Education Opinion

Education Community Mourns ‘the Loss of a Visionary’

March 05, 1997 5 min read

The education community last week mourned the death of Albert Shanker, the prominent and widely respected president of the 907,000-member American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Shanker, who was 68, died Feb. 22 after a three-year battle with bladder cancer.

The union president lived to see his most cherished reforms, including higher academic standards, gain increasing national acceptance.

Convinced that public education was in jeopardy, Mr. Shanker insisted that academic rigor and an emphasis on student discipline were the keys to restoring confidence in the institution.

President Clinton, who recently called for national standards and a voluntary new program of student testing, paused to remember him as “one of the greatest educators of the 20th century in this country.”

“He believed that all children could learn—with high expectations and high standards, high-quality teaching and high accountability,” the president said of Mr. Shanker in remarks before the Washington-based American Council on Education last week. “He literally lived a life that was nothing less than a crusade, with intense passion and power.”

Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, the larger of the nation’s two major teachers’ unions, said his organization mourned “the loss of a visionary.”

“Albert Shanker was more than just a labor leader; he was a tireless, outspoken champion of children and public schools,” Mr. Chase said in a statement. “American public education will miss his articulate, courageous voice.”

Common Sense

Mr. Shanker defied easy political labels, often describing his positions as simple common sense. He denounced both “faddish and radical schemes” for improving education—often promoted by liberals—and the voucher and privatization schemes championed by conservatives.

In the early 1980s, as the current education reform movement got under way, Mr. Shanker made headlines and gained credibility by largely agreeing with the spate of scathing reports on the quality of American schools.

Instead of reacting defensively, he argued that the AFT should go beyond a narrow emphasis on collective bargaining to figure out ways to improve schools.

“That was a very unconventional role for a union, and in my judgment, exactly where it ought to be going,” observed Julia Koppich, a California education consultant who once worked for the AFT in that state. “Through Shanker’s leadership, the AFT’s ability to embrace many difficult challenges over the last 10 to 15 years of education reform has put that organization at the cutting edge of school change.”

The union president supported minimum-competency testing of teachers, arguing that teachers who failed the tests had no place in the classroom. He also urged the creation of a national system to certify outstanding teachers. That work now is being carried out by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

During the 1980s, Mr. Shanker also championed “radical restructuring” of schools and giving teachers a greater voice in decisionmaking. But he became disenchanted when those approaches failed to boost student achievement. Part of the problem, he often said, was that students have little incentive to study hard in school.

Mr. Shanker’s willingness to study and learn from experience made him a dynamic figure, listened to by powerful policymakers.

“I have never been wedded to a bunch of fads of my own making or someone else’s,” he explained 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.”

Instead, the AFT embarked on a quest for higher standards of student achievement and conduct, prompted in part by Mr. Shanker’s study of school systems in other countries.

The union also began producing reports on state standards-setting efforts and touting rigorous curricula in its quarterly magazine, American Educator.

In addition, the union spoke out strongly against efforts to privatize the management of public schools. It attacked Education Alternatives Inc., the company chosen to run several Baltimore schools. The contract was later canceled.

Father of Bargaining

The son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, Mr. Shanker rose from the teaching ranks of the New York City public schools to become the fiery father of collective bargaining for American teachers—a radical and hotly debated idea at the time. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996.)

Mr. Shanker was jailed twice, including once in 1968 after the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in New York City, a landmark battle between a centralized teachers’ union with many white, Jewish members and black activists who supported community control of schools.

The bitter, citywide strike, which occurred when the local school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn tried to fire white teachers, exposed racial tensions in the city and caused a rift between Mr. Shanker and liberals that never fully healed.

Conservative commentator Linda Chavez, who worked for Mr. Shanker from 1975 to 1983 before joining the Reagan administration, called him a “true, old-fashioned liberal” who believed in the preservation of individual rights and was not suspicious of corporate America.

“I don’t know that he would have defined himself as a neoconservative, but on certain issues he fit the neoconservative model more so than the typical Democrat,” Ms. Chavez said.

Many liberals resented, for example, Mr. Shanker’s support for the Vietnam War, which grew out of his staunch anti-Communist views.

The union president also was an unapologetic supporter of public schools’ traditional role in socializing young people into American democracy. He condemned some multicultural education as divisive and destructive and supported certain forms of academic tracking.

International Interests

Throughout his lifetime, Mr. Shanker remained strongly committed to the creation and preservation of democracy and human rights around the world. Through the AFT’s international-affairs department, he and other union leaders supported free trade unionism in countries with Communist governments or other dictatorships.

“What’s going to happen overseas affects us here,” said David Dorn, the director of the union’s international department.

Mr. Shanker, he said, understood that maxim “way back when it was less fashionable and less obvious.”

A member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, Mr. Shanker headed its International Affairs Committee for many years. He also was active in international refugee-relief groups. In 1993, he became the founding president of Education International, the worldwide teachers’ union federation.

Mr. Shanker was also something of a Renaissance man, with a passion for gourmet cooking and baking, music, art, and audio electronics.

He is survived by his wife, Edith, four children, and three grandchildren.