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AFT Campaign: 'Joining the Corps of Reactionary Snipers'

To the Editor:

Your Sept. 6, 1995, issue featured a story about the American Federation of Teachers' new "national campaign to argue for safe and orderly schools with rigorous academic standards" ("AFT Project To Push Order and the Basics").

Everyone supports safe schools. I have no quarrel with that element of the campaign. If the AFT wants to spend money to publicize their support for safe schools, fine.

It's the other strand of the campaign that would be funny if it weren't tragic. Remember that this is the AFT (and I speak as a former union member and a longtime supporter of teacher unions) of Albert Shanker. Mr. Shanker took effective control of the AFT almost 30 years ago and has served as its actual president since 1974. There's no question that Mr. Shanker deserves considerable credit for some of his work, particularly raising the status and pay of teachers in the 1960s and contributing AFT support and engagement to the civil-rights movement in the South.

But the same Al Shanker blocked the real implementation of school decentralization in New York City and opposed parental involvement in the day-to-day life of schooling during the late 1960s. He also led the teachers' union into the Ocean Hill-Brownsville disaster. More than anyone he ensured that the failures of the New York City public schools would endure for another generation and perhaps beyond.

In the past decade we've seen parental involvement in the child's experience of school and school-based governance again, as in the 1960s, rise to the surface of the reform agenda. Why? Because both of these initiatives help young people learn more effectively and be more successful in school.

The AFT's new campaign calls for "clear discipline codes with fair and consistently enforced consequences for misbehavior," "clearly stated, rigorous academic standards," "well-prepared teachers and well-equipped schools." Well and good as far as this goes. But it's the tone of the campaign, as reported in your article, that seems to identify its true agenda: back to some antiquated notion of basics, some illusion of a better past.

Bella Rosenberg, Mr. Shanker's assistant, says: "Reinventing a democratic institution isn't going to happen overnight, particularly if you're operating on guesses. That's what a lot of the new reforms are about. Guesses." I don't know anything about Ms. Rosenberg's background, but her ignorance is vast and astonishing for someone who's supposed to represent teachers. Much of the current school-reform movement's teaching and learning agenda was described by John Dewey. Dewey's approach to schooling was validated initially by the Eight Year Study of high schools, published more than 50 years ago.

Since 1960, research in cognitive psychology and cognitive learning and in brain function have clearly validated the core of Dewey's approach. To put it simply, children learn best and most powerfully when they are active, engaged, appropriately challenged, and genuinely interested, and when they are taught by adults who care profoundly about them.

One major strand of the reform agenda that Dewey did not understand was a developmental framework of children's growth, validated by research over the past 75 years begun by Jean Piaget and continued by hundreds of others. Put simply, the developmental perspective explains what children can--and cannot--do and learn successfully at particular ages. This perspective also underscores the uniqueness of each child's growth within the common pattern of development and the need for each child to be known by a teacher(s) and taught as an individual.

A second major strand that Dewey did not understand is described in research that identifies diversity in cognitive and learning styles. This research, begun in the 1950s and continuing to this day, demonstrates that children perceive, conceive, and learn in their own individual ways, which must be acknowledged in the classroom.

As many educators and critics have noted, Dewey and his supporters lost the school war in the first quarter of this century. And what we created was an industrial school system for an industrial age. This isn't news to anybody, including Al Shanker. Yet Mr. Shanker says, "Innovation is one of the things which makes you lose the support of the public." So we should stay with industrial schools because a lot of the public understands them, even as the industrial economy melts away?

Mr. Shanker also says that the union is organizing "against what we think are an arrogant, small group of people." Remember, this is the Joe Stalin of union presidents, a man who seems to see himself as irreplaceable, calling educators and parents and government leaders who want to create effective schools for a postindustrial society "arrogant." Again, this would be hilarious if it were in a Woody Allen movie, which is where it belongs.

Over the past 10 years I've personally worked with hundreds of teachers and administrators and parents and community leaders who understand that we need safe schools with high standards where young people learn effective skills and knowledge for a postindustrial, information-age democracy. We need all of these, not one or the other. And not just preparation for the workplace. If we hope to continue to have a democracy of any kind in this era of ubiquitous electronic media, we need to teach young people what democracy is and how it works while they're still in school. Industrial schools almost never did this well.

Albert Shanker sounds like he's kissing up to the Dan Quayle version of America in which the 1950s, a decade when 40 percent of our young people dropped out of school, is seen as some American Eden. And Bella Rosenberg even ventures to quote another American icon, Richard Nixon, when she says that the AFT's campaign "is, in effect, mobilizing a silent majority." Is there really a majority of parents and teachers who want their young people to reach adulthood with the skills of young people from the 1950s? Who want schools that led to a 40 percent dropout rate, schools that were authoritarian and racist and boring?

As reported in your article, this campaign illustrates how desperately the AFT needs new leadership that can lead, not just follow the polls and focus groups. Ms. Rosenberg says: "We are not eager to have children shut up and sit in rows once again, and neither are parents. They want schools to be joyous places. We want that also." Industrial schools were almost never joyous places. And mostly children did shut up and sit in rows. If we truly want schools to be joyous places, we need to change. The American Federation of Teachers should be providing leadership for that change, not joining the corps of reactionary snipers.

David Marshak
Assistant Professor
School of Education
Seattle University
Seattle, Wash.

Get Real About Education; Quit Limiting Parents' Role

To the Editor:

Here we go again. It must be an early April Fools' joke.

People really cannot be serious about debating when financial support from parents and communities crosses the line to create unacceptable inequities in schools ("Local Fund-Raising Prompts Larger Questions About Equity," Oct. 11, 1995).

Tell me it is not acceptable to give children all the tools necessary to be successful adults. Next the thought police (read school board members) will be telling us what we can and cannot do in other areas.

Personally, I do not think money always makes a difference, but I totally reject the idea of someone telling me what I can or cannot do with my money.

Maybe board members should tell parents they cannot review homework with their child because other parents do not, and this could create an equity problem.

Get real. Get on with the business of educating children. Get out of the business of telling parents what they can or cannot do for their children.

To quote from your article, "The surest way to drive motivated, consumer-oriented parents out of the public schools is to put limits on ways they can help their children's schools." Wow! Do you really think so?

Barry Koestler
Dayton Public Schools
Dayton, Ohio

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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