Union Chief Fights for School Changes: But Some Say Shanker Resists Reform

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No one has pushed harder for rigorous academic standards than Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

In his view, internationally competitive standards are the key to the education reform that has eluded the country since a 1983 panel assessed the quality of America's schools and declared the United States "A Nation at Risk."

The 11-term union leader isn't just talking about higher standards for pupils.

"I'd give a bonus to teachers who pass a subject-matter test at a pretty high level," Mr. Shanker says. "And I'd provide extra money for people who have more than one area of expertise."

Mr. Shanker, who has led the AFT for 22 years and is expected to be elected to another two-year term Monday, will lay out his reform ideas today when he delivers his State of the Union message to 3,000 delegates gathered in Cincinnati for the 80th birthday and 74th convention of the 900,000-member union.

Mr. Shanker will remind members that unions, accused of being stumbling blocks to reform, must change and become more flexible because the survival of public education is at stake.

What won't help education reform, he will tell delegates, are vouchers and privatization, which he calls "highly politicized ideas which are so far unproven."

Union critics say his standards message is a "diversion" and point to the gap between Mr. Shanker's rhetoric and the actions of AFT locals that thwart school reform.

"The AFT is no less an obstacle to reforming our nation's failing schools than the National Education Association," warns the Coalition to Educate America, a group representing the Education Policy Institute, the Claremont Institute, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

"AFT locals continue to poison reforms that would facilitate or make teacher performance a real determinant of hiring, evaluation, transfer and firing decisions," says Charlene Haar, a former NEA affiliate officer who is president of the nonprofit Education Policy Institute.

"I've been in an ongoing struggle with the Hartford Federation of Teachers for 12 years," says Thelma Dickerson, a member of the Board of Education of Hartford, Conn., who is scheduled to address a news conference on the AFT today at the National Press Club. …