School & District Management

Shanker Biography Depicts Evolution of AFT Leader

By Vaishali Honawar — October 01, 2007 4 min read
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When A Nation at Risk came out in 1983, the National Education Association and other notable education players rushed to criticize the report, which was commissioned by the Reagan administration and warned that the nation’s education foundations were being eroded “by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

Not so Albert Shanker. In a new biography of the late union leader, the scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg describes how the then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, after reading the watershed report, shocked everyone, including AFT colleagues: He said the report was right.

In the coming months and years, Mr. Shanker would publicly express support for ideas that were once anathema to teachers’ unions: merit pay, peer review, and testing of veteran teachers, among them. He would also endorse teacher-run charter schools, a national exam for new teachers, and standards-based school reform.

In Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy Mr. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation, carefully chronicles Mr. Shanker’s evolution from a man at first perceived by many as a die-hard unionist into a thoughtful education reformer whose advice was prized by President Bill Clinton.

“He was always a man who never met an idea he wouldn’t play with,” Joan Baratz-Snowden, a former director of educational issues for the AFT, said in an interview. “He wasn’t promiscuous, but ideas were important to him.”

The book, published last month by Columbia University Press, also ponders the legacy of a man who understood that to preserve public education in a market-oriented economy where ideas like vouchers were gaining ground, unions had to demonstrate they were not opposed to all changes.

At Center of Debates

Mr. Kahlenberg, who has written a number of books on education, said in an interview that he chose to write about Mr. Shanker because the late AFT chief was at the center of the great debates he cares about—on education, labor, civil rights, and liberalism—and was such a compelling character. Mr. Shanker died in 1997 at age 68.

While many have hypothesized that there was a “good Al,” who advocated education reform, and a “bad Al,” a militant unionist, the truth is not that simple, Mr. Kahlenberg writes.

Bella Rosenberg, who was a special adviser to Mr. Shanker at the AFT, agrees. “He was who he was from the beginning of time. He changed his views on policies and strategies,” she said. Mr. Shanker always held close to his heart the core principles that he became known for in later years, Ms. Rosenberg said last week.

The book delves into Mr. Shanker’s politics. He was an early socialist who was committed to colorblind policies and supportive of promoting democracy abroad. It helps explain some of his positions that came under the most criticism, such as his opposition—while president of the AFT’s New York City affiliate—to an attempt by black school officials in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn in the late 1960s to replace nearly two dozen white teachers with African-Americans.

“Tough liberals are pragmatists who are indifferent to slogans and insist on getting the job done for the sake of social justice and the good of the community as a whole,” E.D. Hirsch Jr., a longtime Shanker friend and the chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a Charlottesville, Va.-based group focused on education reform, said at a discussion of the book Sept. 20 in Washington organized by the group Education Sector.

Mr. Kahlenberg describes his own experience with Mr. Shanker’s “tough liberalism” when they met in the mid-1990s. The author said that when he argued that low-income students of all races should receive preferences in college admissions, liberals turned a deaf ear. “The one exception was Albert Shanker. He and I couldn’t figure out why it was ‘liberal’ to provide a preference to the child of an African-American doctor over the white waitress’ kid,” Mr. Kahlenberg said.

Push for Standards

In his 524-page book, Mr. Kahlenberg also takes a stab at pondering Mr. Shanker’s legacy, one that the author says will continue to evolve. His three chief contributions, according to Mr. Kahlenberg, were helping to create modern teachers’ unions, to reform public education, and to preserve public education.

But not every policy idea he embraced turned out as Mr. Shanker hoped. For instance, despite his strong support for the pioneering peer-review program crafted for teachers in Toledo, Ohio, by Dal Lawrence, then the president of the AFT affiliate there, only a handful of districts now have such programs.

For those who wonder what Mr. Shanker, a major supporter of standards-based reform, would have thought of the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Kahlenberg writes that the AFT leader would have had several quarrels with specific provisions. For instance, the law calls for accountability for adults but not students, and it permits a single performance standard for all students rather than multiple ones. But, he adds, “the early evidence suggests Shanker was right to push for standards; they are likely to promote greater equity and to strengthen rather than undercut public education.”

Mr. Shanker’s legacy within the union remains strong as well, Mr. Kahlenberg said.

Mr. Lawrence agrees with that. “Al’s legacy is still very much present in the minds of the AFT,” he said, pointing to his own current work part time for the national union to promote peer review.

“Maybe we aren’t as good as Al was in making contacts and explaining complicated ideas in layman’s terms,” Mr. Lawrence said. “But his thought processes continue to inspire us.”

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