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Albert Shanker

  • Where Al Shanker Stood: School Vouchers

    Written on August 2, 2017

    With all of the recent debate about school voucher proposals, we decided to reprint this January 1997 New York Times column by Al Shanker in which he discusses inconsistencies in many conservatives' position on vouchers.

    \We are used to seeing conservatives go all out in support of vouchers. But what about a conservative who argues against providing public money to send students to religious and other private schools? Timothy Lamer, whose op-ed piece, "A Conservative Case Against School Choice," recently appeared in the Washington Post (November 6, 1996), is such a novelty. Lamer thinks that conservatives who push for vouchers are ignoring or distorting their principles. He intends his article as a wake-up call to conservatives, but it should suggest to members of the public generally that there is something fishy about the conservative crusade for vouchers. How come conservatives are pushing something so alien to their usual point of view?

    Here are some voucher arguments advanced by push-for-vouchers conservatives that go against the conservative grain:

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  • Teacher, Democrat, Union Chief

    Written on March 10, 2017

    The seventh author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eugenia Kemble, president of the Foundation for Democratic Education and founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    We are now at a time when basic freedoms are threatened, public education is systematically attacked and unions are crumbling. More than at any time since Al Shanker's death 20 years ago, this remarkable teacher’s most important legacy needs our attention.

    At the core of this legacy was Shanker's fixation on the idea and practice of democracy. It bubbled up to the top of his agenda early and raw from a mix of personal experiences, including anti-Semitic bigotry, the tough working life of his parents, and the voiceless experience of teaching in schools run by autocrats. And it was refined by exhaustive reading of such pragmatist philosophers as John Dewey and Charles Saunders Pierce, religious theorist, Reinhold Neihbur, the anti-communist, Sidney Hook, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and many, many, many more.

    Al believed that union leadership was democracy leadership — in the running of the union, and in its role as a defender of public education, free trade unionism and political democracy here and around the world.

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  • Democracy's Champion

    Written on March 3, 2017

    The sixth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and a consultant for the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web project. He is the author of Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers, available from the Institute. Chenoweth also worked in the AFT's International Affairs department from 1987-1991. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    Albert Shanker knew from an early age the power of prejudice. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor Queens neighborhood where anti-Semitism was rife. Among the few Jews at his school, he was subject to constant taunts and a near fatal attack by fellow students. The lessons of his childhood and upbringing gave him a profound sympathy for other marginalized groups in society and helped lead to his activism in the civil rights movement (he was an early member of the Congress on Racial Equality). His upbringing also taught him other powerful lessons. His mother’s membership in textile workers unions had helped his family out of poverty (“trade unions were second to God in our household”), while the public schools he attended (and other institutions such as public libraries) were essential to his gaining greater opportunities for higher education that ultimately led him into teaching. All of it was intertwined.

    Perhaps most profoundly, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the post-war challenges of Soviet communism informed his early world view. He became a committed believer in democracy and opponent of dictatorship.  His early leanings towards socialism were rooted in the study of anti-fascist and anti-communist intellectuals of his era, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Iganzio Silone, Arthur Koestler, and Victor Serge — Left intellectuals who opposed all forms of government that would oppress freedom.

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  • A Father And A Fighter

    Written on March 2, 2017

    The fifth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is his daughter Jennie Shanker, adjunct professor at Temple University, and a member of the Temple adjunct organizing committee. Eadie, Adam, and Michael Shanker also contributed to the piece. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    It’s been 20 years since my father passed away at the age of 68, and he’s still not far from the thoughts of family and friends. The many incredible events of the past year have made his presence palpable for us at times, as the repercussions of the election unfold in the news.  

    His life’s trajectory was formed by the personal struggles of his family, the lens through which he saw the world. His parents were immigrants who moved to this country to escape the pogroms in their home territory between Poland and Russia. His mother came over on a boat at the age of 16 with her mother, arriving after weeks at sea with pink eye. She was denied entry into the country and was forced to turn back. She returned by herself a year or so later and settled in NYC. She worked behind sewing machines, rotating between different sweatshops that hired her for short periods of time. Her long hours of hard work, lack of decent working conditions, low pay and lack of job security led her to the unions of her day.

    My father attended public schools in NYC, speaking only Yiddish in the first grade. He was unusually tall as a kid, had a large port-wine stain birthmark on his neck, and he was a Jew. Hitler’s Germany would have an ongoing presence in his family life.

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  • Where Are My Shanker Knights?

    Written on February 28, 2017

    The fourth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    Those of us who had the privilege to work with labor leader and progressive giant Al Shanker can attest to his deeply held sense of justice, his urgency in the fight for fairness, and his composure in the face of both personal and professional battles that would have left many of us undone.

    For me, Al Shanker was a friend, a leader and a mentor. Shanker believed every worker deserved dignity, respect and a shot at the American dream. And when it came to paraprofessionals, he used his influence as AFT president to organize us into the union, thus giving us a voice in the classroom, dignity in the school building and the wages necessary to take care of our families. Back then, many paraprofessionals, like those of us in Baltimore, were seen as just the help and weren’t given a voice or chance to work in an equitable environment. Many of us were black and brown mothers, heads of households.

    But, thanks to Al Shanker and the AFT’s organizing efforts, paraprofessionals saw better times, stronger collective bargaining agreements, higher wages, more dignity in our workplaces and greater love from the community we served.

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  • Remembering Al Shanker

    Written on February 24, 2017

    The third author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Herb Magidson, who, before serving as an AFT vice president for 28 years, was an assistant to Shanker when he was president of the UFT. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    During these last few tumultuous months, I’ve thought many times about Al Shanker. How would he have reacted to the chaos now afflicting our nation? How would he respond to a new president who is so dismissive of the basic democratic principles on which the United States was founded more than two hundred years? And what counsel would he have given us as we seek to deal with this challenge to our very way of life?

    At a time when authoritarians throughout the world appear to be gaining strength, I think of Al, above all others, because what was special about Al was his unwavering commitment to freedom; his dedication to the belief that support for a vigorous public school system, and a free trade union movement are integral to a robust, open society where workers from all walks of life can prosper.  This 20th anniversary of Shanker’s death comes, therefore, at a moment when it is helpful to be reminded of the contributions of this hero who celebrated freedom and dedicated his life to its promulgation.

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  • In Search Of Tough Liberals In The Age Of Trump: Remembering Al Shanker

    Written on February 23, 2017

    The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.

    I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death.  I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions.  My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me.  So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.

    Shanker cut an imposing figure.  He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol.  He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business.  On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.

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  • Public Intellectual: The Legacy Of Al Shanker

    Written on February 22, 2017

    Twenty years ago today, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, died. To mark the occasion, we have asked a number of individuals – some who knew and worked with Al and some who have studied his life’s work – to reflect on the continuing relevance of his ideas and his principles. We did so out of a conviction that Shanker’s ideas and principles are not simply matters of historical interest, but of real contemporary value at a time when public education, unionism and American democracy itself are in a state of profound crisis, under attack in unprecedented ways. Beginning today with this post, we will be publishing these reflections (you can find the full series here).

    For a half-century, Al Shanker labored as a teacher and educator, as a unionist and as a democrat. In each of these fields, he was a political force to be reckoned with, shaping public policy and thinking in significant ways. Yet unlike most important political actors on the American scene, Shanker was a public intellectual who relished vigorous debate and reveled in the world of ideas. He brought an open mind and a penchant for critical analysis, a fierce commitment to rational discourse and logical argumentation that relied on evidence, to all that he did. His political engagement had a deeply intellectual cast.

    As the executive director of the institute established by the AFT to honor Shanker by carrying on his life’s work as an engaged public intellectual, I have often thought about Al’s example. What strikes me most about Shanker the thinker was his refusal to become entrenched in his views or to allow his beliefs to harden into inflexible dogmas. One story in particular comes to mind.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: The Importance And Meaning Of NAEP Results

    Written on October 30, 2015

    In this New York Times piece, published on July 29, 1990, Al Shanker discusses the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and what they suggested about the U.S. education system at the time.

    One of the things that has influenced me most strongly to call for radical school reform has been the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examinations. These exams have been testing the achievement of our 9, 13 and 17-year olds in a number of basic areas over the past 20 years, and the results have been almost uniformly dismal.

    According to NAEP results, no 17-year-olds who are still in school are illiterate and innumerate - that is, all of them can read the words you would find on a cereal box or a billboard, and they can do simple arithmetic. But very few achieve what a reasonable person would call competence in reading, writing or computing.

    For example, NAEP's 20-year overview, Crossroads in American Education, indicated that only 2.6 percent of 17-year-olds taking the test could write a good letter to a high school principal about why a rule should be changed. And when I say good, I'm talking about a straightforward presentation of a couple of simple points. Only 5 percent could grasp a paragraph as complicated as the kind you would find in a first-year college textbook. And only 6 percent could solve a multi-step math problem like this one:"Christine borrowed $850 for one year from Friendly Finance Company. If she paid 12% simple interest on the loan, what was the total amount she repaid?"

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Union-District Partnerships

    Written on September 3, 2015

    In this New York Times piece, which was published on March 9, 1986, Al Shanker discusses a study suggesting that union-district partnership, not confrontation, is the best way to enact and implement reforms that will improve schools.

    In the last 25 years, teachers' unions have grown in size and influence. In the minds of many they represent an establishment just as much as the local board of education and the superintendent of schools. Many critics of our schools have been eager to portray teacher unions as supporters of educationally undesirable rules and procedures, such as seniority, which were borrowed from the industrial sector. They view teacher unions as fighting for these rules at any cost and using their bargaining powers to shoot down constructive change whenever it threatens to infringe on teachers' vested interests.

    But an interesting new study gives us quite a different picture of the impact that teacher unions and collective bargaining have on the reform process. In preparing Teacher Unions, School Staffing and Reform, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research team led by Susan Moore Johnson analyzed 155 contracts chosen at random from a variety of school districts around the country. And, from June of 1984 to February, 1985, they did extensive, in-depth field work in 5 of the districts, where they examined documents, sat in on meetings and interviewed 187 teachers, principals, union leaders and central office administrators.

    What emerges is a valuable insight into the dynamics and complexity of the reform process, why some proposals work and why others fall flat. Though new programs tend to be formulated in legislative chambers or in governors' mansions, the key to success, the authors conclude, is what happens on the district level, within the individual collective bargaining unit. And some interesting patterns emerge.

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