A labor icon’s thoughts on education

On this Labor Day, in lieu of our regular column, we leave you with some words from Albert Shanker, who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997.

Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)
Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)

Professionalization of Teaching: In a speech to the National Press Club on January 29, 1985, Shanker called for a national exam for beginning teachers and a national board to improve the teaching profession.

It would be a group which would spend a period of time studying what is it that a teacher should know before becoming certified, and how do you measure it? And it would seek to have instruments established.

Before someone finally gets the ticket, [there] ought to be an internship program. Teaching is the only profession that I know of where a person begins the first day with the same responsibility that he or she will have the last day – a profession in which practice and performance are certainly as important as intellectual knowledge, but it’s just assumed that you can take someone who’s been to college for four or five years and throw him into a classroom the first day to sink or swim. I know of no major corporation, I know of no law firm – and certainly not the medical profession – that introduces people that way. Any other profession which involves any complexity is quite different.

Unless we make that investment, we will be getting people who don’t know their subject matter. We will be getting people who have no knowledge of what is known in education or how to apply it. And we will not really be giving anyone any help in terms of practical and performance matters. And in a few years we will grant them tenure and they will be with us for a long, long time.

Tuition Tax Credits and Union Power: Shanker spoke against tuition tax credits and explained the necessity of a strong union in his “State of Our Union” address at the August 21, 1978 AFT Convention in Washington, D.C.

Tuition Tax Credits: There is no doubt in my mind that if tuition tax credit passes, it is the end of public education in this country as we know it. Yes, first, it will be the wealthiest children who will take it and move out; and the next year another group will move out. And each year there will be more and more.

When we’re all finished, we will still have some children in the public schools. They will be the difficult to educate. They will be the ones who were not accepted by the private schools. They will be those who were accepted and then were kicked out. So there will always be a public school system, but it will become sort of the “charity ward;” it will become the “clinic, ” it will become the “poor house” of education in the country. It will become a national scandal, as private schools flourish.

Tuition tax credits is not just another bill, it’s not one of those things where, if it doesn’t pass, that’s good, and if it does, well, we don’t like it. It’s not like another $500 million won or lost. Tuition tax credits is the whole ballgame, it’s the whole existence of public education in this country, it’s the existence of the union, it’s the existence of equal opportunity. Do you just count that as one of the pieces of legislation in a long list?

Power of the union: More and more our problems are national, and our problems are political.

And the only way in which we’re going to succeed in defeating the Proposition 13’s, in getting labor law reforms through, in permanently defeating tuition tax credits and vouchers, is to continue making our organization more and more powerful, more and more members within our organization, so that political figures know that when they do something that hurts us or that’s a question to the life or death of public schools, they have a huge group of politically active and sophisticated people who are going to be working against them.

Now, look around this hall. Many of us are from locals that were very small locals five years ago, and 10 and 15 years ago, 20 years ago, very small and struggling. Most of us at one time or another believed that we have joined an organization which was a permanent minority. We belong to the union, and we joined at a time when it was dangerous, and at a time when it was very unpopular. We joined at a time when we were sure that maybe we could have advanced and been promoted in the school system, but joining the union would probably mean that whatever opportunities we had in that direction were considerably reduced if not completely killed.

Most teachers who join the union join because of some little or bit problem that they had in their own pocketbooks or in their own schools. But, you know, the people who founded this union were people who saw beyond that. They had a belief and a dream that some day teachers within our society would not just be fighting for a livelihood at the local level or handling a grievance, but that some day the teachers of this country would be organized and powerful enough to be able to influence national policy and national decisions, because, who knows better than the teachers of this country what’s good for schools?

Charter Schools: Albert Shanker didn’t invent the idea of charter schools, but he helped launch the movement in a landmark speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1988.

I would like to make a proposal today. The proposal is based on the notion that we have not moved reform fast enough …

How would this work? The school district and the teacher union would develop a procedure that would encourage any group of six or more teachers to submit a proposal to create a new school. Do not think of a school as a building, and you can see how it works. Consider six or seven or twelve teachers in a school who say, “We’ve got an idea. We’ve got a way of doing something very different. We’ve got a way of reaching the kids that are now not being reached by what the school is doing.” That group of teachers could set up a school within that school which ultimately, if the procedure works and it’s accepted, would be a totally autonomous school within that district.

It’s a way of building by example. It’s a way not of shoving things down people’s throats, but enlisting them in a movement and in a cause. I believe that this proposal will take us from the point where the number of real basic reform efforts can be counted on the fingers of two hands to a point where, if  we meet here again a few years from now, we’ll be able to talk about thousands and thousands of schools in this country where people are building a new type of school that reaches the over-whelming majority of our students.

Standards and Assessment: Shanker was a champion of high standards and rigorous but appropriate assessments and testified for the need to strengthen both on July 21, 1989 before the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities.

The subject of what students should know and be able to do is about as basic to education policy and practice as one can get. Every one of the advanced industrial democracies with which we compete has grade-by-grade national or regional curriculum frameworks, and in so doing makes clear its expectations for students, school staff, textbooks and other instructional material, and the professional preparation of prospective teachers. We do not. Every one of these nations also administers student tests that are based on its content standards, that complement curriculum and instruction and that students can study for and have strong incentives to do so; their class and test performance during their school careers will determine whether they go to college and whether they get a good job at good wages. We do none of these things.

Many of Albert Shanker’s papers are available online through the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University which houses the AFT archives.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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