What’s the Deal, America?

It might seem that I have exhausted the topic of the teacher’s strike. But, alas, I have not! There is one more central issue to the strike that was not addressed that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society and that was: Do we value teachers? This question is still resonant today. Just look at Oakland where teachers walked out two weeks ago (they settled a couple of days ago) and shortly before that, the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles as examples.

WireAP_d82c7f1407384fee8fd0a4feb7467a96_16x9_992
Associated Press photo – February 21, 2019 – Community members supporting Oakland teachers’ strike

Those two labor actions were, in large part, about pay – teachers need second jobs to make ends meet. The 1968 dispute in New York City didn’t hinge on salary, but that isn’t the only measure of whether we value the profession.

One aspect of treating teachers professionally is to provide due process before reassignment or termination. The attempt by the Ocean Hill Brownsville school board to fire people who had tenure without a hearing was offensive to my father. He would not want to protect teachers who were lazy or incompetent, but they were entitled to be heard first.

There is a reason that the teaching profession includes tenure. Tenure existed long before there were teachers’ unions (tenure came into practice in the early in the 1900s; though there were attempts to organize earlier, the UFT wasn’t formed until 1960). The reason was to protect teachers from political influence or corruption. People understood there was a danger that a new principal could come in, fire the staff and hire their relatives or give jobs to the highest bidders. There has long been recognition that the education of our children held a special status that needed to be protected.

As with all things, though, there is a need for balance and there is a perception that things have gotten out of whack with it becoming a long and expensive process to terminate a terrible teacher. In 1968 my Dad had no tolerance for those who were taking advantage of the system, skating by, making no effort. He had his own scornful word for them, “deadwood.” I don’t know if he invented that term, but I heard it often enough when Dad expressed his frustration with a colleague. It is an effective metaphor:  decaying branches clogging up a stream. But, he didn’t believe the majority of the teaching force was “deadwood” or racist. Finding the balance between due process and ridding the system of deadwood continues to be a struggle. Remember the headlines on the front page of the New York Post not long ago? – with pictures of ‘rubber rooms’ for teachers that can’t be trusted in the classroom but can’t be terminated either. We need to find the right balance, but that still doesn’t answer the central question of how much do we value teachers.

Our attitude toward teachers in America is a funny thing. We have a kind of schizophrenia about them. One the one hand, we think anyone can teach, everyone thinks they know how things should be done in the classroom. After all, we’ve all gone to school. And then there’s the old saying, “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” Hardly a statement of praise. As noted above, teachers are underpaid and that continues to be a sticking point. It’s also been considered ‘women’s work’ dating back to the nation’s westward expansion when the ‘schoolmarm’ taught in one room schoolhouses. Women’s work has never been given its due.

On the other hand, we expect so much of teachers. When poor achievement scores are reported, teachers are blamed. In New York State we require that they earn a master’s degree within five years of their appointment. There are demanding continuing education requirements – I believe 75 hours every five years.

We simultaneously believe that kids right out of college can step into a classroom to teach (as in Teach for America and exemplified by Rhody McCoy hiring strike replacements who were fresh out of college subject to a single interview) and yet we complain that inexperienced, uncertified teachers are disproportionately assigned to poor, underserved schools, and offer that as emblematic of the inequity of the system.

A number of years ago I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman who grew up in Finland. If you read about successful school systems, Finland is often cited as exemplary. He explained that students who went into teaching were the best and the brightest; teachers there were expected to have the equivalent of a PhD, were as revered as medical doctors, and were paid accordingly. Not exactly a description of our situation.

So, what’s the deal, America? Can anyone teach? Or, is it a profession? And, if it is a profession, is it an esteemed one that we are willing to pay for? We can’t have it both ways.

More Questions

After listening to the panelists, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any substance to the union’s side of the conflict. The story that was told that night at the Brooklyn Historical Society was eye-opening, but, there was a glaring omission. No one mentioned the issue of teacher professionalism as a source of conflict.

For my father, and others like him, this was probably the single strongest motivating factor in supporting the strike. The attitude and actions taken in Ocean Hill-Brownsville exhibited a blatant disregard for the professionalism of teachers, in three ways: by having the community dictate curriculum, by hiring uncertified, inexperienced replacements, and by dismissing teachers without due process. All of that would have felt like a personal insult to someone like my dad.

Dad, Barry Brody, got his B.A. from Brooklyn College, then did two years in the Air Force. He went into teaching, earning his master’s in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. He went on to get a master’s in economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (coincidentally Al Shanker’s alma mater). He spent most summers furthering his education. He would apply for grants to study. He spent a summer at Wharton, another at Weslyean, then Clark University in Worcester, MA, three summers in Illinois and one at the University of Colorado. Our family joined him, this was how we vacationed (which is another story). He was always a voracious reader. If there was a new biography of Lincoln or Jefferson, he would read it – and critique it. He read widely, though history was his passion.

He took pride in his scholarship and his teaching. If there was one overriding lesson he imparted to his three children, though there were many, it was to do your job to the best of your ability, no matter what it was. If you were a busboy or a secretary, take pride in your work. You show up on time, put your nose to the grindstone, without excuses. He modeled that behavior. There was dignity and pride in a job well done. My brothers and I took that lesson to heart and it served us well.

I believe the issues raised by the decentralization experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville struck at the heart of my dad’s sense of himself as a teacher and his pride as a professional. The fact that the changes being wrought were accompanied by so much anger, and in some quarters, hate, made it impossible to bridge the divide. Both sides were convinced of their righteousness.

The idea that parents would dictate curriculum, and I think Dad’s perception was that the plan gave parents that authority, would be an anathema to him. The notion that laypersons would make decisions about what material to include in global studies or American history likely struck him as absurd.

Today we are much more aware of the importance of incorporating the contributions of people of color and women so that a more complete and accurate picture of American and world history is provided (I’m not suggesting that the work is done). Some of that change came about precisely because of the pressure brought to bear by communities of color. Some of it has come about as more women and people of color become historians themselves.

But, today community input is still fraught. What about when a community objects to teaching evolution? Or sex education? Or, inclusion of LGBTQ literature? The list can, and does, go on and on, and I think it always will. The process of incorporating public opinion needs to be robust enough to withstand pressure from extremes, but flexible enough to evolve as new knowledge is gained. But what does that look like?

lJLqTNEwQUibEEflQIeYJg
Banned books – illustration by Jane Mount

One of the reasons I believe so strongly in public education is that a cross-section of children, representing different parts of society, learn together. And, hopefully, across communities there is a common body of knowledge imparted. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but if you grow up in Harlem or a rural town in central New York, I believe you should share a common understanding of science, history, math, etc. There can and should be differences that reflect the needs of the children, but a great deal of the fundamentals should be shared.

I think the panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society lost an opportunity to engage in a more balanced way. To discuss community control without acknowledging the legitimate concerns of teachers took away from the credibility of the program.

I am still left with the question: What should the role of the community be in curriculum? If folks reading this have opinions about it, please comment! I’d love to hear.

Going to Extremes

It may not be readily apparent why I am spending so much time writing about the events in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But, 50 years later, there is much to be learned, especially since we find ourselves still struggling with some of the fault lines exposed during that conflict. The strike touched on racism, anti-Semitism, and education policy (the role of community in school management, the value of multiculturalism in curriculum, student discipline and the professionalism of teachers). Each of these topics resonates with me and are actively debated today. We need to learn from our history; the strike and its aftermath are rich with lessons.

J4CisY0LT5SnkqUMjX0vYg
Photo credit unknown — reprinted in Jacobin. Police blocked entry to the school building at one point during the conflict. 

One of the tragedies of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike was that it marked a serious deterioration in the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in New York City. The two groups, through the early 1960s, were allies in the civil rights movement. The strike either created or revealed a schism.

I grew up feeling a connection to African-Americans. Because of my own people’s history, I identified with their struggle against persecution. My parents were believers in equal rights and opportunities. I never heard a racial or ethnic slur from either my mom or dad. Thinking back on it, I know they weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time and place, so I’m sure they had their prejudices, but that would have been the product of ignorance. They were life-long learners, and as they understood more, their thinking evolved. The strike and the emergence of the Black Power movement tested them.

My mother was teaching in a parochial school at the time of the strike. She was employed by the New York City Board of Education as a Title I teacher, a corrective reading specialist, but assigned to Catholic schools and yeshivas, depending on the year. Since the parochial schools were not affected by the strike, she continued to go to work, she didn’t have to cross a picket line. She remembers the time as being rife with tension, though. She taught in a neighborhood not far from Ocean-Hill Brownsville and took a subway line that travelled through there to get to work. She remembers a change in the air, she felt self-conscious on the subway as one of the few white people and previously she had not. Between the riots in cities around the country, and the friction of the strike, she felt the anxiety of the time.

My father, a social studies teacher in a NYC high school, walked the picket line. I recall him coming home and expressing anger with the leadership of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. I remember some of the names he mentioned, telling my mother of the latest inflammatory rhetoric from Sonny Carson and Rhody McCoy. Listening to the panelists at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it sounded like either the incendiary messages weren’t uttered, were overemphasized or misunderstood. It occurred to me that perhaps my father wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

Now reading about the events, I see a fuller picture. My research revealed a number of interesting pieces.

One of the flashpoints during the strike was the assertion that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community was anti-Semitic. As I noted in a previous post, the panelists contended that Al Shanker, the union president, was largely responsible for stoking the issue. Two of the three panelists, Ms. Edwards and Mr. Isaacs, refuted the claim that there was anti-Semitism in the community. Hearing that, I was incredulous; there is anti-Semitism in every community, just as there is racism. The degree of it, how close it is to the surface, may vary, but to deny its existence struck me as disingenuous.

Unless I misunderstood his point, Mr. Isaacs said it was the union that produced and distributed literature that included anti-Semitic language and images. I found that charge hard to believe. I could imagine that Shanker would want to consolidate his position by, as we might say today, riling up his base, but it didn’t ring true that he would go so far as to create the pamphlets.

I read news accounts, journal articles, recent scholarship and books, so much has been written about the strike. I learned that was that there was an anonymous anti-Semitic letter circulated in the junior high school in Ocean Hill-Brownsville at the time. The letter said:

‘If African-American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be done by African-Americans Who Identify With And Understand The Problem. It is Impossible For the Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring to This Important Task the Insight, The Concern, The Exposing of the Truth that is a Must If The Years of Brainwashing and Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught to Our Black Children by These Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be Overcome.’

McCoy and the local Board denounced the letter. The union reprinted it, 5000 copies, as part of a leaflet which asked if this was acceptable; in effect publicizing it. Some might say Shanker exploited it.

I don’t know how strongly the African-American leadership disavowed the letter and its sentiments. I can only imagine how hurtful those thoughts would be to someone like my father. Was Mr. Isaacs suggesting that Shanker actually composed and planted the original letter, or was he criticizing the tactic of publicizing it?

It was not the only evidence of anti-Semitism. A teacher in the district read a poem by a student on WBAI, an African-American radio station in the city, called “To Albert Shanker: Anti-Seimitism.”

Hey Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head

You pale faced Jew boy I wish you were dead…

            Jew boy you took my religion and adopted it for you

            But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

            When the UN made Israel a free, independent state

            Little four and five-year-old boys threw hand grenades

            They hated the black Arab with all their might

            And you, Jew boy, said it was alright

            And then you came to America the land of the free

            Took over the school system to perpetuate white supremacy

            Cause you know, Jew boy, there’s only one reason you made it

            You had a clean white face colorless and faded.

When interviewed twenty years after the fact, the teacher had no regrets about reading the poem on the air. He said it was “raw,” but otherwise didn’t see a problem with it.

Unfortunately, there are people in the world who would write that letter and that poem today.

I come away from the panel discussion and my subsequent research believing that everyone shared responsibility for stoking racial and ethnic tensions. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville leadership was unwilling to distance itself from the extremists or troublemakers in their midst. Judging by the statements made by the panelists they still don’t acknowledge the damage done by the anti-Semitic communications. It may be true that the letter and poem didn’t represent the majority of the community. But, think of it this way:  if a single noose was to appear in a school locker, it would not be sufficient if school officials disavowed the symbolism, explained that it didn’t represent the opinion of the majority and left it at that. We would expect more, and rightly so.

It is true that the demographic of the replacement teachers was similar to those that were terminated – the majority were white and Jewish. That would support the idea that McCoy and the Board weren’t blindly anti-Semitic. But, that doesn’t address the hurt and fear engendered by the other events. The hiring of the replacements represented other problems from the union perspective (an issue I will discuss in more depth in my next blog post).

The union leadership, on the other hand, focused on those extremists to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. There were issues with the quality of the teaching, with the atmosphere of the schools that did not welcome parental involvement and that didn’t include African-American and Puerto Rican contributions in the curriculum. And, the main point, the main issue at the heart of everything, was the problem of poor academic performance. By keeping their rhetoric focused on the hateful messages, the union didn’t appear to be willing to engage on the problems that were at the heart of the community’s anger.

There are parallels to how we engage in political discourse today. People are quick to point to the outrageous claims, or the hateful rhetoric, from the ‘other side.’ While I see the merit in bringing attention to discriminatory acts, they should not be swept under the rug, I think we go too far. The extremes get distorted and end up having more influence than they deserve. I don’t know how we reclaim some balance, but we need to give more careful thought to what we emphasize. We need to be more focused on problem-solving and substance.