Shanker, Albert (1928–1997)

views updated May 18 2018

SHANKER, ALBERT (19281997)

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 issuesimproved academic standards for students and improved teacher qualitybecame 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 conservativesometimes 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."

See also: American Federation of Teachers; Teacher Unions.


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.

internet resources

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." <>.

Swedlow, Marian, and Weiner, Adam. "Al Shanker, Image and Reality." <>.

Julia E. Koppich

Albert Shanker

views updated May 09 2018

Albert Shanker

Over four decades, Albert Shanker (born 1928) rose from public school mathematics teacher to national educational statesman. Shanker's militant leadership of New York's United Federation of Teachers in the 1960s brought him personal notoriety and won for teachers substantial improvements in compensation, working conditions, and bargaining power. President of the 700,000-member American Federation of Teachers from 1974 into the 1990s, Shanker was an effective advocate of sweeping national educational reform.

Born September 24, 1928, Albert Shanker grew up in a working-class Jewish family in the borough of Queens in New York City. His parents, Mamie and Morris Shanker, were emigrants from Poland. Both were union members; his father a union newspaper deliveryman, and his mother a sewing machine operator and member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. The Shanker family's deeply held political views were staunchly pro-union, following the socialism of Norman Thomas and including ardent support of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Early on, Shanker exhibited the voracious thirst for information, the love of philosophy, and the dedication to human rights causes that characterized his life's work. As a boy he read several newspapers daily, and by the time he was a teen, he was avidly reading the humanitarian philosophy of Thomas Hook. He idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, and Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader.

Shanker's social and political activism began during his undergraduate years at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne. Shanker picketed segregated movie theaters and restaurants and was a member of the Young People's Socialist League and chair of the Socialist Study Club. Shanker majored in philosophy and graduated with honors. Shanker then took graduate courses in philosophy and mathematics at Columbia University, receiving an M.A. degree and completing the coursework, but not the dissertation, required for a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Classroom Work to Union Organizer

Shanker's graduate work ended in 1952, when he took a one-year leave of absence from his graduate program and accepted a temporary position teaching mathematics at an East Harlem School. He taught mathematics in New York City public schools from 1952 to 1959, making $42 a week in take-home pay and experiencing firsthand the poor treatment of teachers, the ineffectiveness of traditional teaching methods, and the conflict and frustration that dominated inner-city classrooms. During this time he joined the New York Teachers Guild and devoted increasing time and energy to union work.

Shanker became a full-time union organizer for New York City's United Federation of Teachers (Local No. 2 of the American Federation of Teachers) in 1959. His ascent within the union was swift. By 1964 he was president, a position he held until 1985. During the 1960s, Shanker received national attention and considerable criticism for his aggressive union leadership and skillful negotiation of pay increases for New York City teachers. In 1967, and again in 1968, he served jail sentences for leading illegal teachers' strikes. The 1968 strike closed down almost all New York City schools for 36 days. The stimulus for the strike was teacher transfers out of ghetto schools during school decentralization experiments. The strike exacerbated racial tensions in ghetto schools, although the real issue was protecting teachers' rights from excessive local control.

During the 1960s Shanker was also active in the civil rights movement. He was a charter member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He participated in several major civil rights marches and the sit-ins in Selma and Montgomery. He led a delegation of teachers to protest Martin Luther King's murder. All of this notwithstanding, Shanker's positions on minority hiring quotas and busing in the early 1970s were criticized by some Black leaders. Shanker promoted the development of magnet schools rather than busing to achieve racial balance. He opposed quota hiring of minority teachers, believing such quotas to be essentially discriminatory, and instead supported educational programs within his union to qualify Blacks and other minorities for teaching positions.

As a result of his controversial views and his militant union leadership, Shanker was considered something of a loose cannon through the 1960s and early 1970s. This image was captured by Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper, in which the main character wakes up in the year 2173 and is told that the United States had been destroyed because one hundred years ago a man called Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."

Union President and Reformer

Beginning in the early 1970s and with his 1974 election as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Shanker's image mellowed, and he became a nationally respected proponent of educational reform. This change was attributed in part to Shanker's paid weekly column in the New York Times, Where We Stand." This AFT-sponsored commentary on educational issues ran in the New York Times and 60 other papers nationwide beginning in 1970. In this column, Shanker anticipated, analyzed, and advocated major changes in education. Through this forum and his role as national president of the American Federation of Teachers, Shanker's focus broadened from improving teachers' working conditions to improving the performance of the educational system as a whole through sweeping restructuring and reform. In Shanker's view, essential elements of such reform are increased teacher competence, responsibility, and accountability: elements that are a significant departure from traditional union views.

Foremost among the changes Shanker promoted and facilitated in the 1980s were the creation of a national examination for beginning teachers, the utilization of a team approach to school organization and management, and pedagogy that emphasized cooperative learning and highly participative instruction rather than classrooms dominated by teacher talk. Shanker was a strong advocate of increased use of computer technology, not only to provide individualized instruction for students, but also to create a national database and communication network for the dissemination of the best available instructional materials and techniques.

Shanker's educational reform efforts largely paralleled the changes occurring in American industry as a result of quality and productivity problems. Shanker frequently cited the relatively poor academic performance of American students as evidence of the necessity for change in our educational system. At the heart of Shanker's reform recommendations was the exploration of organizational structures and management systems that empower teachers to generate improvements and controls, as well as the provision of a broad range of incentives to motivate teachers, schools, and school systems to make the needed improvements.

Shanker's influence towards these ends was considerable and extended far beyond the 700,000-member American Federation of Teachers. His leadership of the American Federation of Teachers and his successful influence on national opinion regarding educational issues were credited with pushing the two million-member National Education Association (NEA) from resistance to active support of school reform in the 1980s, just as his success with collective bargaining in the 1960s is thought to have stimulated NEA affiliates to negotiate contracts and call strikes. In 1985 Shanker's initiative sparked the formation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in the early 1990s was working toward the implementation of a national examination system for beginning teachers.

Shanker's influence extended to corporate and government leadership as well. Beginning in the mid-1980s he was a member of the prestigious Committee for Economic Development, an alliance of national corporate leaders that was working to improve schools. He served on national committees such as, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and on President Bush's Educational Policy Advisory Committee. Shanker's long held views and ideas on national standards were the foundation for educational reforms outlined by President William Clinton during the State of the Union Address in 1997. After the address, Clinton called Shanker and said to him we should have listened to your sooner." Sara Mosle described Shanker as the most important American educator in half a century."

Further Reading

The best source on Shanker's views and work in education is his Sunday New York Timescolumn, Where We Stand," starting in 1970. Sara Mosle, The New Republic (March 17, 1997), provides information on his life, contributions to education and union activity. □