‘If We Don't Respect the Integrity of Our Profession, Nobody Else Will'
A former mathematics teacher from New York City, Mr. Shanker has been president of the New York City A.F.T. local since 1964 and President of the A.F.T. since 1974. He spoke recently with Assistant Editor Cindy Currence about the union's promotion of new roles and training programs for teachers.
Q: Leaders of both the National Education Association and the A.F.T. have talked a lot in recent months about ‘professionalization.’ In your opinion, what must be done to make teaching a true profession?
A: First, you need a high standard for entry and that is why I have come out and led the fight for a national exam similar to the bar exam or some of the medical boards.
The second aspect is that teachers need to develop a system of peer assistance, peer decisionmaking, and peer review on a series of issues--the selection of textbooks, changing the school structure, assisting new teachers, and deciding which of them should stay and not stay.
But that can only be done if teachers themselves begin to develop expertise in these areas. For the most part, they don't have it now. After all, teachers have not had the responsibility of assisting new teachers in an internship or of selecting textbooks. We need a structure of councils or committees or commissions of teachers across the country where some teachers decide they really want to become experts in an area, learn everything there is to learn, and then, by virtue of the fact that they have knowledge, make the decisions.
We also have got to move toward an absolute prohibition against anyone practicing the profession unless they are properly licensed. And that of course means not only that people who are not certified shouldn't teach at all, but that people who are certified to teach English should be prohibited from teaching math or science. If we don't respect the integrity of our own profession, nobody else will.
Q: How do we go about training teachers so that they will be able to play a more active decisionmaking role?
A: It would be very good if colleges and universities would develop programs in these areas and maybe in the future they will. But I think that this is an area in which teacher organizations could play an important part. For instance, the A.F.T. is about to develop a program to train those teachers who wish to become experts in the area of textbook selection.
We will bring in some of the outstanding national experts in the field to develop a curriculum for textbook selection. Essentially, we will be training a first group of experts and that group will run the program for teachers across the country.
Q: There have been numerous reports and recommendations on teacher training this year--the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the Holmes Group deans, and the Southern Regional Education Board, for example. Of the reports, which do you favor?
A: Personally, I’m really closest in philosophy to where the Holmes Group is now. I don’t know what they will finally come up with--they are still thinking on it--but that would be closest to my view--that professional education ought to be a graduate program.
What we are talking about is a model. When outstanding people who have majors and minors in a number of areas are about to get their bachelor’s degree, you should say, ‘Do you want to go to law school or medical school or education school or business-management school?’ That should be the point at which you seek people who are terrific in their fields to enter teaching.
Q: What would you say has been the major professionalization initiative of the A.F.T. this year?
A: I guess my speech at the National Press Club calling for a national teacher exam was probably, with the exception of "A Nation At Risk," the most widely reported and the most widely supported proposal of the last year or two in terms of editorial support and also the support of the various groups in education.
Q: How do you reconcile the apparent contradiction between the past 25 years of 'union' strategies and this new emphasis on professionalism? Isn't collective bargaining at odds with professionalism?
A: No, they are not at odds with each other. There are many other professions that have unions--actors, even Ronald Reagan belonged to a union, airline pilots, lawyers, and doctors. There is no conflict. In the 1960’s, yes, we did concentrate on the trade-union aspects. The emphasis was on building a powerful organization. But that’s been done. Now we’ve moved most people into a position where they don’t want to fight with the boss all the time. They are people who enjoy their jobs and want to contribute to the success of the workplace.
There also is a different atmosphere now because if we have too much conflict, our institution will be abandoned. In the auto industry, people will buy foreign cars. In our field, they will switch to private schools. We’re just doing the intelligent thing right now; when you’re threatened by an outside force, you reduce the internal conflicts. You can’t fight a two-front war.
Q: Do you think there needs to be a system of national certification or will the teacher exam that you proposed be enough?
A: Well, the states do the certifying. I would be against a federal-government certification system. I think it is possible to have a national exam and have the states adopt it, just as the bar exam is basically a national exam but it is the states that certify lawyers.
When it comes to certifying board specialists, while the specialty boards would certify the teachers, the question of how many board-certified specialists a given district wants, or what it would pay them, would be decided at the state or local level.
I think we can develop an adequate mix of national, state, and local involvement, but in none of these things do I include the federal government. I don't think the federal government should have a role in it.
Q: What do you think the obstacles are going to be to getting the exam in place?
A: One of the major obstacles is supply and demand. People are going to want to know why we should make it more difficult for people to get into teaching at a time when we don't have enough teachers. It is a legitimate and good question. I happen to think that people who follow that line of reasoning are wrong.
First of all, allowing people to come in who are barely literate or who are illiterate is no way to solve the teacher shortage. Secondly, when an occupation gets a reputation of taking in people of poor quality, people of good quality do not want to be in that occupation. If we tighten standards and clear the examination, then we will attract more and better people.
The second problem, of course, is the question of affirmative action, and I think there is no question that in the short run an examination with a reasonable cutoff would mean that fewer blacks and Hispanics would be teachers. It is absolutely essential that at the same time an examination is being put in, or even before one is put in, there be a very vigorous effort to seek out black and Hispanic and other minority youngsters, perhaps as early as in their high-school careers, and give them special assistance and help so that a higher percentage will pass the exams later on.
I guess the third obstacle is the strong tradition of local control. But in many cases, local control has resulted in the hiring of relatives who are illiterate. Local control in the days of Boss Tweed was called patronage. I don't know that anyone would really want to defend a system like that. Local control will still be there--among all those who pass the exam, there is still the question of which one the district hires; nobody is telling them to hire somebody who is only good at taking an exam but doesn't make a good personal impression on them as being able and willing to work with children.
Q: What about the reaction from teachers themselves? Are they as supportive of professionalization as you are?
A: I think teachers eventually will like it, but they are not embracing this immediately either. They are now accustomed to a world in which there are rules and regulations and they are told what to do and somebody else makes the decisions. One of the first things we have to do is develop different aspirations for teachers.
And then, of course, we have to get the administrators to understand that if teachers do more of these things it won't threaten management.
Essentially, everyone agrees that the current system is not working well, that we are about to face a major crisis in terms of both talent and supply, quantity and quality. And I am convinced that unless we make this change toward professionalism, we're going to fail both in the quantity and the quality.
If someone else has a different way of getting outstanding people to come in I would like to see it. If we had more money, we'd attract some more people, but basically as long as the job is viewed as a kind of dead-end, powerless job where you are at the bottom of the power structure, we are not going to get anywhere.
Q: Do you feel that the change you propose can be accomplished rapidly?
A: In one sense, we have waited hundreds of years. We've got plenty of time. It could happen at any time. You know, these things are kind of slow. But in terms of America's continued willingness to support public education as against moving over to some voucher or tax-credit system, I would say we ought to start doing this within the next three years. And if we start within the next three years, it will undoubtedly still take 10 or 15 years until it is accomplished because of the highly decentralized nature of our educational system.
Q: The N.E.A. also seems to be moving forward on the issue of professionalization. Do you see this as a shift in policy for them and have you and Mary Futrell put your heads together on this?
A: I'm rather skeptical about whether it's a real shift in policy for them. They said they would favor a professional examination only if it is not culturally biased and is administered on a state-by-state basis. That leaves them free to oppose every examination that is proposed in every state on the basis that it is not valid or that it is biased, if by culturally biased they mean that you don't have the same proportion of minorities passing. Under that definition, every exam right now would be culturally biased because minorities, due to discrimination and poverty and all sorts of other problems, don't pass at the same rate.
So they are saying they are for an examination in principle but that they are really against it. I have not seen any real movement on the part of the N.E.A.
Q: So the two unions probably won't be joining forces on this?
A: I hope we do. We favor a merger of the two organizations and letting the members of the organization decide what policies they want. But the N.E.A. oppose that. They prefer to have two rival organizations spending a lot of their money fighting each other.
I think there is a reasonable chance that one day both organizations will have leaders who see that it is not helpful to teachers to spend most of their energy and money fighting each other at a time when the very future existence of public education is in the balance.
Vol. 05, Issue 01, Page 7Published in Print: September 4, 1985, as ‘If We Don't Respect the Integrity of Our Profession, Nobody Else Will'