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 on Albert Shanker
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.