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Urban Group Assails AFT Policy Campaign

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The American Federation of Teachers' ambitious new campaign for safe, orderly schools and high academic standards has run into fierce opposition from the nation's big-city school districts.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which includes 47 of the nation's largest urban districts, last week sent the AFT's president, Albert Shanker, a letter denouncing the philosophy he has espoused in promoting the union's campaign.

Mr. Shanker angered members of the council late last month with a speech he delivered at their annual fall conference in Oklahoma City. (See related story, this page.) In his remarks, Mr. Shanker was critical of efforts to place students of widely varying abilities in the same classrooms and called for the removal of disruptive students to alternative settings.

In its letter, the organization said it might have embraced the union's calls for safer, more orderly schools with higher standards "had we not heard their philosophical underpinnings in your speech."

The group's governing board, which includes the superintendent and one school board member from each of the 47 districts, voted the day after Mr. Shanker's speech to express its dismay.

"As it is, the council cannot support this campaign, nor can it urge its member urban districts to do so," says the letter drafted by Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based organization.

The letter accuses Mr. Shanker of calling for educational accountability "for everyone except teachers." It disputes most of his chief assertions, and concludes by saying that "if these concepts are the underpinnings of educational reform in this nation, we seriously doubt that the national education goals will ever be met."

In an interview last week, Mr. Shanker characterized the letter as "a justification of the current, failing system."

The president of the 875,000-member union said he stood by the remarks he made in Oklahoma City and added that the letter reinforced his beliefs.

"The reasoning embodied in this letter is exactly what has given us school systems with children who are not learning, systems with high dropout rates, and systems where children fear to come to school," he said.

Mixed Reviews

AFT leaders emphasized when they launched their campaign last month that they did not intend for it to be adversarial. But the rift with the council likely will hinder the union's effort to gain cooperation from key school districts.

The union's affiliates represent teachers in about half the districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools. Because these districts tend to be the largest of the urban school systems represented by the council, the overlap between the two organizations is substantial.

Donald D. McElroy, the executive deputy superintendent of the Portland, Ore., schools, last month characterized the AFT president's remarks as "diametrically opposed to what they said in the past."

Mr. Shanker remained unrepentant about offending the group. He said members of the council should have been familiar with his views well before his speech, since most had already been publicized. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

"Everything we are talking about is supported by at least 80 percent of the American people," Mr. Shanker had told the council's members. "In all of these cases, the public is right."

In his speech, Mr. Shanker said the education of eager students suffers from a lack of discipline in classrooms, and he called for disruptive students to be placed in alternative settings.

On Different Tracks

"No other country would tolerate this kind of behavior in the regular classroom," Mr. Shanker said.

The council's letter told Mr. Shanker that he had failed to address how to serve those children placed in alternative settings and "left the clear impression that your interests extend only to children who do not present teachers any problems."

Mr. Shanker also told the Oklahoma City audience that teaching children of varying abilities in the same classroom is both impractical and unpopular. He called for the use of European-style tracking systems, where older children are separated according to ability and pushed to meet differing standards in efforts to prepare them for different careers.

"It sounds undemocratic, but it is the only thing that works," Mr. Shanker argued in the speech.

Many of the council's board members view his call for tracking as "anachronistic at best" and as "a slide backward toward the concept of 'separate but equal,"' the letter says.

"If they are so much against it," Mr. Shanker countered last week, "why is it so pervasively practiced in all of the districts affiliated with them?"

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