Education Chat

Tough Liberal

Richard Kahlenberg discussed Albert Shanker and how the influential union leader would feel about the state of American education today.

October 25, 2007

Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy

Richard Kahlenberg
is a Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, where he writes about education, equal opportunity, and civil rights. He is the author of four books, including Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

Welcome to today’s Web chat with Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of the new book, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. We have lots of good questions so let’s get the chat started.

Question from Mike Klonsky, Small Schools Workshop:

Shanker was an early advocate of teacher-run charter schools. But what would he think of the current wave of EMO-run charters and what would he think of organizing drives to recruit charter school teachers and staff?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker first proposed charter schools in a March 1988 speech as teacher-led institutions. They were meant to enhance teacher voice. Over time, he became very critical of the way in which many charter school backers saw charters as an opportunity to make an end-run around unions and actually reduce teacher voice. He raised serious question in his “Where We Stand” column and in speeches about for-profit charter schools, racially segregated charter schools, and schools that had the effect of dividing kids rather than bringing them together. He also worried that EMO-run charter schools sometimes had a cookie-cutter approach to education. Having said all that, Al Shanker didn’t dismiss altogether the charter school movement that he helped father (he said there were good ones and bad ones) and I’m certain he would have supported efforts to organize their staffs.

Question from Joe Gotchy, Senior Consultant, Retired Teacher:

What was Mr. Shanker’s role in creating the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and how did he define and promote “accomplished” teaching? What could we learn from his life to become better advocates of teaching on the local and national levels? Thank you.

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker was a key architect of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, proposing, in a July 1985 speech, that a national board certify excellent teachers and that districts pay them higher salaries. This was an extraordinary proposal for a teacher union leader, given that unions had traditionally opposed all forms of merit pay. Shanker, however, acknowledged that some teachers are better than others, and that ones who are especially talented and work especially hard should be rewarded or they might well move from the classrom into administration. He liked the idea of a national board - run in large measure by teachers -- because it would avoid the traditional problem associated with merit pay: favoritism by principals.

Question from Gerald Sroufe, Director of Government Relations, American Educational Research Association:

Mr. Shanker was an active member of our Government Relations committee (before my tenure here) and I am told that he was known for both hard questions and commitment to education research. However, one finds little mention of research in his varous contributions to education reform. Is this a fair reading of the book? Why might this be the case?

Richard Kahlenberg:

You’re right that Al Shanker was deeply committed to high quality education research. He wasn’t a researcher himself (he was busy running a union), but he supported AFT research and, more importantly, he did a great deal to popularize research and translate it for a broader audience. I have a fair amount in the book about his famous “Where We Stand” column, which ran in the Sunday New York Times as an advertisement. Education researchers knew the value of that column and would continually send him the latest research, which he read voraciously. Shanker was a small “d” democrat and thought it was very important for the best research to reach the widest possible audience through his column.

Question from Rick Poulakidas:

What do you think Al would tell AFT today, if he were still their leader? Do you think AFT would be in a similar or different policy position today if he were still alive?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker was a very hard act to follow, but I think Sandy Feldman and Ed McElroy have both continued in his tradition of tough and smart unionism. The AFT continues to be the more intellectual of the two major unions and more committed to education reform. To take one example, the AFT, through Toni Cortese, is putting on a big push to promote the idea of “peer review” -- having teachers work with and evaluate one another, and in certain cases, recommend the termination of bad teachers. That’s not to say that the AFT hasn’t changed at all. I think Al Shanker would have disagreed strongly with the AFT’s support of racial preferences in the University of Michigan affirmative action case, to take one example. But overall, I think Al Shanker’s legacy is felt very strongly at the AFT ten years after his death.

Question from John Stallcup Co Founder APREMAT/USA:

Given Albert Shanker’s expressed belief in national standards and his interest in how other countries education systems succeeded where ours did not, would he be in favor of national standards for the US that were at the same level as world leaders like Singapore?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Absolutely. Al Shanker championed national standards many years ago. He looked abroad and saw that the countries that were beating us academically year after year had clearly articulated national standards of what students should know and be able to do; tests to see whether they were learning; and consequences for failure. He was for high standards but he also recognized that there was variation in student ability (on an individual level, not a racial or ethnic level). So he backed multiple standards to keep the pressure on all levels of the distribution to improve. He would have thought that the 100% proficiency goal in No Child Left Behind was a fantasy that was like to result either in 1) widespread failure, paving the way for private school vouchers; or 2) a dumbed down set of standards that were meaningless.

Question from Michael Alves, educational planner, Enroll Edu:

What would Al Shanker think about socioeconomic integration?

Richard Kahlenberg:

That’s an excellent question, and one close to my own heart, as I’ve written another book favoring integration of students in schools by economic status. The evidence suggests Al Shanker would also have favored this idea. Al Shanker was a strong proponent of racial school integration. In the early 1960s, Shanker and the United Federation of Teachers supported a program called “More Effective Schools,” which provided extra resources to ghetto schools in the hope that the resources would attract white middle class families. In a sense, these schools were the first magnet schools, although that term was not used for them. Then, in 1968, Shanker raised strong objections to the Black Power movement’s advocacy of “community control,” which essentially gave up on integration and said blacks should be able to control their own schools. It was, said Shanker and his colleague Bayard Rustin, a new form of “separate but equal.” At the same time, Shanker had some strong concerns about treating students differently based on race, so he would naturally be attracted to the use of nonracial criteria like income. And, he wrote in a number of places that the key to raising academic achievement was not private school vs. public school, but the economic mix of the student body.

Question from Suzanne York, teacher, Pasadena Unified School District:

In the current climate of school reform, many teachers are bogged down with flawed assessments and “piles” of directives that leave them overworked and frustrated. Many colleagues refer to the “No Child Left Behind Act” as the “No Teacher Left Standing Act”. Do you, or do you think Mr. Shanker might, see this as an issue of “equal opportunity” on the part of the teacher?

Richard Kahlenberg:

I believe Al Shanker would have supported the broad bargain proposed in No Child Left Behind -- greater resources in exchange for greater accountability -- but would have had some serious concerns about some of the provisions in the law. For one thing, he was for student accountability along with teacher accountability. Under NCLB, states are allowed to adopt student accountability provisions, but there is nothing in the law itself that specifies consequences for students. Shanker thought that sort of arrangment was problematic. He argued that telling students that if they fail a test, their teachers would be punished, didn’t send the right message! If you want further information on Al Shanker and No Child Left Behind, you might look at my Education Week Commentary on this issue, in the September 5, 2007 issue.

Question from Joe Petrosino, EdD, Vo Tech:

How did Albert Shanker get people to trust him on school reform, civil rights,labor and liberalism? What can we learn about trust from him?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Good question. Al Shanker earned extraordinary trust, particularly from teachers, by showing very early in his career that he would go to great lengths fighting for them. On two occasions in the 1960s, Al Shanker led illegal strikes for teachers and spent two 15 day terms in jail as a result. After that, Shanker had the credibility with teachers to propose all sort of things that were unusual for a teacher union leader -- a form of merit pay, peer review, teacher-led charter schools, national standards. It was because Al Shanker had earned the trust of teachers early in his career that they were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he proposed unorthodox education reforms.

Question from Sheri Williams, Assistant Superintendent, Boulder Valley School District, CO:

If Shanker could give public schools a grade today, would he say that our public schools are any more culturally proficient today than they were pre-civil rights?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker was a pretty tough teacher when it came to grading the American public school system. While some found this odd -- for a teacher union leader to say that there are big problems in public education -- he endorsed the 1983 Nation at Risk report, which called public education mediocre. Today, NAEP data suggest we’re not in much better shape than years ago. We’ve made great strides, since the pre-civil rights era, on promoting tolerance among people. But the racial and economic achievement gap remains a disgrace, and I think Al Shanker would not have been afraid to acknowledge this.

Question from todd endo, Director of the Urban Alternative; formerly of the Arlington and Fairfax Public Schools and National Institute of Education:

I talked many time with Al Shanker in the 60s and 70s, and often wondered what he’d say in the new 21st century. What positions would Al take on such current issues as: public charter schools, especially in big urban districts, like DC? hiring non-educators as superintendents? the schools’ role in the “Americanization” of immigrants, especially when there is a critical mass, such as some school systems in southern California, Texas, and Florida?

Richard Kahlenberg:

As I outlined in an answer to an earlier question, Al Shanker was a strong proponent of teacher-led charter schools, but that’s very different than the charter schools that are often run today as a way to get around teacher unions and reduce teacher voice. On your other point, Al Shanker was a strong proponent of “Americanization.” Indeed, he thought the central rationale for public schools in the United States was to teach kids what it means to be an American. For that reason, he was very concerned about schools dedicated to particular racial or ethnic groups -- schools for African Americans, or Italians, or Jews -- which he feared would emphasize differences rather than what we have in common as Americans. I wrote a piece in the New York Times recently on what Al Shanker would think of a new Arabic language school in New York City. I think he would have been very concerned and would have watched closely to make sure that the curriculum supported democracy and the teaching of American values. Likewise, I think he would have been disturbed by the creation of a new Hebrew language charter school in Florida. Shanker was awed that the United States took in people from all over the world and was able to forge social cohesion and he said public schools were a central explanation for the success.

Question from Steven Falk, Resource Specialist, Oakland Unified School District:

Al & I walked together in the NYC teacher strike 9 to 11/1968. I want to believe that he would have led us in a National Education Strike to end NCLB. We have become ‘soft liberals’. Please tell us your impression of Al’s response to NCLB.

Richard Kahlenberg:

In a response to an earlier question, I outlined some of what I think Al Shanker would have said about NCLB. He would have had some grave concerns about the lack of consequences for kids; about the unrealistic 100% proficiency goal; about having 50 different state standards rather than one set of national standards (for each level of the academic distribution) etc. Having said that, he never agreed with the NEA’s hostility toward testing altogether. On one level, the NEA is right to say that students are “more than a test score.” But Al Shanker believed that it mattered a great deal whether or not students mastered certain skills and subject matter and he was never an opponent of testing. (He was an opponent of bad tests, too many of which flourish under NCLB). Having grown up in a poor immigrant family, not knowing English when he entered public school, he knew in his gut the importance that doing well academically could spell for a child and he wanted to push kids hard to learn and to excel. He looked abroad and saw that successful education systems did have clear standards and testing, and he wanted American children to have that too. So, no, I don’t think he would have led a strike to end NCLB. I think his position would be: “mend it, don’t end it.”

Question from L. Query, Reading/Language Arts Content Specialist, Edison Schools, Inc.:

What evidence do you provide of the direct impact of Shanker’s education reform efforts?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker proposed a number of creative education reforms, some of which were adopted, others of which weren’t. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which he proposed in 1985, is a powerful example of his direct impact. It has certified thousands of teachers nationally. Shanker also helped unleash the charter school movement, although it took on a very different cast than he intended over time. Al Shanker’s biggest education legacy comes in the area of education standards, testing and accountability. The movement, which was driven in large measure by forces outside of education -- governors and business leaders -- would probably not have gotten very far if the education establishment had uniformly opposed it. But Al Shanker joined governors and business leaders on standards-based reform, and became, indeed, the movement’s most visible spokesperson. Did it all work out the way he wanted? Hardly. But he got the ball rolling and it’s up to the rest of us to get it back on track.

Question from - teacher, Fulton County, GA:

Who is succeeding him, especially with the American Federation of Teachers, which has become rather toothless, of late? Our dues go up, with no accountability. Our visibility goes down, with no explanation. Yes, I’m disgrutled and disheartened. Shanker is right on target with affirmative action and poverty. A prophet in his time.

Richard Kahlenberg:

As I mentioned in a previous answer, I think there are strong leaders in the AFT would are following in Shanker’s footsteps, from Ed McElroy at the head to local AFT leaders like Randi Weingarten and Adam Urbanski. Randi Weingarten, for example, has just forged a very Shankeresque agreement with the New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for a collective form of merit pay --rewarding teachers as a group in a school which raises academic achievement. Shanker favored that idea, as I noted in a recent Los Angeles Times piece headlined Mr. Shanker’s Lesson, because rewarding teachers collectively would encourage them to work together to raise achievement. The head of the AFT chapter in Rochester, Adam Urbanski, heads a group called TURN, the Teacher Union Reform, which pushes progressive education ideas in Al Shanker’s tradition. No figure today articulates a democratic vision quite like Al Shanker did, but there are remnants all around.

Question from Dr. Greta S. Pruitt, Urban Education Partnership, Los Angeles, CA:

Al Shanker preceded Helen Bernstein of United Teachers of LA and, of course, Adam Urbanski, in recognizing the extremely important role of unions in school reform. Who are the leaders of today’s unions who can re-activate this possibility?

Richard Kahlenberg:

I recently spoke to a forum of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) in Miami, and there were about 120 people in attendance whom I think could reinvorate the role of teacher unions in school reform. As I’ve noted in earlier answers, Toni Cortese is leading the way on peer review; Randi Weingarten has advocated performance pay on a schoolwide level, and she’s also supported teacher-led charter schools in New York City. Adam Urbanksi has led on peer review and many other reforms. There are also leaders in the NEA in Denver and elsewhere who have taken bold risks.

Question from Donald H. Smith, Ph.D., Chair and Professor (Emeritus), Department of Education, Baruch College, the City University of New York:

Why did Mr. Shanker oppose teaching students of African descent about their cultural heritage?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Al Shanker didn’t oppose teaching African American students about their cultural heritage. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, Shanker’s United Federation of Teachers created teacher guides on the many contributions of black Americans. What he opposed was an Afrocentric curriculum, which distorted the contributions of Africans as a form of self-esteem therapy, and which sought to seperate kids based on difference rather than teaching them commonality as Americans. Al Shanker recognized that in the home, it was completely appropriate for children to be taught pride in their ethnic or racial heritage; but he saw the public schools as a place to emphasize the unum in e plurbus unum. If public schools didn’t provide the necessary glue to hold society together, then taxpayers would cease to want to support them.

Question from Robert Williams, Coordinator of Teacher Ed, Moberly Area Community College:

As Mr. Shanker evolved how were his new positions greeted by his peers?

Richard Kahlenberg:

Sometimes with astonishment. I interviewed Keith Geiger, the former president of the NEA, who told me that he could never say what Al Shanker did -- that there were some lousy teachers in the profession who needed to be weeded out. But ultimately, most of the leaders of the NEA I interviewed came around to Al Shanker’s way of thinking. Bob Chase, for example, said that Shanker was a “tough teacher,” and was proven correct in backing the Nation at Risk report.

Question from Adia Hoag, Ed.M student, Harvard GSE:

Do you see all of Mr. Shanker’s hard work as a union labor activist being undone in the near future with the current ongoing debate about ending the use teacher salary schedules and moving to a merit or incentive based model?

Richard Kahlenberg:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Al Shanker was open to merit or incentive based models, but only if they were structured fairly. In a speech to the Pew Forum, Shanker backed schoolwide incentive pay for teachers (paying all teachers in a school that raised student achievement) because such a system would encourage teachers to share good ideas and cooperate with one another, much as Japanese teachers do.

Question from Dr. Elizabeth Lenell, adjunct, CU-Boulder:

Is there any reason to believe teacher unions interfer with hiring (or development of) highly competant teachers in public schools?

Richard Kahlenberg:

On the whole, I think there is good evidence to suggest that teacher unions raise the quality of the teaching force. Unions bargain for higher wages and benefits, which will normally attract a higher caliber of candidate. There is no evidence, for example, that teachers in Southern states with weak unions have a better teaching force. Some policies, like opposition to peformance pay, might discourage highly qualified candidates from entering the profession, but creative teacher union leaders have proposed sensible compromises on that issue.

Question from Deborah Rosetti, art teacher, Saddlewood Elementary:

When is anyone really going to do something about our segregation of our schools based on income of the people living closest to a certain school building? This seems to be what is really separating the races, since most minority races live in the most poverty. Whites, also living in low-income neighborhoods have schools with less resources and enrichment programs. Why can’t anyone see this is the main problem of today causing inequities in our systems?

Richard Kahlenberg:

I agree with you that economic segregation is the fundamental driving force behind inequality in our public schools. Forty years ago, the Coleman Report found that the single most powerful predictor of academic achievement was the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from, and the second most powerful predictor is the socieconomic status of the school she attends. Subsequent studies confirm this. Low income kids, given the chance to attend good, middle class public schools, perform much higher, on average, than low income kids stuck in high poverty schools, where there are likely to be negative peer influences, inactive parents, and weak teachers. One presidential candidate - Sen. John Edwards - has come out with a plan to encourge more income-based integration, not through forced busining, but through voluntary incentives. He would create more magnet schools to attract middle class families into urban schools and financial incentives for middle class suburban schools to take in low income urban students. It’s a tough liberal approach that I think Al Shanker would have liked.

Question from Cherry McDonald, graduate student:

Why did you choose to write at this time about Shanker? What are you considering as your next work?

Richard Kahlenberg:

I wrote about Al Shanker because I think a cogent voice like his is missing from politics today, and because I think we can learn a lot from his ideas on education. Shanker was a tough liberal -- someone who favored public schools and trade unions, but was also opposed to racial quotas and was a strong supporter of promoting democracy abroad. That’s a special political space that is occupied by very few people today. He had a coherent political philosophy that was anchored to democracy. He also made a tremendous amount of sense on education policy, and I think it’s important, as we forge ahead with No Child Left Behind and other policies, to revisit his thinking. Right now, I’m just trying to get the word out about the book on Al Shanker and don’t have another book project. I do intend to continue my work at The Century Foundation on promoting economic school integration, especially in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision curtailing the ability of districts to use race. We’re hoping to put together a consortium of school districts pursuing economic and racial integration so they can identify best practices and so we can commission research on academic outcomes.

Question from Dave Kamper, IFT Union Rep, Springfield, IL:

While Shanker opposed union busting and racial segregation in charter schools, to what extent is he responsible for it? You write in your book that his embrace of the concept ofcharter schools helped fuel their growth. Why couldn’t he foresee the extent to which his (sensible and sound) ideas would open the door to those who wanted to use charter schools to undermine public education? Was he politically naive?

Richard Kahlenberg:

There was a lot of discussion within the AFT about whether Al Shanker had unleashed a pandora’s box in promoting charter schools. His response was: should I stop coming up with ideas?

Mary-Ellen Deily (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks to all for the good questions. Special thanks to Richard Kahlenberg for his thoughtful answers. Mr. Kahlenberg’s book, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, was published by the Columbia University Press.

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