Albert Shanker defied easy political labels. He denounced radical school-reform schemes promoted by liberals as well as voucher and privatization plans championed by conservatives.
In the early 1980s, as the current education reform movement was gaining steam, the union president made headlines and gained credibility by agreeing with many of the scathing reports on the quality of American schools. Instead of reacting defensively, he argued that the American Federation of Teachers should go beyond a narrow emphasis on collective bargaining and try to figure out ways to improve schools. He supported minimum-competency testing of teachers, arguing that those who failed the tests had no place in the classroom. And he called for the creation of a national system to certify outstanding teachers, which is now a reality.
During this time, Shanker also championed the “radical restructuring” of schools and giving teachers a greater voice in decisionmaking. He later became disenchanted with those approaches when they failed to boost student achievement.
In recent years, Shanker seized on internationally competitive academic standards as the key to improving public education. He also was keenly aware of the need to meet the public’s worries about student discipline and wasn’t afraid to take unconventional positions on sensitive issues. For example, he argued against the increasingly popular idea of including special education students in regular classrooms.
Most recently, Shanker spearheaded “Lessons for Life,” a national campaign that stresses the importance of high standards of conduct and academic achievement for students. Last summer, in a speech to union delegates that he delivered sitting down because of his illness, Shanker beat the drum for the campaign. “Any union that does not participate in and press for the Lessons for Life program is engaged in union malpractice,” he said, “by which I simply mean that it is as much your duty to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract.”
Shanker’s willingness to study and learn from experience made him a dynamic figure who had the ear of powerful policymakers. “I have never been wedded to a bunch of fads of my own making or someone else’s,” he said in a 1992 interview. “I’m constantly reading, going to conferences, and talking to a lot of interesting people, and I constantly change my mind.”
President Clinton, who recently called for national standards, remembered Shanker as “one of the greatest educators of the 20th century in this country.... He literally lived a life that was nothing less than a crusade, with intense passion and power.”
The son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, Shanker rose from the teaching ranks of the New York City public schools to become, in the early 1960s, the fiery father of collective bargaining for American teachers.
Shanker was jailed twice, including once in 1968 after the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York City, a landmark battle between the United Federation of Teachers, a centralized teachers’ union with many Jewish members, and black activists who supported community control of schools. The citywide strike, organized after the local school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn tried to fire white teachers, exposed racial tensions in the city and caused a rift between Shanker and New York liberals that never fully healed.
Throughout his life, Shanker remained strongly committed to the creation and preservation of democracy and human rights worldwide. Through the AFT’s international-affairs department, he and other union leaders supported free trade unionism in countries with dictatorships or Communist governments.
A member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, Shanker headed the labor federation’s International Affairs Committee for many years. And in 1993, he became founding president of Education International, a worldwide federation of teachers’ unions.
In addition to his union and education activities, he enjoyed gourmet cooking, music, art, and high-quality stereo equipment.
He is survived by his wife, Edith, and four children and three grandchildren.
--Ann Bradley and Jeanne Ponessa
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Albert Shanker, 1928-1997