Confrontation at Ocean Hill-Brownsville
reviewed by Bernard Mackler - 1970
This year has been heralded all over town as the first year in the last three that the schools have opened on the expected date. This is the year for the Jets and Mets, but, for the schools, last year was the year that was. Berube and Gittell have assembled the major documents and viewpoints that describe what happened at Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what led up to the three school strikes of 1968-1969, and why school finally began in mid-November.
The New York City schools have had their share of problems and this book attempts to give a Rashomon version of what produced the conflict and why. The editors chose a course that allows each group, the UFT, the Board of Education, the local board of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, to speak for themselves via public documents authored by these various groups. After the documents are presented, essays by such interested parties as Rhody McCoy, Eugenia Kemble and Richard Karp present their own opinions. This format continues with excerpts from the Bundy Report, the Niemeyer Report, the New York Civil Liberties Union Report, the Rivers (Judge Rivers) Report, the Botein Report and reproductions of the "Hate" literature that was distributed in the heat of the strike. Views expressed on racial discrimination, black anti-semitism and the strike are written by Nat Hentoff, Michael Harrington, Dwight McDonald, Jason Epstein, Maurice J. Goldbloom, Sol Stern, Sandra Feldman, Fred Ferrerti and the editors. These essays are all enlightening but, in a collection of this length, repetitious and a burden to the reader. I realize that the editors wanted to present us with everything, but the McDonald-Harrington debate was fatiguing; they can ring their dirty linen privately and, if the New York Review of Books wants to post their letters, the editors did not have to duplicate the error.
To the editors' credit, they tried to present the crisis in decentralization and community control from as many angles as possible. By using original documents, the reader can begin to make his own interpretation of why the confrontation between the local decentralized district and the central board and why the UFT and Albert Shanker used the strike club three times. It is rare to see more than one viewpoint expressed today, especially under the same book cover. The editors have tried to let the reader into the conflict so that he can understand why there is a fight and what the combatants are fighting for.
The two most important articles in this collection are not by experts; they are not reports. Nor are they written by a new breed of experts, the journalists who have competed with the social scientists and educators on describing what is happening. These men write better but they miss the boat, too. The group that is in the middle of the action, that is rarely heard from, the teacher, surfaces here. Two teachers, Charles S. Isaacs and Patrick Harnett, say what they think the issues are. Both describe the difficulties and complexities of teaching. Isaacs sees no anti-semitic threat in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Isaacs, although white, writes a pro-community control piece and it is creditable. He sees blacks in control of their own destiny and therefore in control of the public institutions that forge their lives. Isaacs may be a young romanticist to some; he may be a heretic and traitor to others. He certainly is unrepresentative of the UFT position. But, through it all, Isaacs comes across as a teacher who cares about the lives of children. That voice was missing last year when only power was on the table. Ironically in this book, no children are heard from. Black children and their views of the battle from inside Ocean Hill-Brownsville might have an interesting tale to tell; so might the children of the liberal whites, of the "backlashers" and of the teachers and professionals involved (I mean, both their own children and those that they teach). Parents and community people are not heard from. This is one of my few criticisms of a book that dealt with confrontation—only some of the persons involved were heard from. These peripherally involved, the Michael Harringtons, the Dwight McDonalds, the Jason Epsteins, like myself, are too removed to describe how the persons most affected reacted last year and how they feel this year.
I have side-tracked the reader but deliberately so, for too often many of us make up our minds prematurely. We react as if we know the answers, and then no new information can seep through. This book documents not only the confrontation but also how after a while "professionals" could no longer hear the community and how community shut its ears to the UFT. Wars begin this way and in this situation the fight or conflict escalated somewhat like a war with months of conflagrations and heated, irritated differences going unresolved until a war or strike was declared. Instead of peace, the sides sought destruction of each other.
The second teacher, Patrick Harnett, writes from a completely different frame of reference and is equally creditable. He entitles his article "Why Teachers Strike: A Lesson for Liberals." In it, Harnett describes why the reformers have failed for they have not understood the position of the teacher. Harnett writes well, as compassionately and as eloquently as Isaacs. Each has an important message about change and the status quo and both collectively tell us why we are failing in urban schools, why we will continue to fail and how much needs to be done before education and schooling is altered.
Harnett says in his concluding section what he sees as the root of the problem. "Finally, I would like to say that I have found that people—all people—are not what they would like to be, but what they are made to be by the social forces working around them. If you can change conditions, you can change people." This quote seems to sum up the book for all sides sought to alter the conditions. The community people felt that control of teachers, hence the social environment of their children, would improve the destiny of their children. The union felt that this change would lead to anarchy and afterwards chaos and obvious unprofessionalism in the classroom; therefore they sought to "change" (really end) the experimental district, thereby improving or enhancing the teacher's security and his ability to teach.
The reader can take his choice. The book is invaluable in meticulously clarifying the issues. But one can side with neither group and remain part of the anemic majority, go on living and ignoring the grave social issues of our time, then wonder why the kids at colleges and high schools are clamoring for relevance when we adults have run away from issues and have chosen earmuffs and eyepatches to the woes of our country.
The main issue, as the editors point out by their selections, was power. Who would control the schools, the community, the union, or the central Board of Education? When Rhody McCoy decided to transfer 10 teachers, a typical procedure for the 30 district superintendents, the fat hit the fire. McCoy was asserting his legitimacy and the Board declared his impotence. The lines were drawn and Shanker came to the rescue. Before this crisis, the Board was considered the ultimate in power. Now it was Shanker. Together the UFT and the Board tried to knuckle down McCoy and the community. This experiment was destined not to have a long life, for both the union and the Board made certain that its life was to be meaningless, at best only a showcase of decentralization with the central Board running it from afar. McCoy, Reverend Oliver and the local board cried sham and would not allow themselves to be treated like puppets. The powerless were given power, on paper, and then they tried to act upon it. The powerful invoked strikes; the rest of the city, advertisements in the mass media and massive public demonstrations. They even claimed morality on their side for they began to fan the flames with cries of black anti-semitism.
The editors do not describe the victims of this battle, nor the victors, nor do they predict the future. All of these are left for the reader to consider. The losers—experimental districts, such as Ocean Hill-Brownsville, IS 201 and Two Bridges—and the pupils in those districts, some of whom were being exposed to new programs and concepts. In the IS 201 district a simple yet ingenious reading and math program of Caleb Gattegno is making dramatic changes for the pupils and teachers. One wonders if the city will consider a program coming from the IS 201 district and if it will be introduced city-wide. I would predict that this program will never see daylight for it forces changes in the city systems, in the powers that be, and in the teachers.
Other losers are the black and Puerto Rican children and their families in New York and across the land. They have been told over and over that they are second-rate intellectually. Now they decide that is no longer true and they want to try their hands at educating their own. As they begin to do the job, at least administratively, their doom is sealed. For if they succeed, the professional applecart, the power—financial, political and patronage—would be lost. No one gives up power that easily; witness Shanker, Daley, Lindsay, and Johnson, to name a few who have fought back as others have tried to push them aside.
Trade unionism for professionals has taken a resounding beating, too. Perhaps many of us will sense that teachers need to be protected, as I feel they do, but to use their union strength in this way is unique. Unlike the union power plays of the early twentieth century, management and workers fought over money and conditions. As third parties, the consumer was mildly inconvenienced but he was not abused. In schools, or medicine (for the AM A is a union of sorts), there is always a third party, the client, patient or pupil. In education, the Board of Education and the teachers negotiate for salary and terms but the pupil is typically ignored in this negotiation process, especially if he is black. For example, two years ago the union negotiated for teachers to directly suspend pupils. Shanker and the UFT were screaming due process last fall in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but that was for teachers' rights. Shanker would ignore due process of pupils, their right to an education and academic freedom by direct suspension. Shanker screamed when McCoy wanted to transfer ten teachers, but he could negotiate for the suspension of 40,000 pupils (assuming that every teacher suspended one pupil a year). Right now upwards of 5,500 are suspended. Shanker's plank for suspension was not acceptable but the public is wary of professionals who act selfishly. One cannot have it both ways. If teachers and other professionals want to be tough and play for power, then let them, but the client, here the pupil and his parents, should be directly represented at the bargaining table. In addition, professionalism would be altered and we would no longer think of them as highly ethical. That's not too bad, for many of us are not, and a little honesty here could go far. For once people would begin to trust us as they do appliances, home products, cars, etc. We would be rated by consumers union as what we can actually do and not how fancy we speak or write or how many degrees we have.
Who else lost? Public education is a big loser for with each crisis, less and less of us believe that it can continue. The future looks bleak in education for the public is less and less confident. In the near future, as this confidence withers away, the public schools may become like the postal system or Long Island railroad system, necessary but laggard, inefficient and darn frustrating. With no alternative or competing system, it is put up with, but for how long?
Another loser was the Ford Foundation, which was hit hard by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville project. Bundy and his advisory staff were instrumental in funding the three experimental "decentralized" districts. In addition, they wrote for Mayor Lindsay the over-all New York City decentralized plan, "Reconnection for Learning" (The Bundy Report). The Ford Foundation has been blamed by Shanker most vociferously as tampering with a system that they know nothing about. The Ford group has retreated and will probably fund less adventuresome and risky projects in the black community, especially if it means confronting the white establishment: the political, education, industrial or military groups entrenched.
Everyone lost except the UFT who won and lost. For the power they gained, they lost some prestige. This can be regained if they act "professionally" and are not heard from for a few years. If they wield their new power quietly, they will be the master of the schools. Note how quietly in the spring of 1969 the UFT negotiated for a three-year salary contract. The salary scale will increase pay at a good clip and from an underpaid group groping for replacements, striking for improved pay and working conditions, they have altered this, I think, as an aftermath of the three strikes of 1968-1969. Lind-say could ill afford another brawl. I do not think Shanker needs the public limelight and, as he and his union quietly consolidate their power, they will be more than a match for any group that tries to usurp them.
The future looks bleak for experiments in community control. Blacks will have little to say about how to run their schools. The central Board of Education will talk about decentralization and so will the UFT, but these will often be rhetoric combined with minor administrative readjustments. The schools will be quiet, comparatively, for 2-3 years as they were from 1964-1966, after the furor of integrating the schools came and went. In 1971 or so, after the community control issue has come and gone, I predict a new battle emerging. The UFT, this time, will be confronted with issues perhaps over programs or staffing. The community will whip it up over these "key" issues, the UFT with central Board help will come back hard. The union will have more state legislators on its side by then, for the UFT have threatened to move against white legislators who opposed them in 1968-1969, and with their new "allies," the community will be no match. The tempers will fly for one year or so, the minority groups will picket, boycott, demonstrate, but the strength of the UFT will force a showdown. The state department of education will send its mediators. The mass media will pick up Shanker and blast his pronouncements all over television. You and I know the script; unfortunately we have seen it occur the same way and too often. The more we change, the more it seems to be the same. When will we really and fundamentally change concepts of sharing and try to attain equality? Manana.