Tough Liberal

Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Columbia University Press

Tough Liberal

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Pub Date: July 2009

ISBN: 9780231134972

552 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $30.00£25.00

Pub Date: August 2007

ISBN: 9780231134965

552 Pages

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List Price: $90.00£75.00

Pub Date: August 2007

ISBN: 9780231509091

552 Pages

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Tough Liberal

Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Columbia University Press

In Woody Allen's 1973 film, Sleeper, a character wakes up in the future to learn that civilization was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Shanker was condemned by many when he shut down the New York City school system in the bitter strikes of 1967 and 1968, and he was denounced for stirring up animosity between black parents and Jewish teachers. Later, however, he built alliances with blacks, and at the time of his death in 1997, such figures as Bill Clinton celebrated Shanker for being an educational reformer, a champion of equality, and a promoter of democracy abroad.

Shanker lived the lives of several men bound into one. In his early years, he was the "George Washington of the teaching profession," helping to found modern teacher unionism. During the 1980s, as head of the American Federation of Teachers, he became the nation's leading education reformer. Shanker supported initiatives for high education standards and accountability, teacher-led charter schools, and a system of "peer review" to weed out inadequate teachers. Throughout his life, Shanker also fought for "tough liberalism," an ideology favoring public education and trade unions but also colorblind policies and a robust anticommunism—all of which, Shanker believed, were vital to a commitment to democracy.

Although he had a coherent worldview, Shanker was a complex individual. He began his career as a pacifist but evolved into a leading defense and foreign policy hawk. He was an intellectual and a populist; a gifted speaker who failed at small talk; a liberal whose biggest enemies were often on the left; a talented writer who had to pay to have his ideas published; and a gruff unionist who enjoyed shopping and detested sports. Richard D. Kahlenberg's biography is the first to offer a complete narrative of one of the most important voices in public education and American politics in the last half century. At a time when liberals are accused of not knowing what they stand for, Tough Liberal illuminates an engaging figure who suggested an alternative liberal path.

This book is a must-read for those interested in educational or labor history.


This book does a masterful job of explaining Albert Shanker's fundamental political perspective and of showing how it changed in concordance the realities around him.

Ruth Wattenberg, editor of American Educator

An insightful, brilliant analysis of the life and times of one of the most influential figures in American education in the twentieth century. It should be read by everyone who cares about the future of public education and our democratic institutions.

Diane Ravitch, Historian, New York University

Richard D. Kahlenberg has captured the political essence of Albert Shanker as a democracy advocate, unionist, and teacher. Shanker built teacher unionism, paved the way for professional unionism that went beyond teachers, and effectively made the case for a labor foreign policy that opposed dictatorship and totalitarianism. He was one of our history's best advocates of universal public education. This book brings to life his core values and underscores the enormous contribution he made.

Edward J. McElroy, President, American Federation of Teachers

Albert Shanker was a titan of the American labor movement and of the world of public education—a tough, idealistic, controversial man who was reviled by some, revered by others, but rarely treated with indifference. Richard D. Kahlenberg's extraordinary biography reveals the complexity of Shanker's life and career and also makes a persuasive case for his greatness.

Alan Brinkley, Allan Nevins Professor of History, Columbia University

This volume compellingly captures the life and times of Albert Shanker, a remarkable visionary leader who may well have been the most influential educator of our era. I was privileged to work closely with Al on state and national reform issues and the success of the standards-based accountability movement is in no small way attributable to his courageous leadership. I was proud to consider Al Shanker a good friend and highly recommend this truly excellent biography which captures the essence of an inspiring individual who did what he thought was right despite the opposition he often confronted from friends as well as foes.

James B. Hunt, Jr., former governor of North Carolina and Chairman, The Hunt Institute

Albert Shanker was a unique figure in American education annals, and Richard D. Kahlenberg's book captures that brilliantly. No one better articulated the rationale for public education as a force for economic opportunity, national security, and equity and democracy in America like Shanker. He was both a tough unionist and a flexible, reflective thinker. An educational reformer capable of championing effective strategies to help children learn years before anyone else, and at the same time, an advocate with the uncanny ability to convey the unintended consequences of the 'education fads of the moment' in a manner that would cause liberal and conservative alike to think about what he said. This is a must read for anyone who believes a nation has an obligation to its youth and the teachers that teach them.

Randi Weingarten, President, United Federation of Teachers

A thoroughly researched and engaging biography.

Arch Puddington, The Wall Street Journal

[A] fascinating biography.

Sol Stern, City Journal

At once exquisitely complex and grandly contextual.

Martin Peretz, The New Republic

A well-drawn portrait.

Scott McLemee, Newsday

Judicious and engaging.

Fred Siegel, Weekly Standard

[A] timely new biography.

Sara Mosle, Slate

An engaging book, and essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Cold War liberalism and its complicated legacy.

Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

An excellent new biography.

Jal Mehta, American Prospect

A must read for unionists, educators, politicians and democracy internationalists trying to make sense of the persistent failings of U.S. education.

Eugenia Kemble, Democratiya

A spirited and readable biography.

Adam Fairclough, Washington Post

Named one of the American School Board Journal's must-reads of the year.

American School Board Journal

[This book] is an important contribution to the history of American education reform.

Nathan Glazer, Education Next

An important new biography.

The Politico

A must-read for those interested in educational or labor history.

Part 1. New York
1. The Early Years: Rising from Humble Beginnings and Establishing Values (1928–1952)
2. Creating the United Federation of Teachers (1952–1962)
3. Rising Within the UFT: Labor and Civil Rights Together (1962–1965)
4. Black Power and the 1967 Teachers' Strike (1966–1968)
5. The Ocean Hill–Brownsville Strike and the Liberal Assault on Labor (1968)
6. Ocean Hill–Brownsville: The Fallout (1969)
7. Rebuilding: Recruiting the Paraprofessionals, Launching the "Where We Stand" Column, and Seeking Teacher Unity (1969–1972)
8. Becoming President of the American Federation of Teachers and Battling the New Politics Movement (1972–1974)
9. "A Man by the Name of Albert Shanker": Sleeper and the Controversy of Power (1973–1975)
10. Losing Power: The New York Fiscal Crisis and the Decline of Labor (1974–1976)
Part 2. Washington
11. Jimmy Carter and the Rise of the Reagan Democrats (1976–1980)
12. Being a Social Democrat Under Ronald Reagan: Domestic Policy (1980–1988)
13. Being a Social Democrat Under Ronald Reagan: Foreign Policy (1980–1988)
14. Education Reform: A Nation at Risk, Merit Pay, and Peer Review (1983–1984)
15. Beyond Special Interest: Making Teaching a Profession (1985–1987)
16. Charter Schools and School Restructuring (1988–1997)
17. The Early Education-Standards Movement (1989–1994)
18. The Rise of the Angry White Males and the Gingrich Revolution (1992–1995)
19. Reviving the Education-Standards Movement and the Final Days (1995–1997)
Part 3. Legacy
20. The Legacy of Albert Shanker
List of Abbreviations

About the Author

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice; The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action; and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.