1968 was a very long time ago in New York City

Albert Shanker, head of the teachers' union, firing up his constituents. To Shanker, the matter was pure economics and he was not ashamed to charge anti-Semitism. His knee-jerk response is felt today every time questions of teachers' rights are brought up.

Albert Shanker, head of the teachers’ union, firing up his constituents. To Shanker, the matter was pure economics and he was not ashamed to charge anti-Semitism. His knee-jerk response is felt today every time questions of teachers’ rights are brought up.

Seniors with good memories and others with a taste for history might recall the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968. That strike occurred after an experiment was undertaken in local control of schools in the Oceanhill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The local leaders in this largely African-American community dismissed a handful of administrators and teachers. (The ground was that they had acted in ways that subverted local control, but it doesn’t matter. If local control meant anything, it meant being able to reject the employees sent by the central Department of Education for the City.) The teachers union responded, together with virulent charges of anti-Semitism, by shutting down the school system of the entire city for two months. Oddly enough (given the accepted history of this event), the Oceanhill-Brownsville system prospered during the strike, because it hired its own teachers who defied the pickets and delivered education that the sacked administrators and teachers failed to do. By all accounts (including standardized test scores) local control had worked. Unfortunately, for the rest of the City, the public school system was brought to a halt. In those areas where the Department of Education maintained its cenralized control, no education was offered. So, many parents chose to send their children to Oceanhill-Brownsville schools. But, as could have been predicted by anyone who ever read Animal Farm, this situation could not be allowed to last and the centralized authority in the form of the Department of Education took back control of the Oceanhill-Brownsville schools, fired the newly hired teachers and returned the school to the dysfunctional condition it was in before the experiment.

I personally believe that the heavy-handed response of the teachers’ union sent out ripples that are felt today. It was of course national news that a union could shut down a school system of 1,000,000 students. Backlash was inevitable, if not in New York, certainly in most of the country. The strike of 1968 was the high-water mark of union rights for public teachers. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Wisconsin’s recent efforts to gut teacher unions altogether is in a direct line with the backlash to the union action in New York in 1968.

All of this ancient history came to mind when I received the email below describing the conditions under which parent-teacher “conferences” are permitted in a New York City middle school. You might conclude by the utter distaste for parent involvement that this is some poor, failing school which simply wants to have as little contact with parents as it can get away with. But, I assure you, this is a school in a fashionable part of Manhattan, the students of which must pass a test in math and English to attend and whose principal received one of those administrators-of-the-year honors that school systems give out to principals who are most valued by the Board, almost always for reasons having nothing to do with education of students. Here’s the email:


Good Day Parents!!


Wednesday, February 27 – 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm and

Thursday, February 28 – 12:00 pm to 2:30 pm (Children will be dismissed at 11:00 am on this day, so please make arrangements for your child)

Here are the “rules”

  • At Parent Teacher Conferences you are ONLY allowed 3 minutes with each teacher.
  • Once you arrive, you will line up outside the school building and you will receive a copy of the school organizational list.  You will have to stay outside until it’s time to come inside.
  • Once inside you must sign in the before going upstairs to see the teachers.
  • Once upstairs you must decide which teacher you want to see, stand in the line and wait to be called into the classroom.  If you step off the line, you will lose your place in the line when you return back to the line.  NO ONE is allowed to hold your place in line for you (student, child, spouse, etc.).
  • Outside of the teachers classrooms there may be a student volunteer to keep time only!!!  Please be kind to the student volunteers.  Treat them as you would treat your own children!! If you need more time with a teacher you can always email them to set up an appointment with them or email them.
  • Please make sure to wear comfortable footwear, come with a smile and a positive attitude!!

I especially like the fact that children are enlisted to enforce the limits on parent-teacher interaction. It adds to the authoritarian tone set by the double exclamation point salutation.

There was a time that I was a strong proponent of the values of public education: community involvement in educational content, republican-civic values, the externalities in communal responsibility for students, and so forth. After many years of butting heads with ham-fisted public administrations (in urban, suburban and exurban situations), I have to admit that I am not at all certain anymore. For-profit schools are certainly not the answer. But institutions that seal themselves off from the public are not public institutions at all.

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