Lessons for the Union from Ocean Hill-Brownsville

A Call to Action

Last week I wrote on Martin Luther King Jr’s views on education. I would be doing a disservice to King if I didn’t continue with a call to action. I want to create a framework for discussion amongst those within the union who also believe that some kind of reform is necessary in the public schools.

My research into MLK’s views on education led me what some like Charles Issacs believe to be the beginning of the split between the black community and the United Federations of Teachers: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Experiment in Community Schools. Isaacs was a first year teacher who broke with the striking teachers in New York and decided to teach in district of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. He was a white teacher in a district made up of predominately black and Puerto Rican students.

As I listened to Isaacs speak about the issue, I saw my first glimpses into the idea that even unions are not always on the right side of history.

All the issues encompassing Ocean Hill-Brownsville are beyond the scope of this article, but a few particular notes on the basic problems of Ocean Hill-Brownsville will help to ignite the discussion I hope all unionized educators will want to have.

Brief Notes on Ocean Hill-Brownsville

There are three main ideas from Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968 to higlight as a framework for proposed reforms at the grassroots level (rather than the corporate reform modeled by Gates and others): 1) The issue of community schools, 2) The issue of black power and their relationship to education, and 3) The issue of “feather bedding” by the unions.

In his talk at CUNY, Isaacs first talks about the abject failure of the integration movement of New York which led black community members to try and take over Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the success he saw in the “community control” model of schools that the district spear-headed. I.F. Stone even wrote a piece title “The Mason-Dixon Line Moves to New York” explaining how hot the issue of race had become in New York.

Isaacs and others talk about a movement against the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) when Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents and community members moved to control the education system locally through a movement known as decentralization. The movement was theoretically supported by the New York City Board of Education, but when a number of white teachers were transferred out of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Union President Al Shanker cried foul and called the union to go on strike.

There were three separate strikes during this time period — each for slightly different reasons — but the important thing to know is that up to this point, the black community usually supported the teachers union.

Isaacs argues that the issue of the black power movement scared many white and Jewish Americans in NYC. They were afraid that many of the progressive teachers (both black and white), who they deemed as radicals, would teach the ideas of black nationalism and other liberation ideals to their students. Issacs dismisses these myths in his talks, but notes that the unions were able to use this prejudice to organize mass movements that would eventually end community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school system.

Issacs talks in the Q&A section of the video (which is probably the most interesting and informative part of the video for a discussion of the modern education system) about what he refers to as “feather bedding” programs. We would refer to these programs today as class size reduction programs, but Isaacs states that:

it was a feather bedding program which just put more staff, more union teachers, in the schools. In the place that it was tried, parents weren’t impressed by it. They said the teachers were just doing the same things, but will smaller classes. It was just easier work for the teachers. And there were evaluations done that showed that it was not effective, but the union wanted that. It was a lot of jobs and a lot of easier work for the people that were there.

I quarrel a bit with Isaacs choice of words. We all know that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but Isaacs does bring up a good point here which I want to explore later in the article.

These three issues 1) community schools, 2) black power, and 3) feather-bedding programs which Issacs brings up in his talk on Ocean Hill-Brownsville experience are important foci for a larger discussion of the modern school reform movement. Why? Because all three of these issues are still central issues in the modern debate on schooling.

Community Controlled Schools: Are they Feasible?

The question that I ask in the title line of this section is a bit of a misnomer. The reality is most public schools in America already are community schools in the sense that they have a local school board elected by the populace, parents and students from the community attend those schools, and local community issues drive many of the debates and controversy in that district.

Community controlled schools in the context of this article, however, considers how much of a voice a particular community has in the creation of educational policies in their district. These problems are particularly acute in large, urban districts because of the sheer size of the bureaucracy.

While I am not an expert on the politics of New York, I can speak from my own experience as a teacher in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Unified School District is made up of over 900 schools and the needs of students in the San Fernando Valley is going to be different from the needs of students in Downtown LA. The fact that they are all in the same district underscores the fact that someone in a downtown office is making decisions for students in San Fernando as well as students in South Gate, Hollywood, and San Pedro.

Community controlled school advocates argue that communities should be allowed local control for issues like discipline policies and curriculum decisions. One major problem that Mr. Isaacs brought up in his discussion was the hot button issue of school suspensions. Ironically, the issue has not changed much over the years. The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights noted in March 2014 that:

Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5% of white students are suspended, compared to 16% of black students. American Indian and Native-American-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less that 1% of the student population but 2% of out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions.

There was a marked change of tone when Isaacs overheard an assistant principal at Ocean Hill-Brownsville say:

. . . to get these skills for survival you must respect and listen to your teachers, all your teachers be they black or white. However, if they don’t respect you, if we find they can’t do the job, there’ll be some changes made. Now remember, give your teachers – and many of them are new – give them a chance. If you do find yourself in a dispute with a teacher and you’re in the right we’ll defend you. You can depend on that.

Within the community model, Isaacs believed there was a new level of respect between the teachers and the students because there was an explicit tone given off by the administration that suspension and expulsion would not be the first option. In fact, according to this administrator, students would be given agency and voice to tell their own side of the story.

Isaacs was obviously someone who did not see himself beholden to the UFT so what he said next may not represent all members of the UFT in 1968, but Isaacs suggested that many members of the UFT who viewed blacks as a discipline problem wanted carte blanche to suspend a student without anyone questioning their authority. Isaacs argues that this was one of the major changes that took place at Ocean Hill-Brownsville because teachers didn’t see themselves as the stereotypical teacher overlord with students who must do their bidding.

When communities take control of their schools, such novel policies can take root. Alfie Kohn, in his book Beyond Discipline notes the importance of the considering this pivotal relationship between teacher and student because:

Like simple coercion, punishment models the use of power — as opposed to reason or cooperation — and this can profoundly affect a child’s developing value structure. Specifically, the child learns that when you don’t like the way someone is acting, you must make something bad happen to that person until he gives in: Do this or here’s what I’m going to do to you. Much of what is disturbing about some children’s behavior suggests that they learned this lesson all too well — possibly from us.

And discipline policies are just the tip of the iceberg when we consider all of the ways community input might help improve student morale. Other possibilities include improvements to the curriculum to make the content more engaging, non-traditional alternative scheduling to allow students to work in the community or help take care of their families, and community projects that help bring new life within community spaces. From there the list is endless, but we would really have to give that community the autonomy to do what they want to do.

Black Power: What is it good for?

There has been a long history of treating black power as something that is, at best, a compartmentalized part of history “for the blacks” or, at worst, a dangerous view that will lead to violence from the inner cities. Just as a minority of Muslims led to the unfortunate stereotyping of all Muslims as terrorists, a minority of black radicals calling for violence against the state have led some to dismiss black studies altogether. The majority of black movements, however, have had, at their core, a message of struggle to reclaim their own narrative.

Just as community controlled schools have the power to increase student morale, movements that empower minorities should not be seen as dangerous or second rate history. Instead, teachers across the disciplines ought to be celebrating racial diversity in ways that do not just compartmentalize them to a month of “black history” or that black dude who influenced white politics. These students need to be shown examples of leaders from their own communities and their own racial backgrounds who stood up for justice and healing in a broken world.

Rachel Levy wrote an interesting article recently where she argued for the importance of minority teachers in our public school systems:

Another irritating argument includes that “it doesn’t matter what color a teacher is, as long as the teacher is good, that’s all that matters.” That is completely missing the point of the importance and benefits of students of color having teachers who look like them (see: Study: Minority students do better under minority teachers, Why students need more Black and Latino teachers). Yes, all teachers regardless of race can be trained to be effective teachers of black students, but black teachers can “be more adept at motivating and engaging students of color.” Additionally, by having students of color see people who look like them in successful positions, it can help prove to them that they can hold such positions too. Also, comments such as “color doesn’t matter,” is possibly one of the most racist statements one could make. By saying, “I don’t see color,” or “color doesn’t matter,” is basically saying “I don’t see your experiences, your stories, your struggles. Those elements of your identity and life don’t matter to me.” Colorblindness is not justice, equality, or being a good teacher. Colorblindness is ignoring the very issues that your students need you to fight against.

She goes on to say that:

I wish that white teachers would not take assertions such as “we need more teacher of color” so personally or as an attack on them. I am a white teacher who has mostly taught students of color. While I am certain that I can always do better as a teacher and in particular with students of color, such statements and conclusions are not directed personally at me or usually at other white teachers; they are addressed to public education as an institution.

A teachers, we need to be more concerned about this issue of having role models that students of color can look up to in our public schools.

Avoiding The Feather Bed

Finally, Isaacs made the point that unions are often more concerned with making the job easier for teachers than actually making school better for students. As a teacher, I am always offended by this statement. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the profession without even noting the lack of praise or thanks from both the majority of administrators and students. But when you sit down for a minute and think about the question in a broader sense, the question becomes clearer:

What would you do differently if you had a class of 20 to 25 instead of a class of 40 to 45?

I think that I am in a unique position to talk about this because I primarily teach history in what California calls the Special Day setting. This means that I work primarily with students who have mild to moderate disabilities. In other words, these are the students that you wouldn’t be able to look at and say “they’re different,” but nonetheless either read far below grade level and usually struggle to learn math algorithms in the traditional way.

In other words, I am in these smaller classes everyday. As I consider what I did last year, I think of all the time that I spent lecturing in front of the class using Keynote and other technology tools to try and teach students about the French Revolution and the Great Depression.

I’m not saying I lecture 100% of the time. I use flexible groupings to try and work with students, I use round robin rotations to try and give individualized help based on student needs, and we use writers workshops with individual conferencing with students to help them improve their writing. All of these ideas came out of lived experiences in the classroom and learning from experienced teachers who have been doing this a long time.

But for all those times that I did lecture, did I do anything that these students wouldn’t have received in a general education setting? Was I just as guilty of feather bedding?

These questions need to be seriously considered as we look at the issues of reforming education in the near future. I am a strong proponent of smaller class sizes because I can see what can happens in my smaller classes when things run like they’re supposed to. I would be the first to admit that they don’t always run like they’re supposed to, but I am trying my damnedest to help move these students toward being on grade level with their peers.

How can we as a teaching force avoid the traps of the feather bed in the future? These are still questions that I grapple with to this day.


As teachers listen to education reformers like Campbell Brown try to fight to take away tenure, teachers don’t have to sit idly by and let the narrative be defined in such narrow terms. We have the power, just as the parents and community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville had in 1968, to try and define our own narrative in a positive light that accepts innovation and change on our own terms.

Rather than digging in our heels, teachers need to show that they themselves have thought about the need for change in schools and provide coherent answers as a counternarrative to traditional “slash-and-burn” ed reform. This is why I’m partly including this question and answer section below to try and decide how we can get started.

Teachers must go into this knowing, however, that just as the 1968 community controlled experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville ultimately collapsed, there are powerful forces at play to end the teacher narrative as well. In fact, many of the unions are playing right into the hands of ed reformers by making the debate as narrow as possible and just returning fire. The best education leaders, however, realize that education permeates every part of our society and should be treated as the complex behemoth that it is. Such leaders will try to reform not only the debate on education, but also the types of questions we are asking in those debates.

Q&A: But what about…?

Aren’t community controlled schools the same as charters?

No. While there are some charters that are part of districts, including many good schools that I know of in LAUSD, my argument for community controlled schools would be entirely district run schools with more input from more stakeholders with more autonomy from district policies. Communities would be free to work with teachers and administrators to form policies that work for their schools.

As a teacher, aren’t you worried this will hurt the power of unions because you are decentralizing power?

If done correctly, I would not be worried about these issues. I would even be in favor of permanently breaking up bigger urban districts into smaller districts as long as all of those teachers could remain part of that the same bargaining unit. For instance, I favor breaking up LA unified school district into three smaller districts, but still keep the teachers in Los Angeles unified under one big bargaining unit.

While this might be politically hard to do or even unfeasible, I would argue that the union could still hold its power because it could call a strike if one of the new smaller districts has a labor grievance because all the districts could strike in solidarity with the aggrieved unit. While this might change the way the union thinks about itself, I would argue that the idea deserves discussion before immediately being shot down by big urban teacher unions.

Adding an extra element to curriculum like black liberation movements means we will have to cut out some other part of the history curriculum? In fact, if we spend too much time just talking about minoirty groups in the school, won’t they will be less likely to understand or identify those who are different from them?

The question itself exudes the compartmentalization that still colors so many people’s view of social science. Many of the elements of racial diversity would fit nicely alongside many of the things we already teach. In addition, math teachers and economics teachers might do well to consider how they can show issues of inequality are numerical issues. These issues do not just need to be addressed in a social science setting.

In regards to the second question, I would argue that, as of now, there are little to no people of color in the high school social science curriculum as it is. During his talk at CUNY, Mr. Isaacs also talked about the election of the new Ocean Hill-Brownsville steering committee which I think would be appropriate to talk about here. When the UFT teachers returned to the district after the strike, there was some debate as to how to elect people to the steering committee at the local school. The white teachers had a majority in the school and some of the black teachers felt that they would never have a true voice in the school because the majority would always rule.

As a kind of compromise, the school decided to elect three black members to the steering committee and three white members to the committee. Mr. Isaacs was very deliberate during his talk that this decision was pivotal in creating an atmosphere of respect amongst the faculty at Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

I’m not attempting to say that 50% of the curriculum needs to focus on issues relating to minority history, but it would be sure be a step in the right direction if we started to think about how we can at least include them in the curriculum.

I also think the question about identifying with people different from you is a false question. There was never a debate when the dominant culture primarily put white people in the history books. No one ever asked, are there too many white people in the book?

Nonetheless, the question is a valid one. I am not promoting the idea that in a school with a lot of black children that only African American history should be taught. What I am saying is that students at that school ought to, at the least, be taught to ask, “Why are there so many black students at this school?” What led to this current state of affairs and how am I to understand myself within it? We must obviously go beyond this and teach them all sorts of history, but it will mean little if they cannot understand the smaller history of their own culture.

How do I start such a movement at my school?

Merlin Mann is famous for the line “no is going to give you permission to do that great thing you want to do.” In other words, no one is going to come to your school and offer you a position of “teacher leader who integrates the idea of community schools and all administrators praise him/her.” If you want change in a school, you have to start with yourself and your own classroom.

Alfie Kohn and others have noted that these discipline policies and other issues work best when done at the schoolwide level, but when barred from this, you have to start in your own classroom. Trust me when I say that students will start talking about it and others will eventually start to ask you about it. It won’t happen all at once and it won’t be a Freedom Writers type Hollywood ending. There is a lot of bureaucracy to get in the way.

I would also suggest starting by asking big questions rather than narrow, debatable questions that so often dominate the education discussion.


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