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Uncivil Rights

Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity

Uncivil Rights

Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity

Almost fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a wealth of research shows that minority students continue to receive an unequal education. At the heart of this inequality is a complex and often conflicted relationship between teachers and civil rights activists, examined fully for the first time in Jonna Perrillo’s Uncivil Rights, which traces the tensions between the two groups in New York City from the Great Depression to the present.
While movements for teachers’ rights and civil rights were not always in conflict, Perrillo uncovers the ways they have become so, brought about both by teachers who have come to see civil rights efforts as detracting from or competing with their own goals and by civil rights activists whose aims have de-professionalized the role of the educator. Focusing in particular on unionized teachers, Perrillo finds a new vantage point from which to examine the relationship between school and community, showing how in this struggle, educators, activists, and especially our students have lost out. 


“A thoroughly researched, deeply contextualized, analytically sophisticated, and clearly narrated history of teacher unionism and education politics in New York, Uncivil Rights makes a major contribution to our understanding of the often fraught relationship between (mostly white) teachers and (mostly non-white) students in the nation’s largest school system. Skillfully framed around changing conceptions of teachers’ and students’ ‘rights’ in public schools, this book explains—better than any other—how teachers in New York City first won and then lost recognition of their status as ‘professionals’ in the classrooms and communities where they work.”

Adam Nelson, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Uncivil Rights offers a highly original, bold analysis of one of the most complex tensions in the history of urban education: teachers’ struggles for professional agency and black parents’ pursuit of civil rights through quality education. Perrillo shows many ways that New York City teachers and teachers unions worked for educational equity, but argues that battles, especially over the hot-button issue of teacher transfers, ultimately led to outside intervention that focuses on testing rather than teaching. A must-read for anyone concerned with school reform, Uncivil Rights points to how teachers, parents, and unions can forge new, mutually-beneficial relationships to pave the way for more meaningful, collaborative change in American education.”

Barbara Beatty, Wellesley College

“How have the interests of urban educators grown more distant from the increasingly minority communities they serve? Why did the rights-based politics of teacher unionists and black activists collide so forcefully into one another? Perrillo wisely answers these questions by tracing the parallel development of these twin movements in New York City, from Depression-era efforts for equity, to the 1960s strikes over community control, to the dual disempowerment of today’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ reform policies.”

Jack Dougherty, Trinity College

“Perrillo effectively and convincingly charts the growing distance between teachers and the communities of color they serve. By highlighting the competition between teachers’ professional rights and parents’ demands for power in decision-making, her work illuminates persistent issues of equity, status, control, and conceptions of democracy that touch all American schools.”

Joy Williamson-Lott, University of Washington

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Building a “New Social Order”: Teachers, Teacher Unions, and Equity in the Great Depression
Chapter 2. Muscular Democracy: Teachers and the War on Prejudice, 1940–1950
Chapter 3. Organizing the Oppressed Teacher: Teachers’ Rights in the Cold War
Chapter 4. “An Educator’s Commitment”: Professionalism and Civil Rights in the 1960s
Chapter 5. From Teachers’ Rights to Teacher Power
Conclusion. Moving beyond Rights? Teacher Professionalism and Civil Rights in the Era of No Child Left Behind




AERA Division F: New Scholar's Book Award

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