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Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. Hardcover – August 16, 2007

5.0 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Century Foundation senior fellow Kahlenberg, who has written previously about the public school wars (All Together Now), paints a gripping portrait of the iconoclastic and often contradictory teacher's union leader Albert Shanker (1928–1997). Born to working-class Russian-Jewish parents on New York's Lower East Side, Shanker worked on a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia by night while teaching by day in East Harlem. During the late '50s he was involved in organizing New York City's United Federation of Teachers, becoming its president in 1964. In 1974 he also became president of the national American Federation of Teachers. In this perceptive biography, Kahlenberg shows that the firebrand union militant who led illegal strikes that closed New York City's public schools in 1967 and 1968 was at the same time a forward-looking educational reformer who, despite pronounced liberal credentials, pushed initiatives that are today associated mostly with conservative educational agendas. Among Shanker's passions were lofty standards, teacher accountability and charter schools. Kahlenberg applauds all this, along with Shanker's fervent anticommunism and his many efforts—regardless of the black-Jewish antagonism the school strikes engendered—to reach out to people of color. The reader comes away admiring a man who navigated troubled times deftly and left behind a record of great accomplishment. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


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


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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 552 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; 1st edition (August 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231134967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231134965
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.6 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,821,714 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In his film, Sleeper, Woody Allen immortalized Albert Shanker as the madman responsible for blowing up the world. That helped to get Shanker known outside of NY, but clearly it wasn't the real Shanker. In this highly readable and often exhilarating biography of Shanker, Richard Kahlenberg shows that while Shanker, the architect of the modern teacher union movement (and, it turns out, so much more) surely understood power and accumulated it, his only "madness" was to seek to empower the powerless and to hold this nation to the democratic ideals it espoused and he so cherished. Indeed, far from being "mad," Shanker was both intellectually and politically brilliant -- a rare combination -- an idealist with both a shrewd and compassionate understanding of human nature and a pragmatist who nonetheless stood firm on principles, a stance that sometimes incurred the enmity of allies as much as enemies. This was also a man who dealt with the high and mighty, but who in his writing and speaking could take the most complicated ideas and make them accessible to ordinary people without ever dumbing anything down. Had Kahlenberg just written a biography of this complex and far-ranging man, that probably would have been interesting enough. But Kahlenberg goes further and roots Shanker in the major political and cultural struggles over the soul of the Democratic party and the direction of this country. Regardless of one's view of those struggles and their outcomes, Kahlenberg's recounting of them cannot help but make you think of missed opportunities and "what ifs" to this day. Politics, race, education, the meaning and practice of democracy -- a heady and vitally critical brew. And Kahlenberg stirs and blends this pot well through Shanker, his meaty main ingredient.
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Format: Hardcover
Albert Shanker had always been one of my heroes . . . yet until
I read TOUGH LIBERAL by Richard D. Kahlenberg, I had not known
too much about him.

That's no longer the case . . . in fact, this excellent biography even
increased my appreciation of Shanker who once told an interviewer:
* "If I didn't have to make a living, I would have done this as a volunteer."

What he did was head the American Federation of Teachers for
well over 20-25 years . . . by doing so, he helped change the
perception of teachers by having them recognized as professionals:

* A professional receives a liberal-arts education, then specialized
training, and then must pass a rigorous exam before beginning
to practice. She participates in an internship, is guided by mentors,
and participates in reviewing the performance of colleagues. Once these
professional responsibilities are met come the reciprocal set of rights:
greater autonomy and higher compensation. In Shanker's vision,
policies like a rigorous national test, peer review, and career
ladders were not just defensive moves against critics
of public-school teachers, they were prerequisites
to the professionalization of teaching.

TOUGH LIBERAL summarized Shanker's contributions to
education in one of the finest concluding paragraphs that I've
ever read:

* In one lifespan, Albert Shanker helped to create the institution
of collective bargaining for teachers, giving them greater dignity
and voice in how they would be treated. He then used that power
to engage in a series of critical education reforms that proved
instrumental in improving and preserving the institution of public
Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
I'm guessing most readers of this review who are under 40 years old or who live outside the greater New York city area have not heard of Albert Shanker, the subject of this lively biography by Richard Kahlenberg. That's unfortunate. Agree or disagree with his views, Shanker was an articulate, dynamic and controversial teachers' union founder and leader who was also an important and interesting opinion leader on issues such as national standards and charter schools which are very much a part of today's education policy debates. Kahlenberg's book tells his story, explaining as well how Shanker's politics--encompassing issues going well beyond education policy--represented a road not taken by liberalism in the United States, for the worse in Kahlenberg's view.
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