Do I think it is appalling to think we are charging larger and larger tuitions at state institutions (and private ones, but that is a different issue)? Of course. Is it shocking that such a rich country is not supporting free education? Absolutely. Do I believe there are benefits that accrue from a highly educated workforce, with an appreciation of an array of subjects (liberal arts to computer science) that are not strictly pre-professional training? Definitely. But here’s the Edu-Traitor part: Do I believe we need to justify the investment in higher education in terms of it being a necessity for the 21st century for everyone? Absolutely not.
We justify higher ed so often because many of the careers of the 21st century need (reformed, definitely it needs to be reformed) higher ed. But many occupations do not. That is not my main concern, however. I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education, from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of, "Will this help you get into college?" The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, "college material."
The world of work -- the world we live in -- is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nanny’s, elder-care professionals, nurse's aids, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.
All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called "manual skills" not just at the bottom but absent.
Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.
I have been teaching in higher ed since I was 25. I am a passionate and dedicated college teacher, a researcher, and I’ve been privileged to teach at many kinds and types of institutions. And I think we have education all wrong. Since the end of the 19th century, with the birth of the modern research university and the beginning of professional schools of education and graduate schools for training teachers, the grail of all education, from preschool to the present, is implicitly higher education. All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for "brilliance." For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.
The abolishing of art, music, physical education, and shop from schools means that the requirement for excellence has shrunk more and more right at the time when creativity, imagination, dexterity, adaptability to change, and all the rest require more, not less, diversity. The shrinking of "what counts" would be counterproductive and dehumanizing in any era, but in this world of constant, global change it is simply destructive. (For an excellent and inspiring and witty discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Ken Robinson’s TED talk.)
By funneling all the different ways we learn the world into a very few subjects that count and are tested – what I’ll call "pre-professorial training" – we make education hell for so many kids, we undermine their skills and their knowledge, we underscore their resentment, we emphasize class division and hierarchy, and we shortchange their future and ours, underestimating talents that should be nourished and thereby forcing them to fight for themselves against odds, giving them obstacles to their own integrity and self-worth and value to fight when we should be giving them inspiration to flourish.
I’m appalled that we judge learning in such narrow collegiate terms as that which is taught in college and "gets you into" college. Decoupling the goal of "going to college" from the goal of “learning” is not actually detrimental to the importance of higher ed for society; it’s not even detrimental to college professors, those putatively in a position to be most privileged by the current system. The opposite is the case. For now, many kids who have the means are going to college because they are supposed to. That’s not good for anyone. Conversely, many brilliant kids who passionately want to go to college cannot afford to. Another travesty. And, finally, many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicitly “college prep” and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades, the skills, and the careers that inspire them.
Right now, they feel like failures. They are not. They are only "failures" if judged by the narrow hierarchy of values by which we currently construct educational success. As an educator, I want to change that hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not.