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Book illuminates teacher union’s role in NY struggles over teacher selection, diversity

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In 1968, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) went on strike over the involuntary transfer of 19 teachers by a newly empowered community-controlled school board in New York City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. The controversies at the heart of that bitter struggle live on in current debates over the methods of teacher selection, the role of seniority and due process in teacher assignment, and the appropriateness of affirmative action in the composition of urban teaching corps.

Then, as now, the role of educators of color in urban school districts was an issue that sparked controversy. In recounting how rules for teacher selection evolved in New York, Christina Collins’ book, “Ethnically Qualified”, Race, Merit and the Selection of Urban Teachers, 1920-1980, illuminates the failure of the city’s teachers’ unions to effectively challenge the exclusion and marginalization of African American teachers.

The lack of strong union-community coalitions around education issues may in part be a legacy of that failure.

The role of the Board of Examiners in teacher selection

At the heart of the centralized system created by municipal reformers to replace control by Tammany Hall was the Board of Examiners, which tested applicants and created the eligibility lists that governed appointments to schools. While certification elsewhere in the state was conferred by graduation from a credentialed college or university, New York City required applicants to also pass a test administered by the Board.

Passing the test was difficult for most applicants. Significantly, passing rates rose in periods of teacher shortage and fell dramatically when jobs were scarce. In 1934, only 5 percent of applicants passed the elementary licensing exam.

The test consisted of a largely multiple-choice written exam covering subject-matter knowledge, pedagogy, child psychology, and education theory. A practice lesson taught to a randomly assigned class was also required. Finally, there was an interview in which, among other things, candidates had to demonstrate correct pronunciation of a list of words. According to Collins, "candidates could be failed if their speech was ‘stumbling,’ ‘nasal,’ ‘monotonous,’ ‘guttural,’ ‘harsh’, ‘cutting’, or ‘unsympathetic.’"

Collins also cites “appearance, neatness, breeding, energy and alertness” as criteria. Additionally, small stature, curvature of the spine, and a range of other physical traits were grounds for rejection.

Consequences of the Board’s approach

Both Jewish and African American candidates were especially victimized by the Board’s methods. Many candidates reported being failed for not meeting the Board’s standard for correct pronunciation or inflection. Many Jewish candidates also believed they were targeted for holding, or being alleged to hold, left-wing political views.

While in the 1930s both the Teachers Union and the rival Teachers Guild, which later became the UFT, were opposed to the testing regime, the Guild’s attitude evolved over time to one of support. UFT President Albert Shanker, who was failed several times in the oral exam for “poor speech patterns,” nevertheless became a zealous defender of the exam.

The reasons for this shift, Collins explains, are rooted in the upward mobility of White, Jewish teachers in the post-war period. With a strong foothold in the system before the war, the shortages in the period afterwards provided opportunities for entry and advancement, including becoming test examiners. In the minds of many teachers, these gains became associated with the meritocratic regime headquartered in the Board of Examiners.

But for African Americans, who continued to be screened out by the exam, and when appointed were concentrated in segregated schools, the city’s system of teacher selection and assignment continued to be a sore point. A 1951 Teachers Union survey found that African Americans made up only 1.5 percent of the regularly appointed teaching staff and 91percent of them were employed in “predominantly Negro schools.”

Continued discrimination on the oral exam and the expense of test prep courses widely used by White applicants, were practices that accounted for high failure rates according to critics. State and city commissions on integration, concerned about the low numbers of Black teachers and the segregation in assignments, questioned the relevance of tests that overvalued arcane knowledge ( “…the correct definitions for agglutination, scurf, and aileron…”).

There was no evidence, critics noted, that correlated test performance with success in urban classrooms. Mounting concern over segregation and the quality of education in schools serving minority students led to challenges of how teachers were hired and deployed.

The schools serving poor, predominantly minority communities had the highest concentration of new and inexperienced teachers. Typically, teachers left these schools as soon as they acquired enough seniority to do so. Informal networks that enabled some teachers to “shop around” for schools and the district’s residency policy that allowed teachers to turn down assignments that were more than a certain distance from where they lived favored White teachers over their Black counterparts.

The union’s opposition to reform

The Guild and then UFT acknowledged that the low numbers of African American teachers and the pattern of segregation were problems, but opposed all the proposals for reform. They opposed eliminating the Board of Examiners and its testing regime, they opposed a rotation scheme that would have ensured a more equitable distribution of experienced teachers, and they opposed any modification of the residency policy. Modifying the transfer policies, the UFT argued, would only make the problem worse by alienating teachers and driving them out of the city.

In the 1960s, affirmative action emerged as another strategy for increasing the numbers of minority teachers. The UFT saw affirmative action as a quota policy that called to mind the quota of an earlier time that had been used to limit Jewish access to many institutions, and firmly opposed it.

The 1960s also saw the rise of the community control movement in which African Americans sought decentralization of school governance and giving community boards control over hiring and deployment of teachers. The union saw this as another form of a quota system and a return to the era of political patronage that would threaten the meritocratic regime.

The battle was joined over these issues when the community board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville dismissed 19 white teachers.

The strike effectively destroyed the ethnic alliances that had governed New York politics since the New Deal. This story has been told in depth in several other works, notably Jerry Podair’s The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville-Crisis. The strength of Collins’s book is providing historical context.

What stands out in her narrative is the political failure of Shanker and the UFT leadership. The UFT raised many real problems and issues with the various proposals to address racial inequality in the hiring and assignment of teachers. But they had no counter proposal other than Blacks “waiting their turn” as European immigrant groups had done. In the mind of Al Shanker, the system had worked for Jews and, over time and given patience, it would work for Blacks too.

The UFT responded to charges of racism during this period by pointing to its record of support for civil rights legislation and the southern freedom movement, all of which was true. However, its defense of important elements of the racial status quo in the New York school system is also true and had far reaching consequences.

Remaining issues

In an epilogue, Collins brings the story up to date. In 1990, the Board of Examiners was finally eliminated with the blessing of the UFT. In the 1990s, the diversity of New York’s teachers increased. In 1992, 19 percent of the city’s teachers were African American and 11 percent Hispanic. White Jewish teachers no longer made up a majority of the teacher corps. However there continued to be a pattern of concentration of minority teachers in predominantly minority schools.

She also notes that these gains have been eroded in recent years, primarily due to the rise of standardized testing for certification demanded by No Child Left Behind and the erosion of affirmative action and remedial programs. And, as in earlier times, a debate continues about the role of ethnicity and “cultural competence” in developing effective urban teaching corps.

Chistina Collins, who was a graduate student intern at the Notebook in 2006, has produced a valuable resource for all of us who want to participate in these continuing debates.

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