One objective measure of a good book is that when you open it up with the intention of reading only the chapter pertaining to your primary research interest, you end up reading all 403 pages. TOUGH LIBERAL, Richard D. Kahlenberg’s comprehensive biography of Albert Shanker, is just such a book.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ever the education-policy geek, I used to read Shanker’s “Where We Stand” advertisement column every Sunday in the New York Times. At that time, I taught in district schools and was a member of the NJEA, so of course I was curious about the views of the vocal AFT President. Reading this book, I was startled to realize that since his passing in 1997, I had forgotten many of the positions he stood for, particularly those regarding education reform.
While Shanker might be best known for bringing collective bargaining to teachers, he also sought to professionalize the field through an array of education reform initiatives. Although I knew he had advocated for charter schools, for example, I’d forgotten how avidly he’d supported national standards and high-stakes testing. In speeches, he frequently quoted his students, who responded to his announcements about homework assignments and quizzes with the question, “Does it count?” When critics argued against standards-based reform, some stating that it would be “anti-equity,” Shanker countered that in fact it was an issue of equity. In his eyes, “the standards movement declared, for the first time, that poor kids and students of color were expected to meet high performance standards, so the achievement gap began receiving much greater attention.” Kahlenberg also notes that Shanker believed that “as a strategic matter, additional resources would not be forthcoming until accountability measures were put in place.” Shanker saw the forest, not just the trees.
Now that we live in a time of national standards, when nearly every state has adopted the Common Core Standards in ELA and Math, it is stunning to think that as recently as 1994, some states were just beginning to develop their own standards, and Iowa didn’t have any standards at all. Kahlenberg’s compelling narrative makes clear how important a role Albert Shanker played in changing the field.
If you’re looking for a book that will help you better understand the history of education in America, this would be a good pick.