City Lit: Striking Differences

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When state legislators handed New York’s mayor full control of the city’s 1,100 public schools last summer, they killed off a complex system of semi-autonomous local school districts that had been floundering for decades. In the months since, New Yorkers have been treated to stories at once heralding a “new era” in public education and reflecting back on the watershed strike of 1968 that ushered the moribund system into being.

Yet people are apt to forget that those 32 districts replaced a centralized system that was irreparably broken, failing the majority of its charges in ways every bit as appalling as what we’ve witnessed in recent years. In his new book, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis, Jerald Podair places the events of 1968 into a larger historical context, providing a powerful antidote to the narrow, revisionist history we’ve been subjected to of late.

In the current, stripped-down media version, angry blacks, in a kind of spontaneous eruption, provoke teachers (who rarely seem to have passions or racial characteristics of their own) and ultimately accomplish their goal of hijacking the public schools for generations to come. The local districts, wrote Abby Goodnough in the Times, “came about in the struggles of the late ’60s, when black and Hispanic residents, angry at the quality of their children’s education, successfully agitated for neighborhood control of the schools in a dispute that provoked a bitter strike by teachers.” Writing in the New York Times Magazine last October, James Traub described beret- and bandolier-wearing black militants “terrorizing” teachers and “pitched battles” between police and demonstrators on the streets of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Traub concluded that with urban riots looming, officials caved in to the demonstrators’ demands and surrendered control of the entire school system.

But however fancifully one chooses to characterize the confrontation itself, there’s no getting around one simple fact: The parents and activists of Ocean Hill-Brownsville were soundly defeated. The decentralization law that reigned for three decades afterwards was really the brainchild of their adversaries in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Designed to preserve the union’s power, the law ensured that community leaders in places like Ocean Hill would never get a free hand to control their own schools. Thanks to the 1969 legislation, every member of the Ocean Hill school board was out of a job within two years of the strike. By running slates of candidates in local school board elections, the teachers’ union, even now, continues to enjoy unprecedented power to hire and fire supervisors, effectively co-managing the public schools. Decentralization was a far cry from community control.

Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University, argues persuasively that the strike was a battle over more than just who would control a particular set of institutions. It was, he contends, a fundamental clash of values–and more than any other single event of the period, was responsible for transforming the entire political and cultural landscape of New York City.

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Sixty or 70 years ago, students who dropped out of high school could still lift themselves up into the middle class with jobs in factories and shipyards. But by the late 1950s, the city was hemorrhaging blue-collar jobs. Facing a massive influx of poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, middle-class whites began to either flee altogether (and take their tax dollars with them) or to retreat deeper into ethnic enclaves. Neighborhoods like Ocean Hill-Brownsville became increasingly isolated and impoverished.

The public schools in such neighborhoods consistently got the worst of everything. By the mid-1960s, blacks earned only 2.5 percent of the diplomas required for admission to college, while making up nearly one-third of the student population. Eighty-five percent of Harlem sixth graders were two years behind grade level, and Harlem’s elementary schoolchildren’s IQs actually declined between the third and sixth grades. “The more time black pupils spent in the city’s public education system,” writes Podair, “the more they appeared to regress.”

Meanwhile, union seniority rules virtually guaranteed that the students who were farthest behind would get the least experienced teachers. In this atmosphere of abject, systemic failure, less than one teacher in 5,000 was dismissed between 1963 and 1968. More often, a principal would call the central Board of Education and, with the cooperation of the teachers union, quietly have a poorly performing teacher transferred to some hapless ghetto school.

In neighborhoods across the city, desperate black parents began applying pressure to create school integration programs. Their pleas were met with official delays, massive protest from their white counterparts, meager consolation prizes and a slew of broken promises. The idea of community control–which had first been used by whites to resist busing–now seemed like a possible way out for politicians and people of color alike.

Both blacks and a broad spectrum of whites embraced the idea of granting local parents greater autonomy over their children’s education. In her sweeping history of the New York public schools, The Great School Wars, Diane Ravitch observes that even conservatives “recognized that black control of black schools implied white control of white schools, which they could comfortably support, for it guaranteed that black problems, black dissidence, and black pupils would be safely contained in the ghetto.”

Ocean Hill-Brownsville was one of three small “demonstration districts” funded by the Ford Foundation and empowered by the Board of Education to show how citywide decentralization was to work. Echoing what many in the black community had been saying for some time, Rhody McCoy, the new superintendent, said that for him, the “rock bottom, minimum” measure of teacher competence wasn’t knowledge of your subject or the ability to structure a lesson. “If you go into your classroom with a string of Ph.D.’s and all sorts of other ‘qualifications’,” he insisted, “and still you’re convinced that this kid is doomed by nature or by something else to lead a shrunken and curtailed life, then you’re basically incompetent to teach that child.” For McCoy the bottom line had to be “respect for the kid,” and he and his colleagues were now in a position to act on that belief.

On May 9, 1968, McCoy sent a letter to 19 of the district’s 350-odd teachers, ordering them to report to the central Board of Education for reassignment. The union promptly cried foul, and its teachers walked out of the district’s schools for the remainder of the school year. With the dispute still not settled the following September, UFT President Albert Shanker called a series of citywide strikes that would keep nearly a million students out of school for months and last nearly until Thanksgiving.

Defenders of the UFT felt that teachers were shouldering an unfair portion of the blame for sweeping societal wrongs. Teachers were being made the scapegoats for a failed system, wrote striking teacher Patrick Harnett in the Village Voice at the height of the strike, pointing out that the 55,000 striking teachers “have been given the responsibility for the public education of the children of a city with the most extensive blight and most entrenched social malaise of any city in the Northern Hemisphere.”

But the way the union handled the situation was shamelessly opportunistic and divisive. In order to demonize the opposition, Shanker took some anonymous anti-Semitic flyers that had been found in the mailboxes of teachers at one of the Ocean Hill schools and ran off over 50,000 copies for his members. (No one has ever connected this literature to the Ocean Hill governing board or any person or organization connected to it.) The parents and community leaders did not behave admirably either: In the heat of battle they often verbally harassed and intimidated teachers, tolerating, if not encouraging, Jew-baiting in their midst.

The news media played along, focusing their coverage of strike-breaking replacement teachers on the few blacks among their ranks. To this day, the two greatest misconceptions about Ocean Hill-Brownsville are that the community prevailed in its struggle against the union and that the “scabs” were all large angry black men wearing Dashikis. In fact, between 70 and 80 percent of these teachers were white–half of them idealistic Jews.

When the dust settled, both sides were rewarded with legislation that, while not doing away with the concept of community control altogether, sought to punish the Ocean Hill-Brownsville board and send a reassuring message to traumatized white voters. The new law preserved the central Board of Examiners that had kept the teaching force more than 90 percent white, far whiter than any major city in America. It kept in place the lists of people–again, overwhelmingly white–who were eligible for principalships, and prohibited local boards from transferring teachers out of the district without their consent. The 32 new local school boards were given barely enough autonomy to appoint their own superintendents, but enough to foster the illusion of reform–and to permit new forms of bureaucratic bungling and outright corruption.

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Podair’s book documents the series of betrayals and misunderstandings that precipitated the crisis in Ocean Hill-Brownsville more comprehensively than any other book to date. But he also takes things a step farther, examining the middle-class values embodied by the teachers union, their stubborn notions of meritocracy and the fabled “culture of poverty” that many contended was most responsible for holding students back. He devotes an entire chapter to the African-American Teachers Association, as well, and their key differences with white educators over issues like disruptive children and affective versus cognitive learning.

For Podair, these differences represent a growing rift in the larger society. They signaled a rupture in a liberal alliance that had endured for decades and ensured that New York City politics was about more than just black and white: “New York’s outer-borough Jews, after decades of ambivalence, now viewed themselves as ‘white,'” he writes, “with more in common with Irish and Italian Catholics than with blacks.”

With the liberal coalition that had stood up for New York’s poor people for generations shattered, there was no one left to protect minorities from the budget ax in the looming fiscal crisis of the mid-70s. In the final chapters of his book, Podair assesses the heartbreaking legacy of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the political and social life of New York City. He charts the way middle-class whites in neighborhoods like Canarsie and Forest Hills “applied the lessons of Ocean Hill-Brownsville to capture the community control impulse from blacks and shape it to their own ends.”

Journalists like events more than processes, stories with good guys and bad guys, clear outcomes. But there were no real winners at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and the failures of the convoluted system that emerged cannot be attributed to any single source. It is comforting to many to think that Mayor Bloomberg has finally “wrested control” of something that was never within anyone’s control to begin with, that order has somehow been restored. That is a familiar kind of story. “We tried giving them a little power, and look how chaos reigned” is another familiar story. It won’t suffice, however, if we are ever to solve the problems of urban education.

Philip Kay is a doctoral candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.