U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Ironies of Education Reform

In a post from about a month ago I sought to put the so-called education reform movement in a longer historical context. I introduced the post as follows:

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the so-called education reform movement lately. Many of the movement’s highest-profile success stories have been (or should have been) discredited by recent cheating scandals. Although the cheating in Atlanta seems to have been the most systematic—the “Atlanta miracle” was built on the same house of cards as the “Texas miracle”—even movement darling Michelle Rhee (pictured here with former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty)

hasn’t escaped the brouhaha unscathed. At least one of the D.C. schools Rhee touted as exemplary gained blue-ribbon accolades thanks to impossibly lofty wrong-to-right erasure rates. Unsurprisingly, high-stakes testing, where student scores are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations—upon which rewards and punishments are issued—have led to a culture of cheating and corruption. We should expect much more of the same, since this is the model touted by Obama and his Secretary of Education, former Chicago Public Schools CEO (yes, CEO) Arne Duncan, in the form of the “Race to the Top” policy that allocates big money to those states most aggressive in implementing measures celebrated by educational reformers.

There’s much work to be done by educational historians on the so-called educational reform movement.

I’ve been giving more thought to the historical significance of the education reform movement since I posted this, mostly because I am writing a piece on Teach for America (TFA), where Rhee first made her mark in the world of education reform.



Rhee’s professional biography highlights the baffling place of TFA relative to the knotty history of American education reform. The last education leader as polarizing as Rhee was Albert Shanker, the longtime head of the New York City United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Shanker’s fractious legacy is evident in that he was both lampooned in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, as the man who blew up the world no less, and posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. The paradoxical connections between Rhee, the leading anti-teacher’s unionist, and Shanker, the most important teacher’s unionist in American history, do not end there, however. When Shanker infamously lead the UFT out on three separate teacher’s strikes in the fall of 1968, in what became known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis (which I blogged about here, in the context of thinking about communitarianism), Shanker was defending an educational order similar to that which TFA has attached itself to: a standardized system of accountability believed to be meritocratic. It goes without saying that these similarities are deeply ironic.

Some background history is warranted (I gave a synopsis of this at my post on communitarianism as well). In the late 1960s, black citizens in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, with political and financial support from the liberal elite, including from Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation, undertook a controversial experiment in community control of their schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, influenced by Black Power theorists such as Malcolm X and Harold Cruse, believed that their schools were failing largely because of racism built into the city’s educational institutions. They sought to hire black teachers to replace predominantly white teachers on the grounds that black teachers, unlike their white counterparts, would not presume black students genetically or culturally incapable of academic achievement.

Whether or not black teachers would better serve black students was less important to Shanker and the UFT than the fact that community control infringed upon a collectively bargained contract whereby teachers were hired and promoted in accordance with a set of standardized tests they took at several points along their career. This system, which Shanker and his union members believed was objective and, thus, meritocratic, served whites well—especially Jews, who comprised a majority of the union—but often left black teachers behind. As part of its community control prerogatives, Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists violated the terms of the UFT contract and fired several white teachers, replacing them with black teachers or non-unionized whites more committed to the principles of community control. Prefiguring the TFA model, several of the white replacement teachers were inexperienced yet academically gifted Ivy Leaguers. This move, predictably, brought the wrath of the powerful and savvy Shanker, who, thanks to union solidarity, decisively defeated the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community controllers.

As historian Jerald Podair convincingly shows, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis shattered the alliance between Jews and blacks that, for decades, had formed the bedrock of New York City’s cosmopolitanism.

But the crisis broke another bond, one mostly unnoticed despite its significance: that between teacher’s unions and educational reformers. Prior to the late 1960s, the concerns of teachers and students were rarely thought exclusive. It was understood that teachers and students held a mutual interest in acquiring more resources for schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville dismantled this affinity by revealing the cracks in the engine of American meritocracy.

Unwittingly, the TFA insurgency inserted itself into this complex history in incongruent ways. On the one hand, like the Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, TFA operates by a post-social Darwinist philosophy that all students are capable of academic achievement, no matter their racial and socio-economic background. And yet, on the other hand, much as Shanker and his teachers did in 1968, TFA bolsters a standardized testing regime that underpins American meritocracy—which, due to the long and tortuous history of race and class discrimination, disproportionately benefits whites at the expense of blacks and the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This discrepancy underscores the problems associated with the rationale for education reform: that it seeks to end educational inequality.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. AH,

    Good stuff. I’m enjoying, second-hand, your historical exploration of late twentieth-century tensions teacher unionism, administration, and reform movements.

    On the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, the only narrative I’ve seen on this is Ravitch’s in *The Death and Life of the Great American School System*. Are there other narratives? I ask because I wonder how valid it is to say that this particular crisis broke the bond between teachers’ unions and reformers?

    So much is going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s: multiculturalism’s beginnings (i.e. curriculum issues), early rumblings about the South’s private schools and racism, residuals of the Brown decision (e.g. busing issues), etc. With so much turmoil, in addition to the 1940s and 1950s griping about Progressive educators, it seems that Ocean Hill-Brownsville is just another brick in the walls between administrators, teachers, parents, and reformers. In other words, it seems that race, religion, and gender inclusiveness outstrip class/meritocracy in relation to teacher-reformer issues.

    In sum, what other historical data points seem important from the late 60s and early 70s on union-reformer conflict? And are they meritocratic related?

    – TL

  2. Also, a few more thoughts:

    1. The testing promoted today seems to be focused on students, whereas the testing you cite herein is in relation to teachers. Wasn’t the latter addressed by state standard content tests for teachers? I wonder, btw, when those began? Aside: I understand, of course, that today testing students is merely a proxy for foisting more standards tests on teachers (seeing if they have merit—are worthy).

    2. Did the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville case/event have anything to do with tenure? Was tenure mentioned as part of the union/local control problem?

    3. It feels to me like the current testing regime, focused on students, has come into place has occurred since the 1990s. But your narrative is going back to the late 60s. What happened in the 70s and 80s on the testing/meritocracy reform front? Perhaps this is where my state standards question comes back in to play.

    – TL

  3. Erratum: On my first point about other narratives in comment #1, I’m sorry that I hadn’t clicked through the Podair link. What I meant with that point, I think, is that none of my _regular_ history of education texts address the event: Cremin, Ravitch’s older *Troubled Crusade*, Zimmerman’s *Whose America?*, and Reese’s *America’s Public Schools*. The event is scarcely mentioned. (And coverage of Shanker is remarkably thin, as well.) These points aside, I think my question about triangulation (i.e. “other data points”) still stands. – TL

  4. Tim, there’s actually a small set of literature on Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the context in which you speak, since I studied most of this in the early 1990s, long before Podair’s book in 2002. Including:

    Maurice Berube and Marilyn Gittell, eds., Confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville (1969).

    Leonard Fein, The Ecology of Public Schools: An Inquiry into Community Control (1971).

    Harvey Kantor and Barbara Brenzel’s “Urban Education and the ‘Truly Disadvantaged'” chapter in Michael Katz’s The “Underclass” Debate (1993), especially pp. 389-92.

    Joel Spring’s American School textbook also mentions the UFT battle, race and community control from the 1960s and 1970s.

    The link in the chain here is, with the rise of teachers unions in the 1960s (and in concert with that, the de-feminization and professionalization of K-12 education) came also the notion that teachers, and not central office experts, knew best about educating children. Given the racial composition of NYC DOE’s faculty in the 1960s, there’s obviously a high racial component to the Ocean Hill-Brownville fight in 1968.

    But I would go a step further, ala Diane Ravitch in Left Back (2000) and Nick Lemann (albeit in a roundabout way) in The Big Test (1999). Why were Black parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville upset in the first place? Poor high school test scores (as NYS has had Regents exams since the 1930s), high dropout rates, and poor teacher and administration responses to their concerns.

    Given the role of testing in this process, as well as how this testing reflected (and still reflects) on the role of teachers, it’s also not surprising that the UFT would fight tooth and nail against community control.

    If you were to look at the earlier works — the near contemporaneous ones, anyway — on what occurred, the level of the fight was so racially charged and nasty that the other issues, including class and meritocracy, got buried because of the times in which this union/community battle occurred.

    I don’t think that the issue here is whether the UFT was a capital-C critical link in the issues we face now with TFA and high-stakes testing per se. Like Andrew, I do think that the need for control of reform, resources, testing, the talking points of whatever’s being debated in K-12 education, even the classroom itself, parallels in quite depressing ways with what occurred in NYC in 1968.

  5. What is the role of neoliberalism in this transformation? The replacement of the Progressive-Liberal tradition with the current Conservative-Neoliberalism regime occurred in this time frame. The adoption of Druckerian management by objective is the rationale behind the method of incentives and punishments based upon test scores. The “manufactured crisis” of our failing schools also uses falling test scores to justify “school reform.

    Perhaps I am missing the point of your post. I do not find the fact that both Albert Shanker and Michelle Rhee both adopt a system of standardized testing as a proxy for meritocratic achievement. Ellwood Cubberly and Lewis Terman used standardized testing to justify racial sorting in helping to create the modern system of “meritocratic” educational inequality. Unlike class or race, the belief in America as a purely meritocratic society is one of the few tenets Americans can agree upon with the severely limited parameters of our discourse.

  6. Follow the money…

    When I look at modern education reform one of the first things I think about is that replacing long tenured teachers with eager new teachers is not about cutting away the dead wood in favor of bright young people with new ideas, it is about saving money. A first year teacher costs the school system less money than a 20th year teacher who is fully vested.

    Charter schools have also been in the news because some were run as money-making scams, people came in and leased cars for themselves, hired unqualified friends and relatives, they did nothing for the students but took the money.

    And while it may be true that some teachers hang around too long and that unions protect them even when they are no longer effective in the classroom, I don’t think anyone really believes that trying to get rid of unions is mostly about saving money.

    So is any of this really education reform? Or is this merely trying to put a cloak of reform on a budget cutting plan?

  7. @Tim: Thanks for your insightful queries. You are of course correct to point out that many other developments before and since Ocean Hill-Brownsville have contributed to the tension between teacher’s unions and education reformers. For me, though, Ocean Hill-Brownsville seems to have made many of these tensions concrete in a single historical moment unlike other single historical moments. None of the other scholars, save perhaps Ravitch, focus very closely on the ways in which this crisis severed unions from reformers. For a good history of how unions and reformers often worked hand in hand until the 1960s, see John F. Lyons, “Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education, 1929-1970.”

    Also, of course the testing movement now focuses on testing students, as opposed to the system of testing teachers defended by Shanker. But this, I think, is a minor discrepancy relative to the meritocracy-as-an-end-in-itself assumptions made by Shanker and also by current reformers. This is why the history of education reform is so ironic and baffling and so tied up in the twisted legacies of race and class.

    @Donald–Thanks for all the references, many of which I read in your class on the history of education reform that I took back in 2002!

    @Anon–Of course austerity is crucial to the success of anti-teacher, er, education reforms, especially lately. But many of the liberal groups who support education reform, such as Teach for America, have genuinely laudable if misguided goals. The trick is to tie together the laudable with the despicable in ways that point to both as originating from similar sources, though not always intentionally.

  8. Andrew and/or Donald,

    Remaining two questions:

    1. Did tenure come up in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis? This seems like the crucial link. Today’s meritocratic neoliberals, as well as conservatives, believe tenure is THE thing that stands in the way of reform and better, more accurate student results. In the narrative presented above, it seems like content and parent-teacher cooperation are the keys to a more meritocratic system.

    2. How do state teacher standards (e.g. subject tests, increased teacher edu requirements) figure into this debate?

    – TL

  9. There’s actually a practical question here for faculty members:

    If your institutions work anything like mine, you are approached a couple times a year by the campus organizer for Teach for America, asking to give presentations to your classes. I’ve always, as a courtesy, said “yes” (I don’t know anyone who says “no”), despite some misgivings about TFA, in part because, as Andrew says, they have “generally laudable if misguided goals.”

    I’m now beginning to lean against saying “yes” in the future. But this is hardly an effective corrective for what’s wrong with TFA. Already I’ve ignored a request from TFA on my campus to advise them on how better to reach my students. But, again, refusing to participate–though perhaps the ethically correct choice–changes nothing.

    So what would be a creative, active response for progressive faculty members to take when TFA comes calling?

    Whatever the answer is, I feel pretty certain that the more coordinated any such response is–both within a given campus and around the country–the more effective it would be.

  10. @Tim: Tenure wasn’t an issue in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the way that it is now. The community control advocates had no problem with tenure per se. As long as they could remove teachers from their school, they didn’t worry if they taught as tenured teachers elsewhere. Eradicating tenure is an education reform goal that became mainstream in the 1980s or even more in the 1990s–it’s a neoliberal thing.

    Teacher standards have ramped up in relation to the standardization movement that took hold in the wake of A Nation at Risk (1983). Prior to the 1980s very few districts required their teachers take standardized tests. New York was an outlier in that regard–I only brought it up as a comparative issue because of the implied meritocracy that is one of the central assumptions of education reform.

    @Ben: Mark Naison had a short article on the Dissent website a month or two back on this very issue, titled, “Teach for America and Me: A Failed Courtship.”. He said he will no longer grant TFA access to his students. Although my dislike for TFA matches Naison’s, I have a hard time with this approach, if only because it limits the options of my students. Even though my university is hardly prime recruiting grounds for TFA, three of my past students have been accepted into TFA, and I would not begrudge them such hard won victories, given that TFA has become an impressive notch on a resume. But I think I will have students read critical essays about TFA prior to recruiter visits, and have them pepper the recruiter with tough questions if they so desire. I might also have them read Paul Goodman’s classic critique of organized education for meritocracy, “Compulsory Mis-Education.”

  11. Andrew,

    I’m sorry to be so persistent about these two topics, but are you speaking from a particular historical narrative(s) on the time frames for the ‘tenure eradication movement’ and the implementation of standardized testing for teachers? Both are covered in Ravitch’s *Death and Life…* (under teacher credentials and tenure), but neither topic is well-covered in my other standard texts. I wonder if you’re aware of other solid narratives on both subjects.

    – TL

  12. Tim: No, I’m not aware of these topics being covered at any length by historians of education. I could be wrong–you might pose the question to the History of Education Society facebook page. Like I said in this post and in previous posts, there is much work to be done by historians of education reform. Cheers.

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