By David Ruenzel — March 01, 1993 4 min read

BLACKBOARD UNIONS: The AFT & NEA 1900-1980, by Marjorie Murphy. (Cornell, $13.95.) From the very first school strike in 1902—Chicago students walked out in support of a popular teacher suspended by the superintendent for insubordination—teachers have struggled with centralized authority. As Blackboard Unions makes clear, powerful administrators (virtually all male) feared the natural alliances dedicated teachers (virtually all female) made with their students and communities. Attempting to undermine these alliances while augmenting their own power, administrators created a culture of professionalism, in which the “good” teachers would become more appropriately aloof and more obedient to the dictates of “wiser” authorities. The history of teacher unionism, painstakingly traced by Murphy, is one of both resistance and accommodation to centralization and professionalism—“two halves of the same walnut,” the author writes. The administrator-dominated National Education Association quickly fell in step with professionalism, promoting teacher training, Americanization, and good character; in effect, this meant that activists with other than middle-class values were not welcome. The American Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, was from its inception in 1916 a gadfly trade union of “rank and file teachers opposed to administrative hierarchy and close supervision.” For decades, the NEA and AFT warred with one another over ideology and for membership. But everything changed in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the NEA followed the AFT in embracing collective bargaining. While collective bargaining led to improved pay and greater job security, it also—and this is the author’s main point—tragically cut off teachers from the community, the very thing the first teachers’ unions wanted to prevent. A case in point was a 1968 conflict in the black Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in New York. Wanting control of their own schools, the school board attempted to replace 13 teachers. But the educational bureaucracy and Albert Shanker of the AFT fought the transfers, incurring the wrath of black leaders espousing community control. Murphy concludes by suggesting that the NEA and AFT must reaffirm their ties with the community or risk becoming further alienated from the students and parents with whom they must work.

TALES OUT OF SCHOOL: Joseph Fernandez’s Crusade to Save American Education, by Joseph Fernandez, with John Underwood. (Little, Brown, $24.95.) In this autobiography, Fernandez casts himself as a kind of Horatio Alger hero who, with gritty determination, rose from the mean streets of Spanish Harlem to become the celebrated school superintendent of New York City. But while the streets were mean, they were not, as Fernandez freely acknowledges, violently cruel as they are today; he was looked after by both his parents and members of a poor but cohesive community. Nevertheless, he dropped out of high school—“school was irrelevant,” he says—and began shooting heroin; he was rescued by a stint in the Navy, a sweetheart who became his wife, and his own fledging ambition to make it in education. This personal history helps one understand his later successes, for it instilled in him a necessary toughness combined with a sense of empathy for the underdog. He drove himself relentlessly, first as a teacher, then as a principal. When he became the superintendent of the Miami-area schools, he pushed through then-novel reforms such as school-based management and satellite schools in the parents’ workplace. While the book provides a sketch of his educational ideas—generally speaking, he believes schools must become more comprehensive, delivering social services and the like—it is most interesting for its portrayal of Fernandez’s blitzkrieg managerial style. He insists that one must move “so quickly at the start that change would take place before the reactionaries could launch a counteroffensive.” While Fernandez undoubtedly made a lot of enemies by quickly dismissing incompetents, he also succeeded in cutting through the quagmire of New York’s educational bureaucracy.

MAKING THEIR OWN MARK: Educating African-American Children, by Israel Tribble Jr. (Beckham House, $12.95.) In this book, which consists of chapters with proverbial titles such as “A Zebra Does Not Despise Its Own Stripes,” Tribble offers some sage advice on how African Americans can turn from individual accomplishment to collective achievement. While he, like many others, calls for a “supplemental education steeped in African-American values and traditions,” he also understands that much of the most important education must take place outside of the formal school setting. Holding up Asian- and Jewish-American communities as models, he insists that African Americans must make better use of such indigenous establishments as churches if they are to preserve and transmit their own culture.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Books