Social Sciences / Education

Interview with Jonna Perrillo about Chicago teachers' strike and "Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity"

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. 

 

 

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review of Roger Owen, "The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life"

Intellectual Affairs

The cover of Roger Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Harvard University Press) shows Maummar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad in happier days. The genial and beloved Libyan, so modest that he claimed no higher position than colonel, stands with fist in the air, militant and feisty as ever. The Syrian technocrat wears what can only be called a big goofy grin. They look vigorous, confident, secure.

Does Assad ever think back on that era now, in the quiet moments between massacres of his own people? The recent fortunes of his peer group must inspire some nostalgia, as well as rage. The current situation of Hosni Mubarak (no longer a pharaoh, not yet a mummy) is bad enough. It proves that compromise is a slippery slope; holding on to power demands a willingness to fight to the death. As the example of Libya shows, even that may not be enough.
 
But the real horror of the situation, for Assad anyway – a far greater concern than any report of his armed forces “killing and sexually abusing children and using them as human shields" – is that his people might not just fight him to the death, but deliver it to him in person, and record themselves doing so with their cell phones, for all the world to watch: Lèse majesté, then, with a vengeance.

It’s impossible to read Owen’s book without divided attention -- one eye on the page, the other on the news. In that respect, the book is timely. But it is also untimely, and not just because Owen, a professor of Middle East history at Harvard University, completed it a year ago. The endnotes cite one article dated as late as August 2011; otherwise, the references suggest he finished it last May.

In fact most of it was done at the end of 2010. It was conceived and written, that is, just before Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self-immolation (his final protest against the Tunisian authorities who had made it impossible for him to earn a living) set the whole region ablaze. Even with a final chapter on “The Sudden Fall” of the old order, Owen’s book is very much a pre-Arab Spring text. A description from the Harvard University Press website says the book “exposes for the first time the origins and dynamics of a governmental system that largely defined the Arab Middle East in the twentieth century.” This is, to be blunt, misleading. The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life is very much in the mainstream of recent U.S. scholarship on the region. Analysts have been considering the various flavors of political authoritarianism there for some time now. Owen’s concerns are their concerns. The orientation of this work is more or less epitomized by the title of a well-known journal article: “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?

Owen’s “presidents for life” ruled countries that others have identified as cases of “dynastic republicanism” or “monarchial presidency.” His list includes Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Lebanon is an outlier here, as is post-Saddam Iraq. Owen describes them as having "constrained presidencies. The office is relatively weak -- dominated by outside forces (Syria in the case of Lebanon, the US with Iraq) and obliged to tread carefully given sectarian divisions within the country. In Iraq's case, a presidency-for-life once existed, but Lebanese presidents have left office voluntarily, except, of course, when assassinated.

The other regimes, by contrast, have been exceedingly stable. That stability might be explained by the efforts of any given state’s repressive apparatus, of course; but then you had to explain why the repressive apparatus itself proved so trustworthy and loyal. Junior military officers can be ambitious, after all. But once the likes of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qadaffi assumed command, they kept it -- at least until outside military forces broke their grip.

**

From specialized work on countries in the region, Owen extracts and synthesizes enough shared elements to produce a generalized model of the arrangement that proved so durable for so long. The origins can be traced to what he calls “the authoritarian presidential regimes established soon after independence,” usually in the wake of the Second World War. A few readers will wonder if that’s going far back enough. The experience of colonization is not the schooling in pluralism and rule-of-law it is sometimes made out to be.

In any event, the incentives for a postcolonial concentration of authority are clear enough. Establishing national sovereignty is an obvious one, and in the early days it meant bringing much of the economy under state control as necessary to direct production for local needs. All the better if oil was the chief commodity. Besides creating a middle class of engineers and other professionals to run industry, national revenues could be directed towards building infrastructure, meaning employment for a wide range of skill grades.

State control of the economy assured plenty of money to fund the military, thereby consolidating another vested interest in stability, while at the same time building up a separate internal security forces to keep an eye on the military as well as the civilian population. Any paranoia on the part of the presidents-for-life was completely justified. Owen notes that by the early 1970s, most of them had come into office from the military and could appreciate the need to build “coup-proof regimes.”

Putting family members into key positions throughout the system gave the presidents-for-life another layer of oversight and control. In time, some regimes could even allow a bit of parliamentary politics as a valve to let off steam. And even when their economies underwent varying degrees of privatization, things remained well in hand. Previously nationalized industries were sold off to cronies, and only trusted people permitted to deal with foreign companies.

Enough people and institutions had enough of an investment in this arrangement to make continuity of leadership worth their while. In Syria, Assad succeeded his father. In Egypt, the younger Mubarak’s inauguration was a matter of time. This was tolerable for the people who benefited from the arrangement, and it them an incentive to ignore those who didn't. 
 
At a certain intensity, corruption no longer counts as corruption; it’s just how things get done. And the men who served as the godfather to each national syndicate enjoyed the benefit of watching how one another did their jobs. They were a cohort. Owen calls it the “demonstration effect” – the diffusion of authoritarian techniques by example.

It clearly worked, as that photo of Qaddafi and Assad shows – at least until it didn’t. Four of the nine presidents-for-life in power on the first day of 2011 have left office and another has agreed to step down when his term has ended. As for the other four, well, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And nobody saw the reversal failure coming, least of all on the scale that it did.

In an essay titled “The Middle East Academic Community and the ‘Winter of Arab Discontent’: Why Did We Miss It?” (published last year), F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont answers that he and his colleagues were “focused (and in many ways rightly so) on explaining the anomalous regime stability that characterized the Arab world in the 40 years leading up to these events.”

It was never, he says, a matter of assuming that people were happy, but rather of focusing on the efficacy and robustness of authoritarian institutions. That sounds like a good description of the topic of The Rise and Fall of the Arab Presidents for Life.

Gause’s self-critical remarks seem worth quoting at length. A single-minded concern with the regimes’ strength “led us to discount the possibility of mass political mobilization, largely because we had seen previous efforts in this direction fail. It led us to make assumptions about the relationship between regimes and their militaries that turned out, in some cases, not to be true. It led us to overestimate the regime-strengthening effects of neo-liberal economic reform. It led us to discount the regime-threatening effects of demographic change and new social media, not because we did not recognize the fact of demographic change and new social media, but rather because we thought the regimes were strong enough to absorb the pressures generated by them.”

Owen’s last chapter takes up those undetected factors in the fragility of the monarchial presidential regimes, and concludes that the Arab Spring was another instance of the “demonstration effect” at work in the region – people learning from and using one another’s experience, as their leaders had. Fair enough, I guess. But the most important books on 2011 will begin at that point, rather than end there.

 

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Essay on the frustrations of having too much to read

Thomas Hobbes said that if he had read as much as others he would be as ignorant as they. Today most university faculty lack Hobbes's aplomb, and everyone complains that there's simply too much to read. The flood of books, articles, and blog posts never stops. (And here's one more!) Academic norms require that scholars "engage the literature," but the potentially relevant literature is enormous, especially for those who aspire to some kind of interdisciplinary approach. And at many universities, declining budgets and increasing administrative duties threaten the little time left for reading.

To make matters worse, academic culture seems carefully designed to maximize worries that one hasn't read enough. The convention of obsequious citation ensures that everyone thinks others have read more than they have. And now some journals are trying to raise their impact factor by pressuring authors to pad their articles with superfluous references — pressure experienced by one in five academics, according to a recent study.

How many times have you heard someone publicly admit to not having read a key book in their field? Never. Perhaps you know the game "humiliation" from the David Lodge novel? If not, just nod and smile in feigned recognition, then secretly go look it up. Of course, those with more cultural and professional power may be able to afford admitting they haven't read something — "You know, believe it not, I've actually never read Hamlet" — but by breaking the norm, they reinforce both their status and the norm itself.

There are no simple fixes, but here are two basic approaches to managing the overload of "must read" publications: demarcate and associate.

The first approach separates necessary from unnecessary reading, good from bad. Some handy demarcation criteria appear in the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's charming book On Bullshit. (It was all the rage during the Bush administration, but it's still worth reading, especially since it's extremely short.) Frankfurt says that bullshit is not the same as lying. Bullshit is speech or action that reveals an utter lack of concern with truth (presumably in areas where some kind of truth matters and can be discerned through established criteria, which is more problematic than Frankfurt admits). Frankfurt thinks that mass democracies are especially prone to bullshit, because they encourage every citizen to say something about every subject. Another source of bullshit is our confessional culture of personal authenticity and sincerity, based on the mistaken assumption that it's easier to understand yourself than the world. And although Frankfurt doesn't discuss it, one of the most fecund sources of bullshit is the doctrine of publish-or-perish, which fosters concern with professional status rather than saying something true and important. Other things being equal, cutting the bullshit from your reading list probably entails avoiding publications that are so obsessed with their own narrow disciplinary concerns (we've all been there) that they never get around to addressing other people or things.

You might object that you need to read at least some of a book to know that you don't need to read more, which leads to the second approach: association. Rather than focus on separating good from bad, try to see how good, bad, and everything between fits together. Learn how in Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. The title sounds like a guide for bullshitters, but Bayard challenges common assumptions about what it means to read a book in the first place. He notes that everyone interprets books differently, and the moment you finish reading a book you start forgetting it. What's most important about a book is not the details of its content, but its place in a cultural discourse. So a person who's recently heard about a book, maybe read a review and skimmed a few pages, could have more to say about it than a person who read it cover-to-cover a few years ago. Bayard uses a refreshingly humble citation system: UB: unknown book; SB: skimmed book; HB: heard about book; FB: forgotten book. And yes, to repeat every reviewer's joke: I actually read Bayard's book, whatever that means.

Maybe I could have skipped to the last chapter, where Bayard argues that, for the critic, books should fulfill the same function as nature for the writer or painter: "not to serve as the object of his work, but to stimulate him to write." He says that "what is essential is to speak about ourselves and not about books, or to speak about ourselves by way of books." Maybe so, in part. But then Bayard writes, "In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves." Even for a literary critic, that sounds like the sort of narcissism that would drive Frankfurt nuts.

So, no surprises here: the answer must lie in both identifying what's worth reading and learning how it fits together with everything else. That may help one find an appropriate balance between reading and writing, between understanding the world and expressing oneself.

Enough said. Now I have some reading to do.

Mark B. Brown is associate professor of government at California State University at Sacramento.

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