Saturday, September 22, 2007

Lois Weiner on Shanker, NCLB and Neoliberalism


Right wing conservatives have turned the term "liberal" into a dirty word. To the left, neoliberals are even worse.

Former UFT'er Lois Weiner wrote a great piece on Neoliberalism a few years ago for New Politics. I posted the entire article with a link to New Politics on
Norms Notes. Here is the section on Al Shanker:

Although Albert Shanker, AFT's longtime chief, died in 1997, his organizational stranglehold on the union, his political compact with social conservatives, and his leadership of the segment of the AFL-CIO that has collaborated with the U.S. government in subverting popular movements throughout the globe, were continued by his co-thinker and replacement, Sandra Feldman, who recently resigned the AFT presidency due to poor health. (Readers can find a fuller discussion of Shanker's politics in the obituary of him Paul Buhle wrote in New Politics, or the one I wrote in Contemporary Education, Summer 1998. ) The similarities between Shanker's vision for school reform, which because of his iron-clad control of the union were de facto those of the organization, and the neoliberal program manifested in NCLB are apparent in his article, published posthumously, in the Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy (Fall 1997).

If we ignore the article's curmudgeonly asides and focus on its main argument, Shanker's agreement with the major portion of the neoliberal educational program is apparent. First, Shanker contends that U.S. schools are far worse than those in OECD nations because we offer too much access to higher education, or as he formulates the problem, we have an insufficient amount of academic "tracking." We don't start early enough to put students into programs that prepare them for their vocational destinies, so he advocates putting all students into vocational tracks sometime between grades 5 and 9. In their earlier grades, they should have a curriculum based on E.D. Hirsch's project for "cultural literacy." Although he maintains that in these tracks students must all be held to "high standards," his use of Hirsch's curriculum signifies that instead of engaging first-hand with primary sources, reading, appreciating, and perhaps creating literature, students will memorize facts about the "great" (white men) of history, the arts, and science. He bemoans the absence of a system of high-stakes tests with really harsh penalties for failure, the absence of mandatory national curriculum standards, and the presence of far too much tolerance for student misconduct. Shanker assails the laxity of the pre-NCLB curriculum standards, which were additionally problematic for being left to the states to execute.

Shanker adds that some standards can be too "vague -for example, ‘Learn to appreciate literature.'" Note how Shanker's breezy dismissal of the standard about appreciating literature echoes the OECD's rejection of international assessment in "reading for literary experience." Although Shanker used his weekly column in the New York Times, paid for by the membership, to ridicule the national standards developed by professional organizations of teachers of the arts, rejecting them as grandiose and unrealistic, his own children attended school in a suburban district with excellent arts programs -- and no E.D. Hirsch curricula. Union members had not formally endorsed many of the positions Shanker adopted, for instance rejection of the standards in the arts, and recent surveys of teachers, in cities, suburbs, and rural schools find even less support now than there was at the time Shanker advocated many of his positions about standards and testing. Yet because of the AFT's bureaucratic deformation, of which the indictments for graft in the Miami and Washington, D.C. locals are shamefully graphic illustrations, the opposition to the AFT's vocal, unwavering support for testing and "high standards" scarcely registers at the national level. Most of the biggest locals are so bureaucratic that rank and file challenges to the leadership must be about fundamental practices of democracy, in order for classroom teachers' voices on issues of educational policy to be heard.

The NEA generally can be counted on to adopt liberal positions on the important political issues of the day, although its positions do not necessarily represent those of its members because its organizational structure is also bureaucratic -- but in a different way from the AFT. The AFT is a federation of locals so the state organizations have small staffs and little power. The AFT constitution contains no term limits for its president who has little direct control of local functions. Shanker masterfully exploited the post of AFT President to promote himself and to trumpet his political views on a wide-range of opinions. He did so by using his domination of the massive New York City local to leverage control of the state and national organizations, ensuring that his political views received a formal stamp of approval from the union's executive council while never being debated at the local level. Shanker ruled the national staff with an ideological iron fist, employing only people who agreed with him -- or were fired.

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