Philosopher or King? the Ideas and Strategy of Legendary AFT Leader Albert Shanker. (Feature)

By Kahlenberg, Richard D. | Education Next, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Philosopher or King? the Ideas and Strategy of Legendary AFT Leader Albert Shanker. (Feature)


Kahlenberg, Richard D., Education Next


THE MOST INFLUENTIAL VOICES IN AMERICAN EDUCATION during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were surely Horace Mann and John Dewey, respectively. But who ranks as the most consequential figure of the past 50 years? One of the many leaders who claimed the mantle of "education president"? A particularly influential U.S. secretary of education? A renowned education theorist? A parhbreaking state education official or schools superintendent?

Consider, instead, the late Albert Shanker--the president of a teacher union, of all things, and not even the largest one at that. Writing in the New Republic, Sara Mosle called Shanker, the legendary head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from 1974 to 1997, "our Dewey, the most important American educator in half a century." The notion is astonishing-akin to claiming that the president of the United Auto Workers was responsible for the most important developments in the American automobile industry-yet well justified.

As one of the founding fathers of teacher unionism in New York City during the early 1960s, Shanker helped to create a movement that has become an enormous, if not the dominant, force in K-12 public education. During the 1980s and 1990s, he sought to transform teacher unions into a powerful voice for education reform, proposing ideas that were highly unconventional for a union president. In fact, the modern accountability movement, right through to the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, owes much to Shanker's relentless calls for higher standards, assessments, and consequences for poor performance. Shanker was also an early proponent of public school choice, charter schools (some even credit him with the idea), rigorous knowledge and skills testing for teachers, and extra pay for master teachers. His support for these reforms sharply distinguished him from the leadership of the nation's largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA). By openly acknowledging the shortcomings of public s chools and embracing innovation, he became a much more credible and effective voice for public education than the NEA or other defenders of the status quo.

Bipartisan Praise

Shanker's effectiveness as a leader stemmed from his unique combination of gifts. He was a union leader who could quote Aristotle and an intellectual who knew how to run a meeting. His innovative thinking drew invitations to teach from Hunter College and Harvard. Shanker was asked to join the boards of the Spencer Foundation and the Twentieth Century Fund, "one of only a handful of labor leaders to serve as a foundation trustee," one expert noted. At the same time, Shanker transformed the AFT, Education Week marveled, "into a labor union that often acts like a think tank."

He did not always come up with original ideas, but he took good ones and spread them through the 1,300 "Where We Stand" columns that he wrote in his lifetime; the column, a paid advertisement now written by Shanker's successor, still runs in the "Week in Review" section of the Sunday New York Times. "The impact was extraordinary," said the late U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "Union leaders in those days rarely wrote essays, still less felicitous, thoughtful analysis of public policies' Today every leader with some institutional money, including the presidents of the NEA and the AFT, seems to have a paid column, but none reads like Shanker's "Where We Stand." Shanker's intellect and skills as a debater were backed by a forceful personality and real-world power. His power, in turn, was bolstered by longevity: while he ruled the AFT for 23 straight years, the president of the NEA is term-limited.

Shanker gained a hearing for his ideas from both liberals and conservatives, not by taking moderate positions that consistently split the difference, but by embracing a coherent philosophy that sometimes led to "liberal" policy conclusions, other times to "conservative" ones.

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