Albert Shanker (1928–1997)
President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation's second largest teachers' union, Albert Shanker was born in New York City in 1928 to Russian working-class immigrant parents. He grew up during the depression on the Lower East Side of New York, his father a newspaper deliveryman, his mother a sewing machine operator. Shanker was reared in a union home where, he said, "Unions were just below God" (Swerdlow and Weiner Internet site). When he began school, he spoke no English and endured beatings and anti-Semitic taunts in his mostly non-Jewish neighborhood.
Shanker excelled academically. After completing high school he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and, in 1949, entered the Ph.D. program at Columbia University. Having completed all requirements but a dissertation, Shanker began teaching elementary and junior high school mathematics in New York City in 1952.
He left teaching in 1959 to become a full-time organizer for the Teachers Guild, New York City's AFT affiliate. The guild was just one of 106 small New York City teacher organizations. Founded in 1917 with John Dewey as a charter member, the guild was the only New York City teacher organization to support collective bargaining, in which teachers elect a single organization to represent them in contract negotiations with their employer. In 1960 the Teachers Guild merged with New York City's High School Teachers Association to form the United Federation of Teachers. Shanker was elected president in 1964.
In the early 1960s Shanker helped New York City teachers gain collective bargaining rights and achieve the first contract in any major city in the United States. A supporter of the civil rights movement (Shanker marched in nearly every major demonstration in the country), his tenure as UFT president was partially defined by the Oceanhill-Brownsville events of 1968.
The city had divided the school district into multiple subdistricts, each with a community-based governing board. Oceanhill-Brownsville was a predominantly African-American district staffed by a largely white, largely Jewish teaching population. In 1968 the district superintendent, Rhody McCoy, removed the white teachers from the black community schools and Shanker called a strike. Before matters were settled (the teachers were returned to their jobs), there would be three strikes, all illegal under New York State's collective bargaining law, and Shanker would spend fifteen days in jail. Even when the issue seemed to be put to rest, critics continued to label Shanker a racist.
Shanker was concerned that Oceanhill-Brownsville would label him for life. He wanted educators and New Yorkers in general to better under-stand his principles and ideas, even if they did not always agree with him. Unable to get op-ed pieces placed in New York newspapers, he bought a paid ad in the December 13, 1970 edition of the Sunday New York Times. That ad would become his "Where We Stand" column, a weekly opportunity for Shanker to put forth his ideas about education, the union, and social and political issues to a large public audience. He would write the column for twenty-seven years.
Shanker continued to gather supporters and critics. Under his leadership, the New York City teacher union grew into a large and politically powerful organization, which in 1975 pulled New York City back from the brink of bankruptcy when Shanker placed teacher pension funds in city bonds. Although he was approached to run for mayor (he declined), there were those who believed he wielded too much power. In Woody Allen's 1973 movie, Sleeper, Allen's character, frozen, awakens in the year 2173 and is asked how civilization was destroyed. "A man named Al Shanker got the bomb," he replies.
In 1974 Shanker became president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a post to which he was re-elected every two years until his death. He remained president of the AFT and UFT for twelve years, relinquishing the UFT presidency in 1986.
When Shanker became AFT president, the organization was relatively small, particularly in comparison to its national rival, the National Education Association (NEA). The AFT, founded in Chicago in the early 1900s, was a union, a member of the AFLCIO, and an adherent to trade union principles. Shanker had an unshakable faith in unionism, but in the early 1980s, he would set the AFT on a different, and unexpected, path.
In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its landmark education reform report, A Nation at Risk. Shanker expected that this report, like its predecessors, would not support teachers and the AFT would need to oppose it. On reading the report, Shanker concluded that it provided an opportunity for his union to begin to tackle many important issues. A supporter of pubic schools, Shanker was nonetheless realistic about the problems, particularly unacceptably low levels of student achievement.
Shanker used the 1983 report as a springboard to change the conversation about and within his union and to catapult him to a prominent role in the education reform debate. He acknowledged his members' nervousness about new directions in July 1985 when he told a large AFT gathering in Washington, DC, "It's dangerous to let a lot of ideas out of the bag, some of which may be wrong. But there's something more dangerous and that's not having any new ideas at all at a time when the world is closing in on you."
Shanker had many ideas. In 1985 he called for the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In 1988 he publicly made a case for charter schools. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Shanker was a vocal advocate for high academic standards for all students, accountability for results (and consequences for failure to achieve them), peer review (in which teachers judge the quality of their colleagues' work), and minimum competency testing of new teachers. He told his members, "It is as much your duty to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract." He argued that preserving public schools meant improving them.
During Shanker's AFT tenure, the American labor movement continued to shrink in size, but the AFT grew to an organization of more than a million members, including teachers, teacher aides, health care workers, and public employees, the last two categories of which Shanker added to the AFT's rolls during his presidency.
A focus on professional issues–improved academic standards for students and improved teacher quality–became hallmarks of the union under Shanker's leadership. He never abandoned collective bargaining, continuing to believe that the system was essential to secure basic rights and employment conditions for teachers. He broadened the interests of the union and in so doing, reshaped the organization. By the time of his death, attendance at the AFT's semiannual professional issues conference (called the QuEST conference for Quality Educational Standards in Teaching) outstripped attendance at AFT policymaking conventions.
Shanker was called a radical, a liberal, and a conservative–sometimes all at the same time. Never afraid of a controversial view or an unorthodox idea, Shanker would take a position and then, if someone or something convinced him otherwise, would just as quickly reverse course. Shanker's counsel was sought by Republicans and Democrats alike, and by presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. A member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee, Shanker was founding president of Education International, a worldwide federation of teacher unions.
Although Shanker accomplished much of his agenda, he was never able to secure a merger between the AFT and NEA. Shanker argued that the dollars that the two teacher unions were spending on internecine organizational warfare could be better spent fighting the enemies of public education.
When he died of bladder cancer at age sixty-nine in 1997, the president of the NEA, Bob Chase summed it up: "American public education has … lost one of its most eloquent and effective advocates. A true leader, Al Shanker was always one bold step ahead of us all."
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS. 1997. "The Power of Ideas: Al in His Own Words." The American Educator, Special Issue. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.
WOO, ELAINE. 1996. "Al Shanker's Last Stand." Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 1.
CHASE, ROBERT. "Statement from Bob Chase, President of the National Education Association, on the Death of Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers." <www.nea.org/nr/st970222.html>.
SWEDLOW, MARIAN, and WEINER, ADAM. "Al Shanker, Image and Reality." <www.igc.apc.org/solidarity/shank69.txt>.
JULIA E. KOPPICH
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