Education Policy Needs Two Offenses (Or What I Learned From Albert Shanker)

I’ve been reading Richard Kahlenberg’s excellent biography of Albert Shanker (here’s some mid-book blogging on teacher qualifications and LIFO), but now that I’ve finally finished I wanted to take a moment to wax philosophically about what made Shanker special and why I believe that quality is missing from the current policy environment.

More than anything else, the reason Shanker was so respected by people across the political and ideological spectrum is that he was a man of ideas and alternatives rather than opposition. For example, when the issue of teacher quality started to gain prominence in the 1980’s teachers were faced with the prospect of pay cuts or decreased job security. While the NEA remained tethered to the position that there were no bad teachers, only bad circumstances in which teachers had to teach, Shanker eschewed political expediency and admitted that yes, there were in fact bad teachers. The NEA continued to fight the idea of differentiating between teachers, but Shanker was focused on working to identify great teachers. His efforts ultimately helped lead to the creation of the National Board For Professional Teaching Standards. Has the Board solved the every single teacher quality issue? Of course not. But it serves a purpose, and the reason it exists is because rather than simply opposing his opponents or denying a problem existed, Shanker countered with proposals of his own.

That’s not to say Shanker couldn’t be a fierce opponent. He turned friends into enemies with his steadfast opposition to race-based policies (e.g. quotas), and many of his initiatives, such as charter schools and strong standards, were indirect ways of fighting the school voucher movement. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he consistently put his considerable muscle behind legitimate alternatives to policies he opposed. The result is that there were essentially two sides playing offense, and I think this created a positive environment for creativity, cooperation, and policy development.

Unfortunately, it now seems as though instead of two offenses, we have a situation more akin to an offense and a defense. Those who oppose contemporary systems of accountability or school choice are unified in their steadfast opposition, but unlike Shanker they haven’t built a consensus behind specific alternative solutions to the problems the policies they oppose ate attempting to address. I’ve talked about this before, but for all the invective lobbed at standardized testing it’s surprising how little you hear about legitimate alternatives. Sure, there are op-eds from time to time and classrooms or whole schools will occasionally try something out. But you don’t have anybody crafting a realistic large scale pilot project that could show whether an alternative system of assessment is effective or affordable.

Similarly, you don’t have powerful stakeholders (e.g. the labor movement) putting their weight behind any kind of school choice initiatives that are better aligned with their priorities. Yesterday Deborah Meier once again reminded people of these possibilities, but the events she references happened 20 years ago. What school-choice alternatives to the contemporary charter movement have been proposed since then? Obviously it’s extremely difficult to fund these kinds of projects at the necessary scale, and it can also be impossible to get the politics right. But it’s not as if the labor movement and its allies are some two-bit operation.

The single-minded opposition is understandable to a point. When everything being done is the antithesis of what you know should be done, your priority is just to stop everything and not worry about what come next. There are also exceptions that are more in line with how I think Shanker would have approached things. For example, the UFT seems very serious about experimenting with the community schools model, and I applaud their efforts. But for the most part one side of the policy debate seems to prize fervent opposition over policy ingenuity. Shanker showed that we’re better off when the opposite occurs.

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