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AFT's Shanker Angers Big-City Districts

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The American Federation of Teachers' ambitious new campaign for safe, orderly schools and high academic standards has tapped the ire of an organization representing the nation's big-city school districts.

In October, the Council of the Great City Schools, which includes 47 of the nation's largest districts, sent AFT President Albert Shanker a letter denouncing the philosophy he's espoused in promoting the campaign.

Shanker angered council members in late September with a speech he delivered at their annual fall conference in Oklahoma City. In his remarks, the union president was critical of recent efforts to place students of widely varying abilities in the same classroom and called for districts to move disruptive students to alternative settings. "No other country would tolerate this kind of behavior in the regular classroom,'' he said.

In its letter, the council said it might have embraced the union's call for 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 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, executive director of the Washington-based organization. The letter accuses 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, Shanker characterized the letter as "a justification of the current, failing system.'' The president of the 875,000-member union was unrepentant about offending the group and said its letter only 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.

AFT officials emphasized in September when they launched their campaign that they did not intend for it to be adversarial [See "Current Events,'' October]. But the rift with the council likely will hinder the union's effort to gain cooperation from key districts. Its affiliates represent teachers in about half the districts that belong to the group.

The council's letter told Shanker that he had failed to address how districts should serve the problem students he wants removed from the regular classroom and "left the clear impression that your interests extend only to children who do not present teachers any problems.''

In his Oklahoma City speech, Shanker declared that teaching children of varying abilities in the same classroom is both impractical and unpopular. He called for the use of European-style tracking, 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,'' Shanker asserted.

The council's board members saw this defense of tracking as "anachronistic at best'' and "a slide backward toward the concept of 'separate but equal.' ''

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

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