The Education of Al Shanker

February 01, 1996 41 min read
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It’s a cold December evening in Washington, D.C. A light snow is falling, and over on Capitol Hill, members of Congress are debating whether to support President Clinton’s decision to send 20,000 troops to Bosnia. But here, amid the wood-paneled elegance of the Hay-Adams Hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House, the atmosphere is warm and friendly. About 200 members of the education establishment have gathered in the hotel’s John Hay Room to honor Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, on the 25th anniversary of his paid column, “Where We Stand,’' which runs every Sunday in The New York Times.

Shanker, a large man with thick glasses and the droopy face of a basset hound, isn’t much of a schmoozer. He’s an eloquent writer and speaker on matters of education, but he seems utterly incapable of making small talk. Nonetheless, Shanker--armed with a glass of red wine--makes an effort to circulate throughout the room, accepting congratulations from a variety of politicians, pundits, and policymakers, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Claiborne Pell, Secretary of Education Richard Riley, columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, and noted sociologist Seymour Martin Lipsit.

The crowd tonight is predominantly moderate to liberal, but there are a few exceptions: neoconservative author and talk-show host Ben Wattenberg is here, and so is Linda Chavez, who worked for Shanker in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before joining the Reagan administration as head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She now runs a conservative think tank called the Center for Equal Opportunity and writes a column for USA Today. “I went from Al Shanker to Ronald Reagan,’' Chavez says, “and it wasn’t such a long leap.’'

As the hors d’oeuvres begin to disappear, Shanker steps up to a podium to say a few words. “The political pundits,’' he begins, smiling, “will have to figure out from the people who are here whether I’m left wing or right wing. It’s a pretty interesting gathering, isn’t it? Well, that’s what common sense does.’'

For more than three decades, Albert Shanker has been charting his own independent course through the highly political waters of American education. He’s done a lot of zigzagging along the way. A militant strike leader in New York in the 1960s, Shanker once had the reputation of being something of a loose cannon. So in 1970, in an almost Nixonian attempt to rehabilitate his image, he launched the “Where We Stand’’ column. “I wanted people to know,’' he says, “that I was not some sort of monster who was constantly shutting down schools but a person who has ideas and who reads books and has ideals and commitments.’' The strategy worked. By the 1980s, Shanker, who had moved the AFT beyond traditional bread-and-butter union concerns, was being hailed as an educational statesman with farsighted views on school reform. While the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ organization, rejected many reform proposals as being anti-union, Shanker and the AFT embraced them, earning the union leader praise from liberals and conservatives alike.

When he was stricken with bladder cancer in 1994, many expected Shanker, whose two-year term as AFT president was about to expire, to finally step down from his position, which he has held since 1974. Later, Shanker himself admitted that he had had second thoughts about seeking reelection. But two operations later, he decided to give it a shot. That summer, at the union’s annual convention in Anaheim, Calif., Shanker, to no one’s surprise, was unanimously elected to another two-year term in office.

Now 67, Shanker could easily rest on his laurels and enjoy the benefits associated with being an “elder statesman.’' Yet he has chosen to remain in power, at least for the time being, and he is, according to many observers, at the top of his game. “His influence,’' says U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall Smith, “is probably as high as it’s ever been.’'

Author Diane Ravitch, the noted education historian, agrees. “Right now,’' she says, “he’s probably the most influential person in American education.’'

And, she might add, one of the most controversial.

Take Shanker’s view on “full inclusion,’' in which disabled students are placed in regular classrooms, regardless of the severity of the students’ handicaps. A few years ago, the idea was heavily touted by special educators, who called it both educationally beneficial and morally correct. But Shanker called it a fad--"and once a fad is adopted,’' he said, “it takes a long, long period of time after the damage is done to undo it.’' Inclusion advocates were furious, but Shanker stood his ground, arguing that decisions regarding the placement of disabled students should not be guided by ideology. “It ought to depend upon the nature of the disability,’' he said. “It ought to depend upon the ability of that child to function within a regular classroom. It ought to depend upon the impact of such a placement on that child and on all the other children.’'

Last September, Shanker made headlines again when he launched a new AFT campaign called “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,’' which calls for a get-tough approach to student discipline and academic standards. “Policymakers and reformers,’' Shanker wrote in his New York Times column, “have gotten caught up in faddish and radical schemes for improving the schools, and they ignore what is obvious to people who work in the schools and to parents who send children there: Unless you have order and civility, not much learning will go on. And unless there are high academic standards, which students are expected to meet and helped to meet, school programs become trivial and meaningless. . . . Focusing on safe and orderly schools and high academic standards makes common sense, it works, and it’s long overdue.’'

It’s hard to argue against tougher standards of conduct and higher standards of learning, but to some, Shanker the school reformer had become Shanker the back-to-basics conservative, pandering to an electorate that had swept a Republican majority into office in 1994. (“Last November’s elections,’' Shanker wrote, “showed how angry people are because they can’t seem to get what they want from their government. It is the same thing in education.’') He even managed to evoke one of Richard Nixon’s more famous phrases when he said, “We’re appealing to the silent majority of parents out there who say that first and foremost they want safe and orderly classrooms and high academic standards.’'

In a speech last fall to members of the Council of the Great City Schools, which includes 47 of the nation’s largest urban districts, Shanker called for disruptive students to be placed in alternative settings and urged schools to adopt a European-style tracking system. “It sounds undemocratic,’' Shanker argued, “but it is the only thing that works.’'

Shanker’s remarks angered some members of the organization. Executive Director Michael Casserly sent Shanker a letter denouncing the “philosophical underpinnings’’ of his speech. He accused the union leader of failing to address how to serve students who have been placed in alternative settings and of leaving “the clear impression that your interests extend only to children who do not present teachers any problems.’' As for Shanker’s views on tracking, Casserly called them “anachronistic at best’’ and “a slide backward toward the concept of ‘separate but equal.’ ''

Reached by telephone, Casserly seems reluctant to rehash his differences with Shanker. “We don’t have any need or reason to prolong this,’' he says. When pressed, however, he says many of his organization’s members were “caught off guard’’ by the tone of Shanker’s speech. “There was an edge to it that many of our folks did not find very urban-school friendly,’' he says. “It was negative in tone concerning what schools were doing and what needs to be done. We both agree that the education world needs to address some of these concerns, but you don’t need to pander to the public’s stereotypes about public schools, and urban schools in particular.’'

Sitting in his spacious office, with its awe-inspiring view of the Capitol building, Shanker is unapologetic. “I think Michael Casserly’s letter was so bad that it was good,’' he says provocatively. “I’m serious. It put out into the open all the ridiculous arguments that parents and teachers face every day. First of all, he distorts my position. ‘You want to throw the kids out.’ I didn’t say that. I’ve never said that. Put these [disruptive] youngsters in an alternative setting and help them get back to a regular one as soon as possible. The second thing he does is take the high moral road. ‘Mr. Shanker, it is our job to educate all the students, not just those who sit still.’ Well, is he educating all the students when he keeps a disruptive kid in the classroom? No.’'

For Shanker, who once described himself as a “practical political man who deals with the possible,’' the bottom line is this: The American public, fed up with lax student discipline and low academic standards, is on the verge of giving up entirely on public education. “So that’s why we’re doing this,’' he says. “It’s very clear to us that we’re about to lose public education. And we’re about to lose it because the overwhelming majority of people are not organized on these issues. . . . So what you have is 90 percent of the parents out there steaming because common-sensical things are not put into effect. And I see more and more of this as I go across the country. What we’re trying to do is organize the majority.’'

Just when Shanker is beginning to sound like Rush Limbaugh, he lashes out at conservatives for their part in the dismantling of public education. “The right wing wants this to occur,’' he insists, “so they can use it for an argument for homeschooling and for vouchers. But we want to preserve public education.’'

Shanker admits that he’s changed his mind about some of the school reforms he once advocated. “For four or five years,’' he says, “I ran around talking about how we needed to radically restructure the schools. And I was passionate about it. And by the way, when I was saying that, I had 10 invitations a day for every day of the week, from school districts, professional conferences, university groups. Everybody wanted to hear about ‘radical restructuring.’ Then one day, I said to myself, ‘Look at all these [test] results in Europe and Australia. And look at the results in the United States. We’re way behind them.’ . . . They’re doing better with all of their kids, and you know what? They have not ‘radically restructured.’ If you go into their classrooms, they look something like ours. It’s an old-fashioned way of teaching and doing things. It doesn’t take into account different rates of learning, it doesn’t use technology, it doesn’t take into account any of the new reviews about cognitive science and how youngsters understand. But nevertheless, you have a set of systems in these other industrial countries that are so far ahead of us that it is morally irresponsible to leap from where we are now to something which is untried. Because something that’s untried is not going to work for a long time. It’ll work eventually, but it’s not going to work for a long time.’'

Meanwhile, Shanker asserts, we know what works: “Rigorous academic standards for all students, assessments tied to the standards, and incentives for students to work hard.’'

He continues: “Now, as soon as I started talking about these things, I stopped getting 10 invitations a day. Now, I get about four a week. Because people don’t want to hear common sense. They want to hear something that’s ‘visionary,’ even if it’s not possible today.

. . . Now, we will have those restructured schools, if somebody sticks with an idea, and tweaks it, and works on it, and works on it again. And it may take five or 10 or 15 years. Meanwhile, the kids can’t wait. Meanwhile, we do have a better model than the one we have. It’s not the model of the next century, it’s not the perfect model, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we have right now.’'

Whether you agree with Albert Shanker or not, one thing is certain: You can’t ignore him. His column gives him the kind of visibility that most union leaders only dream of, and his constant travel, both in the United States and abroad, puts him in contact with some of the world’s most prominent leaders. Teachers, particularly the 900,000 members of the AFT, love him, despite the fact that he hasn’t had to fill out a lesson plan for more than 30 years.

“I think our members view him as one of our best assets,’' says John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. “He’s an original thinker, but he still has a good idea of what it’s like to be a classroom teacher.’'

“Al Shanker is very well-known by teachers,’' says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. “He’s our version of E.F. Hutton: When he speaks, there is a figurative hush among teachers. They don’t always agree with him at first, but they know that they will agree with him eventually.’'

“He’s usually ahead of the local members,’' says Sandra Peterson, president of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers, “but he knows how to make the issues pertinent and meaningful, so that eventually they buy into it.’'

“Al’s the best,’' gushes Bella Rosenberg, Shanker’s longtime executive assistant. “He’s a phenomenon of the 20th century!’'

Shanker’s life story is the stuff of fiction. He was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Sept. 14, 1928. His parents, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from czarist Russia, worked hard to make ends meet. When Shanker was a boy, the family moved across the East River to the Ravenswood section of Queens, where his father, who had studied to become a rabbi, was a newspaper deliveryman and his mother was a sewing-machine operator (and, significantly, a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union). Shanker and his sister were frequently reminded of how bad things were back in the “old country,’' yet life in the United States was no picnic. Shanker’s father would begin his day at 2 o’clock in the morning. “It was a typical immigrant’s job in those days,’' he says. “It was really hard and dirty. The newspapers would be dropped off outside our apartment 365 days a year. Bundles and bundles of papers.’' His father would use a pushcart to deliver the newspapers to houses and apartments on his route, which covered an area about three-quarters of a mile wide and a mile long. “He’d get back at 7 in the morning, totally exhausted. And then he’d have some coffee and some breakfast. Then, at 10 o’clock, the afternoon papers would come out, and he’d start all over.’'

Shanker’s mother sometimes worked 70 hours a week, under hellish conditions. “The shops were unsafe,’' he says. “The windows and doors were locked because they were afraid the workers would take a shirt or pair of pants or throw them out the window to a friend. There were no benefits. But because of the union, the workers eventually got a 40-hour week, and they got some health benefits, and they got some sort of pension plan, and there were some safety regulations.’'

Growing up in a pro-union household, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was considered an “absolute god,’' Shanker developed an early interest in politics and social justice. He also learned the hard way about prejudice. The Shankers had the misfortune of being the only Jewish family in a neighborhood made up primarily of working-class Irish and Italian families. “When I’d walk through the neighborhood on Sundays in the summer,’' Shanker recalls, “all the windows would be open, and I’d hear Father Coughlin’'--the popular and controversial Roman Catholic priest and radio broadcaster--"with his anti-Semitic messages coming through.’' Sometimes, children in the neighborhood would call young Shanker “Christkiller,’' and once a group of kids even tied a rope around his neck in a hanging attempt.

As a boy, Shanker was tall for his age; by the time he was 12, he had already reached his adult height of 6 feet 3 inches. Yet he was physically awkward and did not excel at school sports. He did, however, excel in academics, and after attending elementary school in Queens, he was accepted to Stuyvesant High School, considered one of New York City’s top public institutions. He graduated in 1946, ranking 125 out of a class of 625. Shanker applied to Harvard but was rejected (“It was a great disappointment,’' he has said), so instead he went to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he had an aunt. At the time, the university was overcrowded with GIs, creating a housing shortage. That alone would have made it difficult for Shanker to find a place to live, but he had to deal with another problem: anti-Semitism.

“At the university housing bureau,’' he says, “some ads would say, ‘No Jews Wanted,’ or ‘No Jews or Negroes Wanted,’ or ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants Only.’ '' When he finally found a place to live, about eight miles out of town, he rented a bicycle for transportation.

Shanker was surprised by the “open racism’’ he encountered in Champaign-Urbana. “Blacks,’' he recalls, “could not sit in the orchestra sections of the theaters, and no restaurant that served whites would serve blacks. So I became a member of an interracial committee at the local Unitarian Church, and we used to have sit-ins. Finally, we got a hold of an old civil rights law that was passed right after the Civil War, and we went to court and got these places to open up.’'

Earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Shanker graduated with honors in 1949 and returned to New York, where he enrolled at Columbia University with the intention of acquiring a doctorate in philosophy. He completed all his courses but never submitted a dissertation. “I was one of the promising philosophy students,’' he says. “I was very, very good at it. But basically I ran out of money and patience.’' In 1952, Shanker decided to take advantage of a post-war shortage of teachers and take the substitute teachers’ examination, “which in those days was fairly difficult,’' he recalls. He passed the exam and was assigned to teach 6th grade at an elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Upon his arrival, Shanker found out that he was the fourth teacher that year to take on this particular group of students. “It was very, very tough,’' he recollects. “There were some students there from West End Avenue, which had fairly well-to-do people, but there was also this daily influx of Puerto Ricans. So about a third of my kids did not speak English.’'

It’s clear that the seeds of Shanker’s lifelong quest to elevate the professional status of teachers were planted during those first few months in the classroom. “One of the stories that I tell often,’' he says, “is about the word ‘professional,’ and why I decided to become part of the union, apart from my family background. And why the word ‘professional’ used to turn me off. I’d been teaching for about a week and a half, and I had just terrible problems with classroom control. And so one day, the door opened, and there was the assistant principal. And he stood there with his arms stretched out and pointing. I didn’t know what he meant. And I was sort of beckoning him to come on in because I really wanted to talk to him. I needed help on how to prevent these kids from cursing and shrieking. When I would turn around and write things on the blackboard, they would throw things. But he just stood there pointing and then finally said, ‘Mr. Shanker. There is a lot of paper on the floor. That’s very unprofessional.’ Then he closed the door and walked away.’'

As one of two male teachers at the school, Shanker was asked to share “snow patrol’’ duties; whenever it snowed, he and the other teacher had to walk around the school during their lunch break making sure the kids didn’t get into snowball fights. The previous year, however, the other teacher had done the job all by himself. So, at a staff meeting, the teacher raised his hand to ask the principal a question. Shanker vividly recalls what happened next: “He said, ‘Now that there are two men on the faculty to handle snow patrol, would it be OK to rotate--you know, the first day of snow he goes, and the next day I go?’ The principal frowned at him and replied, ‘That’s very unprofessional.’ '' Forty years later, Shanker still laughs at the absurdity of the principal’s comment. “So I got to see that the word ‘professional’ meant to be obedient, don’t rock the boat. The very opposite of a professional.’'

Listening to Shanker, you begin to realize just how far teaching has come since those post-war, Blackboard Jungle days. “Some teachers,’' he recalls, “would be assigned to be ‘floaters’ in a school and had to teach in a different classroom each hour. A few teachers were always given the most violent classes, while other teachers were out of the classroom most of the time on ‘administrative assignments.’ Some teachers got their pay docked if they were a few minutes late because of a traffic jam, but others could come late as often as they wanted because they had friends in high places. Some teachers were always assigned to teach the subject they were licensed in and were given the same grade each period so they would have the fewest possible preparations. Others almost always taught several different grades, often out of the fields in which they were licensed.’' Even worse, when teachers took sick leave they had to bring in a note from their doctor.

Shanker’s mother, who had seen her own working conditions change dramatically thanks to the union, was particularly appalled by the fact that elementary teachers in New York did not have a duty-free lunch period; unlike junior high and high school teachers, they were required to supervise their students throughout the 35-hour school week. “Even in the sweatshop,’' she told her son, “we have time for lunch. You teachers are supposed to be so smart, but you’re dumb not to have a union.’'

No doubt Shanker would have given up teaching entirely if he hadn’t discovered his life’s calling: union organizing. He joined Local 2 of the New York Teachers Guild, which had been founded in 1917 with John Dewey as its charter member. An affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the guild was just one of 106 teacher organizations in New York City, and only about 5 percent of the school system’s 50,000 teachers belonged to it. Moreover, the guild was the only organization that supported collective bargaining for teachers, a radical idea in those days. “Members of the other groups said, ‘That’s a trade union thing,’ '' Shanker recalls. “If you get collective bargaining, you’ll be just like the miners’ union--they’re going to shoot you. Or you’ll be crooked, like the Teamsters Union.’ And we said, ‘Look, you have 106 different groups fighting each other. The teachers ought to vote for one organization to represent all of them.’ ''

In 1959, Shanker, who by then was teaching mathematics at a junior high school in East Harlem, quit his job to become a full-time organizer for the guild. He estimates that he visited more than 700 schools, preaching the gospel of teacher unity. Many teachers, however, were cool to the idea of joining a union. After all, they were professionals, not workers, and besides, what good would it do? Under New York State Law, strikes by public employees were illegal. What was the point of a union if you couldn’t go on strike? Shanker’s response was typically blunt: “I’d say, ‘Look, I know you people don’t want to join the union because you feel that it’s not professional. But what is professionalism? Do you know what professionalism means in the schools? It means the closest thing to being a propped-up dead person that you could think of, just taking orders and obeying. But that’s not what a professional is. A professional is an expert and by virtue of his or her expertise, is relatively unsupervised. And you are constantly supervised and told what to do. And the only reason you won’t join a union is out of snobbery!’ ''

In 1960, the guild merged with a rival organization, and the United Federation of Teachers was born. With 4,500 members, it still represented only a small fraction of the city’s schoolteachers. Nonetheless, the union’s leadership was determined to win collective-bargaining rights for teachers, and it was willing to go on strike to get what it wanted. The union presented six demands to the board of education; collective bargaining topped the list, followed by a $1,000 promotional increment, a substantial pay raise, duty-free lunch periods, 10 days a year of sick leave for full-time substitutes, and the deduction of union dues from paychecks. When the demands weren’t met, the UFT called a one-day strike for May 16, which just happened to be “Teacher Recognition Day.’'

“At the last minute,’' Shanker recalls, “the mayor--Robert Wagner--decided to negotiate with us. And he made certain promises, including the promise of a collective-bargaining election. And that was a shocker.’'

But as summer turned into fall that year, Wagner showed no sign of making good on his promise. “So we decided to strike on Nov. 7, 1960,’' Shanker says, “which was the day before John Kennedy was elected president. Why did we decide to strike on that day? Well, the mayor was a prominent national Democrat, and we felt he’d broken his word to us, and therefore we were going to do something which he would find quite uncomfortable. . . .

“Only about 5,000 teachers went out [on strike], but the school board couldn’t afford to fire that many so we didn’t lose our jobs. As a result of that strike, we got more members, many of them teachers angry at the do-nothingness of the other teacher organizations. And that was the beginning of a dramatic period of growth.’'

Finally, in June 1961, the board of education allowed the city’s teachers to vote on collective bargaining. The result: 27,000 in favor, 7,000 against. (The National Education Association, which would later embrace collective bargaining wholeheartedly, campaigned vigorously against the concept.) Then, in December of that year, another election was held to determine which organization would represent New York City’s teachers at the bargaining table. The UFT won easily. For the first time anywhere in the United States, public school teachers would have the right to negotiate for better wages and better working conditions.

And so began a period of great teacher militancy. In New York City, contracts were negotiated and renegotiated, strikes were held, and teachers made tremendous gains. Collective bargaining spread to other cities, and Albert Shanker--elected president of the UFT in 1964--began to make a name for himself.

The press was endlessly fascinated by this new type of union leader, an intellectual who was more likely to quote Aristotle than spout off fiery union rhetoric. “He lives and thinks as a union activist,’' wrote The New York Times in 1965, “particularly now, as the federation conducts its bargaining sessions with the Board of Education, under the threat of a strike, to get more money and better working conditions for teachers. . . . At the bargaining table, the tall, slim, scholarly looking union man maintains his composure as he argues deftly, sometimes with what his associates call a ‘strong tongue.’ When his point is made, he sits back, peers through his horn-rimmed glasses and waits for his next opportunity. In bargaining for teachers, he is generally considered trustworthy and is respected by his opponents.’'

As president of the UFT, Shanker focused primarily on traditional union concerns: wages, benefits, and conditions. But in the spring of 1967, during negotiations for a new contract, he added a new twist: this time, in addition to a pay increase, the union wanted smaller classes, the expansion of a program designed to improve teaching in ghetto schools, and the right for teachers to expel disruptive students from their classrooms. When negotiations broke down, Shanker called a strike. The walkout, which lasted three weeks, left a bitter rift between the UFT and the board of education. It also resulted in a 15-day jail sentence for Shanker, who was found to have violated the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibited strikes by public employees.

By now, Shanker was so well-known in New York that the Times didn’t even bother to print his first name in its headlines. “SHANKER IS JAILED FOR SCHOOL STRIKE’’ shouted the front-page article on Dec. 21, 1967, which included this famous statement from the union leader: “It’s a very sad thing when someone in the United States has to go to jail for fighting for smaller class sizes, regular rather than uncertified teachers for our children, and for insisting that there was more money available for teachers when the city government said there was none.’' His jailing, he said, marked the “end of the good old dedicated teacher who gets kicked around and, once a year, on Teacher Recognition Day, is handed a flower for his lapel.’'

Albert Shanker had forever changed the image of the docile, supplicant teacher. But his most controversial moment was yet to come.

For many, Albert Shanker will always be associated with the UFT’s long strike of 1968, a racially charged matter that left an indelible scar on race relations in New York City. The previous year, Mayor John Lindsay had decided to set up an experiment in school decentralization, an idea that was favored by many blacks and Puerto Ricans because it would give parents in their communities a greater voice in the education of their children. Three demonstration districts were established--in East Harlem, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. Initially, the UFT had supported the plan, but as the local governing boards demanded more authority--such as the power to hire and fire teachers--the union became less enthusiastic.

In May 1968, Rhody McCoy, who had been named administrator of the governing board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, sent letters of dismissal to 19 of the district’s teachers and administrators because he believed they were trying to sabotage the decentralization experiment. McCoy claimed that the teachers had been transferred, not fired, but his action, as Diane Ravitch asserts in her book The Great School Wars, “was generally interpreted by the press and the public as outright dismissal. Rhody McCoy bolstered this impression by announcing to the press that unspecified vigilante action would prevent the ousted teachers from working elsewhere in the city: ‘Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that.’ '' Shanker charged that McCoy’s action violated civil service laws and union contracts, and he demanded that the teachers’ jobs be reinstated.

The situation quickly degenerated into a tense power struggle between the community board, composed of blacks and Puerto Ricans, and the UFT, which was overwhelmingly white and predominantly Jewish. Police were sent in to keep order. When the disputed teachers attempted to return to their jobs, the governing board shut down the schools in protest. When they reopened, about 350 UFT members staged a walkout. The controversy raged throughout the summer, and when fall arrived, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board announced that it had hired enough replacement teachers to open the schools again. The striking UFT teachers, McCoy said, would be reassigned. But Shanker decided he had had enough; he called a citywide teachers’ strike for Sept. 9, the first day of the fall term. It lasted only two days, but it shut down nearly all of the city’s schools. The board of education agreed that the UFT teachers could return to their jobs in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, but when the governing board prevented them from doing so, Shanker called another strike. This time, it lasted for nearly three weeks.

Diane Ravitch writes: “The racial and religious antagonisms which had simmered in the schools for several years burst to the surface during the second strike. Picketing teachers claimed that they were subjected to anti-white, anti-Semitic invective. Governing board partisans charged the teacher pickets with using anti-black invective. Tension increased day by day. . . . Both the governing board and the UFT contributed to the hate-filled atmosphere.’'

Assured by the board of education that the matter would finally be resolved, Shanker called off the second strike. But when Bernard Donovan, the school superintendent, appeared to cave in to the demands of the community board, Shanker called yet another walkout. “The issue,’' Shanker said at the time, “is what it has been all along--will we have a school system in which justice, due process, and dignity for teachers is possible, or will we have a system in which any group of vigilantes can enter a school and take it over with intimidation and threats of violence?’' The third and final strike lasted for five weeks; by this time, many who had supported Shanker at the outset had turned against him. The New York Times lambasted the union leader, calling his stand a “shortsighted thrust for power’’ and criticizing him for “pursuing a course of political warfare--the exploitation and escalation of a local skirmish in order to wage an all-out war against decentralization of New York City’s school system.’'

Finally, on Nov. 17, a settlement was reached, and the matter came to an end. It had been the longest teachers’ strike in U.S. history. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board was suspended and a state-appointed trustee took control of the district. “The union,’' Ravitch writes, “won the right to return its members to the classrooms of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, as well as strong procedural protection for the future. But its image as an idealistic and socially progressive union was tarnished among the liberal intelligentsia and many black leaders. The union’s victory established it as a political power in the city and state, but the price of victory was high.’'

Not surprisingly, Shanker, who was sentenced to 15 days in jail for defying court orders in connection with the strike, sees things somewhat differently. “Ocean Hill-Brownsville split the liberal community,’' he says. “There were what I considered to be the ‘politically correct’ liberals, who basically took the view that anything that any black leader does is right. And with that group we were tarnished. But I think that, for the most part, we had the support of the people who I considered to be the good guys. My own view is that to take the view that anything a black leader does is automatically correct is racist. I mean, blacks have to be judged on right and wrong and good and bad and so forth, the same as whites do and the same as anybody else does. Nobody is pure, and nobody is without sin.’'

In the aftermath of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Shanker, who had been a charter member of the Congress of Racial Equality, suddenly had to defend himself against charges of racism. Shanker now says the press exaggerated his unpopularity among minorities. Even during the strike, he says, “I could walk throughout New York City, go to restaurants in Harlem, all by myself, and I had no problem.’' (He was told, however, that the Black Panthers had put out a contract on his life.)

In fact, Shanker became, in the words of the late A.H. Raskin, The New York Times’ longtime labor reporter, “the darling of New York’s battered middle class.’' For a time, Shanker even considered running for mayor of New York City. “There were some politicos who took polls,’' he says, “and they found that I could win. So they were coming to me, urging me to run. And it was a very heady experience. Fortunately, it didn’t last long.’' He laughs. “I thought about it, but I said, ‘Look, I have a fingertip sensitivity to teachers and to educational issues and to the union, but what do I know about garbage collectors or managing a health-care system or things like that?’ ”

Shanker had his supporters, but he still had an image problem, particularly among liberals. “I became convinced that I had been dead wrong in believing that the public’s opinion of me didn’t matter,’' he has said. “Public schools depend on public support. And the public was not likely to support the schools for long if they thought teachers were led by a madman.’' (The allusion is to Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper, in which Allen’s character, who awakens in the year 2173 after being frozen, is asked how civilization came to an end. His reply: “A man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.’' The tag stuck to Shanker like Velcro.) Shanker hoped the “Where We Stand’’ column, inaugurated on Dec. 13, 1970, would “help create a balanced picture of what I was about and what the union was about.’'

Eventually, it did, but for several years Shanker had to endure a steady stream of negative press. A Newsweek article from 1973, when Shanker was on the verge of running for president of the American Federation of Teachers, was typical. Headlined “Elephant in the House,’' it portrayed the union leader as a power-hungry boss who used “strong-arm tactics’’ to get what he wanted. “Shanker’s critics,’' the article asserted, “have always accused him of being what he unabashedly is: a two-fisted union leader in the classic George Meany mold.’' (Meany, of course, was the longtime head of the powerful AFL-CIO.) That same year, when Shanker was elected a vice president of the AFL-CIO’s executive council (a post he holds to this day), liberal Democrats all but gave up on him. “Once a boat-rocker as a young Socialist rebel,’' A.H. Raskin wrote in The New York Times, “Shanker has moved steadily rightward inside organized labor until he now ranks among the most orthodox of union establishmentarians, a highly articulate defender of almost everything George Meany does.’' (Shanker and Meany, both ardent anti-communists, had supported the Vietnam War.) Some observers speculated that Shanker would eventually take over Meany’s job.

Instead, Shanker, in 1974, was elected president of the AFT (although he kept his job as president of the UFT until 1986). The position, combined with his weekly column, gave him national prominence, allowing him the opportunity to influence the education agenda for the entire nation. He continued to press for collective bargaining, but school boards, as Shanker said at the time, “were no longer soft on unions.’' It was becoming more and more difficult for teachers’ unions to gain concessions. Shanker saw the writing on the wall; he slowly began moving the AFT in a different direction, until, by the mid 1980s, the union became strongly identified with school reform and teacher professionalism. Ironically, the NEA, which had once rejected the idea of collective bargaining for teachers, had become the more militant of the two unions. “Now it was the AFT that was acting more like a professional association (in the best sense) by proposing educational reforms,’' wrote Timothy Noah in The New Republic, “and the NEA that was intent upon protecting its constituency from criticism or scrutiny.’'

Meanwhile, Shanker’s image underwent a remarkable transformation: The fiery union boss had become a respected advocate of innovative school reform. In speech after speech, he outlined a number of proposals that he believed would finally turn teaching into a true profession, including a national test for teachers, career ladders, merit pay, and, yes, “radical restructuring’’ of schools. Sometimes, it was hard to believe what was coming out of the union leader’s mouth. In a now-famous speech he gave in 1985, which he called “The Making of a Profession,’' Shanker urged teachers to embrace these new ideas if they wanted to enhance their status. “Collective bargaining,’' he said, “has been a good mechanism, and we should continue to use it. But now we must ask whether collective bargaining will get us where we want to go.’' The New York Times ran the story on page one, under the headline, “SHANKER URGING SHIFT IN STRATEGY TO AID TEACHERS.’'

Suddenly, Shanker was being praised by politicians and policymakers of all stripes, including conservatives who had probably never before said a kind word about a union leader. In 1989, Chester Finn Jr., who had served as an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, called Shanker “one of the authentically insightful and imaginative figures in American education.’' But he also argued that while Shanker was taking the high road, “the AFT locals are simultaneously going on strike, battling reforms, and defending the status quo as if everything were hunky-dory.’' (There’s some truth to Finn’s charge. In 1985, as Shanker was urging teachers to move beyond collective bargaining, the Seattle Federation of Teachers went on strike for 25 days.)

Others accused Shanker of jumping on the school reform bandwagon out of sheer opportunism. Mary Hatwood Futrell, who at the time was president of the National Education Association, told The Wall Street Journal that among “the people who are in schools,’' Shanker was viewed as “being so far out on a limb that he can’t come back. They view him basically as trying to get headlines. He’ll say or do anything if that’s what it takes.’'

Nevertheless, many of Shanker’s ideas took hold, particularly the concept of national certification for teachers, which is now being implemented by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But in recent years, the union leader seemed to have become dissatisfied with the results of the school reform movement. He was especially troubled by the trend toward privatization, which he believed would dismantle public education. In speeches, Shanker had stopped talking about radical restructuring and had begun talking about restoring the academic mission of schools. “That has to be the pri-mary thing,’' he said in 1994. “Other things have to be secondary, which they’re not.’'

The clincher for his change of direction, Shanker says, was the 1994 survey by the Public Agenda Foundation, titled First Things First. The study found that the public wants “safety, order, and the basics’’ and is uncomfortable with many school reforms. “We think the public is right about what our schools need,’' Shanker says, “and we think they should get what they want.’'

The result of Shanker’s change of heart is “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,’' the most ambitious campaign in AFT’s history. The organization has sent campaign “tool kits’’ to its 2,500 affiliated locals, and Shanker has been beating the drum in speech after speech and column after column. The campaign, says John Cole of the Texas Federation of Teachers, “has struck a major chord among teachers.’'

The question for many is: How long can Albert Shanker keep at it? Shanker admits that he’s slowed down a bit, but that just means he now travels 600,000 miles a year instead of 700,000. He still spends much of his time on the road, attending conferences, giving speeches, and meeting with policymakers. And although he’s been president of the AFT for more than 20 years now, he continues to commute from his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y., to AFT’s headquarters in Washington, where he usually stays across the street at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. (Shanker and his wife, Edith, also keep an apartment in Manhattan.)

Shanker’s office is large but not palatial. His desk is piled high with books, magazines, reports, newspaper articles, and memos. But there is also a small sitting area that offers a glimpse at another side of the union leader; in it, flanking a brown leather couch like bookends, are two enormous Infinity loudspeakers, part of a world-class sound system he has installed. A longtime audiophile, Shanker gets visibly excited when he talks about the relative merits of tube amplifiers. On the road, he scours used record stores in search of rare recordings. (Adam Urbanski recalls the time in Prague, before the Velvet Revolution, when Shanker dragged him from one record store to another. Finally, an exasperated Urbanski said, “I thought we came here to fight communism, not go shopping,’' to which Shanker replied, “We’re here to go shopping and fight communism--in that order!’')

A lover of good food and great wines, Shanker keeps a small wine cellar tucked away in his office. At home in New York, he likes to cook gourmet dinners, specializing in Moroccan dishes, pastries, and exotic breads. He’s also “a real bargain hunter’’ who buys his suits eight at a time at the Hart Schaffner & Marx factory store in Chicago. “They all wear out at the same time,’' he says, laughing.

Sometimes, the public and private sides of Albert Shanker come together, as in a recent “Where We Stand’’ column, in which he managed to use a breadmaking metaphor to make a serious point about school reform. He began by saying, “I have made bread for my family and friends for a number of years, and I know that a good French loaf is a real accomplishment.’' He went on to recount an article he had read in The New York Times food section, about a chef who, after experimenting over many years, had finally discovered a way to make delicious French bread with a food processor. The chef, Shanker wrote, “had tested results and refined procedures until he had created a recipe that was excellent and certain to succeed. If this were school reform instead of cooking, would he get applause for developing a reliable way of getting children to understand a particular idea? I don’t think so. He’d be more likely to hear, ‘It’s OK for him, but our situation is different’ and complaints that his detailed procedure stifled creativity.’'

Asked about his health, Shanker replies: “Well, it’s very good now. My energy is back, and my weight is back--unfortunately. And the doctors who check me out every six months have told me that I’m doing fine. I take care of myself, and if I get any kind of symptom, I don’t wait. I call the doctor.’'

Shanker says he has no plans to retire anytime soon and that he intends to seek reelection for another two-year term as AFT president next summer. “As long as I still feel that I’m making a difference,’' he says, “and I enjoy what I’m doing, and I believe in what I’m doing, I’m going to do it. But I don’t want the organization to carry me when I become a burden. I’ve had a wonderful life. The organization does not owe me another month or another year or anything like that. The minute I have whatever condition, or whatever ailment, and somebody else could be a better president, that’s the point at which I want to check out.’'

For years, there has been talk about the AFT merging with the much-larger NEA, with its 2.2 million members. The result would be a 3 million-member superunion, the largest labor organization in the world. Politically, it would hold enormous clout. Yet negotiations between the two unions have gone on for decades without success, in part because of the fundamental differences that exist between the two unions. Traditionally, the NEA has had a strong presence at the state level, while the AFT’s power has been concentrated in its local affiliates. The NEA guarantees minority representation throughout the union, while the AFT has always been opposed to quotas. The NEA believes in secret-ballot voting and term limits for

elected leaders, while the AFT maintains open balloting and unlimited terms of office. Can the two unions ever overcome their differences and come together as one?

“Well, we’re still having talks,’' Shanker says, “and for the first time in our history, we have a really good organizational relationship. Certainly, a merger makes sense. Politically, it would create a very influential organization.’' He thinks it will eventually take place, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen in one year, or two years. I think the worst thing to do would be to sit down and do a paste-up job. ‘Well, we don’t like term limits and you do, so let’s just lengthen the term limits.’ A cut-down-the-middle sort of thing, where you end up with--well, you know the definition of a camel, don’t you? It’s a horse put together by a committee.’' He laughs at the joke.

Many have surmised that Shanker--who in 1975 said his ambition was “to head whatever comes out of a merger with the National Education Association’'--would like to leave a merger between the two unions as his final legacy, but he dismisses the idea. “It would be nice,’' he admits, “but I have no such notion in my mind. This will happen only when the right agreement comes about. It’s not going to happen because I have a psychological need.’'

Fans of Shanker and the AFT, of course, hope that it doesn’t happen at all. Diane Ravitch, for one, grudgingly admits that the two unions will eventually join forces. “Which is too bad,’' she adds, “because I like the AFT so much. I wish there would be some way to clone Albert Shanker because he’s such a great leader.’'

It seems entirely possible that Albert Shanker is investigating the possibilities of cloning at this very moment.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The Education of Al Shanker


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