How Al Shanker Blew Up NCLB
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Shanker, the charismatic former teachers union leader, is known to many for weekly paid columns in the New York Times (and The New Republic) and his embrace of innovative and controversial ideas (national standards, peer review of teachers, charter schools) that were outside the traditional purview of trade unions. Out this month, Shanker's much-deserved biography, Tough Liberal, helps make clear how he became the darling of so many lawmakers, journalists, and policy wonks - even conservative ones.
But few of Shanker's reform-minded ideas were ever adopted. Unionizing the nation's classroom teachers - directly through the AFT and indirectly through the NEA (which was forced to follow Shanker's lead) - is his main legacy. And, in going after popular and powerful members like Pelosi and Miller, the NEA and CTA are acting to protect teachers' interests just like Shanker did.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Millions of teachers and their families benefited, and many would argue that schoolchildren did as well. But union advocacy for teachers cuts both for teachers and against change, and regularly requires a show of strength.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Shanker was so aggressive (and effective) in winning benefits for teachers – through citywide strikes and other actions – that he became the butt of a joke in Woody Allen's 1973 comedy, Sleeper. In the movie, we learn that, some 200 years into the future, civilization will be destroyed by a madman named Al Shanker who gets hold of a nuclear warhead.
In real life, of course, the fiery union leader didn't destroy civilization. He just organized the teachers. In so doing, however, Shanker may well have planted land mines in the path of school reform efforts that followed - including, for the time being at least, the renewal of No Child Left Behind.