Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Tensions of the Shanker Era: A Speech That Shook the Field

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Albert Shanker advocated reforms to raise teacher quality that were smart, much-needed, and that struck at the heart of traditional teacher unionism.

In the spring of 1985, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned a teachers' convention in Niagara Falls, N.Y., that the quality of the nation's public school teachers was declining, and that if the influence of industrial-style unionism in teaching weren't reduced, the problem would probably get worse.

Mr. Shanker's statements stunned his audience. For it was Albert Shanker, the New York-born son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, who had led the crusade to unionize public school teaching two decades earlier. He had won the nation's first collective bargaining contract as a militant leader of the local United Federation of Teachers in New York City; twice he had been jailed for leading strikes during the 1960s that erupted in violence and tore the city's social fabric. By the time he was elected president of the AFT in 1974, teaching had become the nation's most unionized occupation--and many public schools had taken on the labor-management cast of old-style factories.

But the Niagara Falls speech was classic Albert Shanker. To many, the gangly 6-foot-3-inch former philosophy student with a baritone voice and dour demeanor would always be an obstreperous unionist. In truth, he was a pragmatist. He had called for change in Niagara Falls because public education had been attacked in widely publicized national reports for failing to give many students a decent education. It was in the unions' self-interest, he argued, to do what was necessary to improve the performance of the public schools. "It doesn't do you much good being a strong man on a sinking ship," he would say.

Albert Shanker didn't trade in half-measures. He advocated reforms to raise teacher quality that were smart, much-needed, and that struck at the heart of traditional teacher unionism: tough licensing exams; performance-based pay; career ladders; peer review; a simpler system of dismissing bad teachers; competition among schools for students; and the right of teachers to start their own schools with their own work rules, a proposal that helped launch the current charter school movement. The unions' early emphasis on wages, hours, and working conditions was justified, Mr. Shanker was quick to point out, because in the pre-bargaining era many teachers worked under oppressive conditions for scant wages and were often hired and fired by arbitrary administrators. But old-style collective bargaining hadn't produced a high-quality teaching force, Mr. Shanker concluded. So he touted his reforms in countless speeches that led him to travel hundreds of thousands of miles a year, in a relentless flow of AFT reports and press releases, and in a column that he had purchased since 1970 in The New York Times and, more recently, in The New Republic.

But in the early 1990s, Albert Shanker stopped crusading for teacher reforms and made higher student standards his first priority. His thinking had shifted, he said. "This country produces such a small number of well-educated high school and college graduates," he argued, that in the absence of high student standards, "it's impossible to put 2.7 million well-educated teachers in the classroom." But it was also true that Mr. Shanker wasn't making much progress in convincing his rank and file to buy into his union-reform agenda.

Albert Shanker never shied away from telling the truth about the poor performance of many public schools and the low achievement of many students.

He threw himself into the then-nascent movement to establish national standards for students. He pressed relentlessly for more rigor in public schools, pushing for a core curriculum and tougher tests, and attacking fads like report cards without grades and many schools' preoccupation with students' self-esteem. In sharp contrast to other leaders of the education establishment, who often merely called for more money to address problems that they frequently argued didn't exist, Albert Shanker never shied away from telling the truth about the poor performance of many public schools and the low achievement of many students. He believed that tough love was the best way to save public education; he fought to change public education in order to preserve it.

His honesty and the soundness of many of his reform prescriptions earned him wide public praise--and dissolved much of the ill will that had forced him to have police bodyguards back in the organizing era. By the 1990s, Albert Shanker was one the most respected school reformers in the nation. (The education establishment, not surprisingly, had a less flattering view of him; many called him an elitist, a man simply trying to curry favor with conservative foes of public education--despite the fact that he attacked vouchers, tuition tax credits, privatization, and other conservative school reform remedies far more effectively than anyone else in the establishment.)

Mr. Shanker wasn't troubled by the establishment's sniping. He worked with establishment leaders on some issues. When he thought they were wrong, he would argue with them both privately and publicly. But he was deeply troubled by his failure to convince his union colleagues to turn teaching into an occupation attractive to the best and brightest, to transform it, in effect, from blue-collar work to white-collar work. "It's very disappointing," he told me a couple of years ago.

When Albert Shanker died on Feb. 22, 1997, at the age of 68, after a three-year battle with cancer, the vast majority of the nation's teachers were working under the same salary schedules, work rules, and tenure systems that he sought to change. And in the absence of reform in teaching and in public education generally, confidence in public schooling has eroded further, just as Mr. Shanker predicted it would. Parents now are given public money to pay private school tuition in Cleveland and Milwaukee, and it's only the political clout of the teachers' unions that has blocked vouchers from spreading to other cities.

It would be hard for those who battled with Mr. Shanker in the take-no-prisoners organizing days to call him a visionary. But an event a couple of weeks before his death seemed to confirm the wisdom of his pragmatic teacher unionism--and the value of his leadership to the school reform movement. The event was a speech by Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, the larger and more powerful of the nation's two major teachers' unions.

The NEA had followed Albert Shanker and the AFT into industrial-style unionism in the 1960s and 1970s and then steadfastly refused to relinquish its blue-collar focus on wages, hours, and working conditions in the face of calls for reform. The union became the single largest obstacle to school reform in the nation. But Bob Chase didn't talk about wages, hours, and working conditions in his speech at the National Press Club. "We cannot go on denying responsibility for school quality," he said of his 2.2 million-member union. "It is our job to improve teachers or to get them out of the classroom. ... We must revitalize our public schools from within, or they will be dismantled from without." ("Seeking 'Reinvention' of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities," Feb. 12, 1997.)

Mr. Chase's audience was astonished by his reformist rhetoric. But it was exactly the same message that Albert Shanker had delivered in Niagara Falls, 12 years earlier.


Thomas Toch is a senior editor at U.S.News & World Report in Washington.


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  • You can read much more about Al Shanker's tenure as president of the AFT from their Web site, which includes a bulletin board to "share your thoughts and remembrances."
  • The AFT site also includes a searchable archive of Mr. Shanker's "Where We Stand" columns.

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