How the Left Can Avoid a New Education War

Just as Democrats have finally settled on a nominee and begun to unite, a major new fight has broken out between competing factions in the liberal education-policy community. One group argues that poverty should not be used as an excuse for failure and sees teacher unions as a major obstacle to promoting equity through education reform. The other group says education reform by itself cannot close the achievement gap between rich and poor and black and white without addressing larger economic inequalities in society. The battle, which can broadly be characterized as one between portions of the civil-rights community and teacher unions, is a movie we've seen before -- most explosively in the New York City teacher strikes of the 1960s -- and it doesn't end well. Sen. Barack Obama should follow the lead of legendary teacher-union leader Albert Shanker and recognize that both sides in the debate need to bend.

The first coalition, led by the self-described "odd couple" of the Rev. Al Sharpton and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City, casts the debate in civil-rights terms. Calling itself The Education Equality Project, this faction, which also includes Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., sees recalcitrant teacher unions as a major impediment to poor- and minority-student achievement, and alleges that unions care more about their own members than they do about students. Sharpton remarked, "If we're going to move forward, we're going to have to be able to have new alliances here -- that might mean some old relationships with teacher unions, principal unions, and all are going to be a little troubled."

Sharpton's animosity toward teacher unions dates back to a key confrontation 40 years ago. Sharpton has said he was inspired as a teenager by black community-control activists who in May 1968 fired several white teachers in New York City's black ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Black Power advocates at the time, in an unlikely alliance with upper-class whites such as Mayor John Lindsay of New York City and the Ford Foundation's McGeorge Bundy, blamed white teachers for the low achievement levels of black students. Bundy called for preferences in hiring black teachers, who he said would be more sensitive to the needs of black students, and the local Ocean Hill-Brownsville superintendent, Rhody McCoy, made clear he wanted an all-black teaching force in the community.

In response, Shanker, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, led what was then the longest and largest teachers' strike in American history, lasting 36 days. Although Shanker had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and advocated school integration, many liberals branded him a racist and a madman. In the 1973 science fiction comedy Sleeper, Woody Allen's character wakes up 200 years in the future and is told that the world was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." In fact, Shanker was a thoughtful union leader who recognized that the Black Power community-control movement was just another version of "separate but equal" that was bad for kids.

Meanwhile, as the union/civil-rights alliance withered, New York City schools deteriorated. One big lesson from the dispute was that teachers and the civil-rights community should be allied to fight for equal opportunity and better funding of public schools. Indeed, even some of the reforms the Sharpton/Klein group wants -- like bonuses to attract good teachers to high-poverty schools -- cost a fair amount of money.

On the other side of the current debate is a second group, organized by the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute, which recently put out a statement (in full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post) calling for "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education." The No Child Left Behind Act and other traditional school reforms are failing, the EPI argues, because such programs take a "schools alone" approach and ignore the importance of societal inequality that prevents the narrowing of the achievement gap between affluent whites and low-income minorities. This group's thinking also has roots in the 1960s -- namely the legendary 1966 Coleman report, authored by sociologist James Coleman, which found that the biggest predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of the family in which a child grows up, not the quality of the school she attends.

Moving forward, Sen. Barack Obama would do well to agree in part and disagree in part with combatants on both sides of this old war -- something Shanker himself showed was possible by strongly defending the role of teacher unions in education but also challenging union orthodoxy where he believed it was bad for children. The Sharpton/Klein group is right to say schools matter and that teacher unions too often block needed efforts to get rid of bad teachers and encourage great educators to teach in high-poverty schools. Shanker forthrightly acknowledged these problems, supporting bonuses to attract good teachers to low-income schools and backing a "peer review" plan in which teachers judge one another and fire incompetents. Under such programs, more teachers are terminated than when principals evaluate teachers because every good teacher is hurt by the presence of bad teachers in a school.

What Shanker never did, however, was demonize teacher unions or say teachers alone should be held accountable. Oddly missing from the Sharpton/Klein mission statement is any call for student accountability. Why, as Shanker asked, would kids work hard to do well when told: If you fail this test, we won't punish you, but we will punish your teacher? Kids going to selective colleges have a strong incentive to do well, but for the vast majority of students who attend nonselective colleges, or go straight into the work force, doing well academically doesn't really matter that much.

Still, the Sharpton/Klein group, which includes sensible education reformers like Andrew Rothertham, Kati Haycock, and Roy Romer, is right as a practical political matter to lead with a focus on education. Polls have long found that Americans view poverty mostly as a result of personal failings and are hesitant to provide generous welfare and housing assistance to poor adults. But Americans are more willing to give poor kids – who don't choose their parents – a break through our public education system.

Having said that, Obama should recognize the importance of EPI's argument, as Shanker would have. The statement, put together by highly regarded academics and practitioners led by Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, and Tom Payzant (and including former Shanker aide Bella Rosenberg), is backed by decades of research suggesting that economic inequality has a substantial impact on achievement and that we've not done enough to address it. To their credit, some civil-rights leaders, like Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, and former National Urban League President Hugh Price signed on to the "Bigger, Bolder" approach, realizing that low-income students need support and eschewing Sharpton and the divisive legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Conservatives, including Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, favor the Sharpton/Klein approach. New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the Sharpton group and labeled EPI's manifesto the "status quo" approach, because "most of us" are already for such programs as expanded pre-K. This would presumably be a surprise to the thousands of kids who can't get into underfunded high-quality pre-K programs and who don't have access to good health care and the like under the "status quo."

Shanker understood the importance of addressing larger issues of societal inequality, which is why he insisted that the American Federation of Teachers be part of organized labor. Though he realized the political challenges, Shanker wanted the AFT to be part of the coalition fighting for better health care and housing and a higher minimum wage -- all of which would make teachers more likely to be successful in reaching low-income students. By contrast, the National Education Association has refused to become part of the AFL-CIO, worried that labor affiliation would be "unprofessional."

Rather than listening to Brooks (who oddly finds himself advocating for Al Sharpton over James Coleman), Obama should keep two critical ideas in his head at once, as Shanker did. Teacher unions need to go along with much needed reforms of the schools to rid the system of bad teachers and connect low-income students with the very best educators. And self-styled civil-rights activists like Sharpton need to acknowledge that poverty -- not unions -- is the biggest impediment to low-income and minority achievement. A repeat of the civil-rights/teacher-union wars of the 1960s will only help the right wing and will do nothing to advance the cause of poor and minority kids.

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