There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. about the role of democracy in public education. In March 1997, in his final “Where We Stand” column in the New York Times, Al Shanker addressed this issue directly. The piece, published posthumously, was an excerpt from a larger essay entitled “40 Years in the Profession,” which was included in a collection published by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
Why do I continue when so much of what I’ve worked for seems threatened? To a large extent, because I believe that public education is the glue that has held this country together. Critics now say that the common school never really existed, that it’s time to abandon this ideal in favor of schools that are designed to appeal to groups based on ethnicity, race, religion, class, or common interests of various kinds. But schools like these would foster divisions in our society; they would be like setting a time bomb.
A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn’t remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. Then, what was left of each group would set up its own country, just as has happened many other times and in many other places. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we became a wealthy and powerful nation—the freest the world has ever known. Millions of people from around the world have risked their lives to come here, and they continue to do so today. Read More »
Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007).
Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering — results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014.” The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe. For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia. (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.) Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.
None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so. Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view: “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy. We haven’t really seen democracy yet. We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship. Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone.” Read More »
Today marks the actual calendar day of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In honor of that day, we republish Al Shanker’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, the director of the March, on the occasion of Randolph’s passing in 1979. One of the themes of Shanker’s comments is the distinctive place of A. Philip Randolph in the African-American freedom struggle, distinguished from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, by his focus on the empowerment of African-American working people and his commitment to non-violent, mass action as the means of empowerment. One of the lesson plans the Shanker Institute has published for teaching the 1963 March focuses precisely on this distinctive contribution of Randolph. Other lesson plans look at Randolph’s close partner, Bayard Rustin, who was the organizing genius behind the March, and examine the alliance between the labor movement and civil rights movement which made the March a success. All of the Shanker Institute lesson plans can be read here.
It may be said – I think without exaggeration – that no American in this century has done more to eliminate racial discrimination in our society and to improve the condition of working people than did A. Philip Randolph, who died this week at the age of 90.
For A. Philip Randolph, a man of quiet eloquence with dignity in every gesture, freedom and justice were never granted people. They had to be fought for in struggles that were never-ending. And progress was something that had to be measured in terms of tangible improvements in people’s lives, in the condition of society generally, and in the quality of human relationships. Read More »
Our guest author today is Lisa Hansel, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation. Previously, she was the editor of American Educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers.
Spring 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of two landmark publications. One, an essay by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in The American Scholar titled “Cultural Literacy,” sparked a small but steadily growing movement dedicated to educational excellence and equity. The other, A Nation at Risk, set off a firestorm by conveying fundamental truths about the inequities in our educational system with prose so melodramatic they have proven unforgettable.
In the 80s, only one leader seemed to fully grasp the importance of both of these publications: Albert Shanker. Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, was prominent partly due to his position, and largely due to the force of his intellect. He saw that schools were in trouble. He agreed that, as stated in A Nation at Risk, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” Read More »
I’ve been reading Albert Shanker’s “The Power of Ideas: Al In His Own Words,” the American Educator’s compendium of Al’s speeches and columns, published posthumously in 1997. What an enjoyable, witty and informative collection of essays.
Two columns especially caught my attention: “That’s Very Unprofessional Mr. Shanker!” and “Does Pavarotti Need to File an Aria Plan” – where Al discusses expectations for (and treatment of) teachers. They made me reflect, yet again, on whether perceptions of teacher professionalism might be gendered. In other words, when society thinks of the attributes of a professional teacher, might we unconsciously be thinking of women teachers? And, if so, why might this be important?
In “That’s Very Unprofessional, Mr. Shanker!” Al writes: Read More »
Today is the 49th anniversary of the historic 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in a year that marks the centennial of the birth of Bayard Rustin, the march’s principal organizer and chief strategist, referred to at the time as “Mr. March on Washington.” Here, we reprint Albert Shanker’s 1987 eulogy to Rustin, who served as a mentor to both Shanker and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The death of Bayard Rustin last week is an incalculable loss to our country and the world. He was the last of the great giants – A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins – who brought us a grand, humane social vision and a dream of an integrated, democratic nation. I have lost a dear personal friend and inspiration.
Bayard was a gifted leader, but he headed no mass organization. His extraordinary influence came not from numbers and money but from his intense moral, intellectual and physical courage. He was a black man, a Quaker, a one-time pacifist, a political and social dissident, a member of many and often despised minority groups, yet he always believed in the necessity of coalition politics to enable minorities to build majorities in support of lasting progress.
He was a penetrating critic who had no use for those whose criticism merely destroyed and did not present a constructive program for change. He was an intellectual who could act and a visionary for whom no organizational detail was too trivial if it moved dreams to reality. Over his lifetime, Bayard was called everything from a dangerous revolutionary to a sellout conservative. The truth is that Bayard was a true democrat in a world of pretenders. Unlike those who lived by double standards and expediency, he remained constant to the principles and goals of democracy no matter what forces or insult were hurled against him. Read More »
In a recent blog post, Larry Cuban muses about the enthusiasm of some superintendents, school board members, parents, and pundits for expensive, new technologies, such as “iPads, tablets, and 1:1 laptops.”
Without any clear evidence, they spend massively on the newest technology, expecting that “these devices will motivate students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and be engaged in schooling.” They believe such devices can help students develop the skills they will need in a 21st century labor market—and hope they will somehow help to narrow the achievement gap that has been widening between rich and poor.
But, argues Cuban, for those school leaders “who want to provide credible answers to the inevitable question that decision-makers ask about the effectiveness of new devices, they might consider a prior question. What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution?”
Good question. Now, good enough? I am not so sure. It still implicitly assumes an iPad must be a solution to some-thing in education. Read More »
On Labor Day, we reprint the following passage from Al Shanker’s “State of the Union” speech at the August 1992 AFT convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Years ago when I was sitting around sort of having a bull session, people raised the question, “What makes a union successful?” Somebody said, “Well, I know what makes a union successful. Look at…” and he named a few unions. He said, “You know what makes a union successful? It’s a union that can really deliver lots of stuff for its members.” Then he mentioned some union that had just gotten a big salary raise and pension benefits and all sorts of other things.
Somebody else who was sitting there said, “You know, I think you’re wrong. It’s really good if the union can deliver all sorts of things, but that’s not what makes a successful union. A successful union is an organization that figures out what people’s hopes are, what their dreams are, what they want.” That’s right. A successful union is a union that gets people to believe that these need not be mere dreams. Furthermore, it shows them that the difference between dreams and reality lies in making the dreams shared, because, individually, we can’t realize them, and they remain mere dreams.
A union is an organization that takes people’s dreams and gets people to understand that, if they work together, they can achieve those dreams.
Our guest author today is Edith (Eadie) Shanker, Albert Shanker’s widow and a retired New York City teacher.
A few months ago, in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Joel Klein invoked Al Shanker’s name as an educator in support of today’s charter school “reform” efforts. Klein wanted the public to believe that Al was the originator of the charter school concept (he wasn’t) and that he would today be supportive of the charter school ”reform” ideology now being spread around New York City and the country as a panacea for low student achievement. Conveniently, Klein did not indicate that Al denounced the idea of charters when it became clear that the concept had changed and was being hijacked by corporate and business interests. In Al’s view, such hijacking would result in the privatization of public education and, ultimately, its destruction – all without improving student outcomes.
Now, in his recent Atlantic magazine article, Klein trots out a quotation attributed to Al (said in jest if at all) to support the stereotype that, as a union leader, Al cared only about “protecting” the union’s members, including “bad” teachers. Using this alleged quotation – “when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children” – Klein not only plays fast and loose with Al’s reputation as a union leader but also as a sterling educator. (To be a true expert on Al’s views on how to improve education for children – and how to be a union leader – Klein could check out 27 years’ worth of his “Where We Stand” columns in the New York Times.) Read More »
This post is co-authored by Matt Di Carlo and Esther Quintero.
Update: Please see this May 2012 “Fact Checker” piece on the Shanker quote in the Washington Post.
This week, in an Atlantic article, former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein dropped an incendiary Albert Shanker quote that you’ve probably heard before:
When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.
The negative implications of this statement are obvious, which is why it is so frequently quoted by (mostly) conservative pundits and journalists.
We didn’t know Al Shanker personally. He died while we were still college undergraduates. So, we were surprised to learn that the people who knew and worked with Shanker have long thought this quote to be apocryphal.
We were skeptical but intrigued, and decided to do a little detective work. Read More »
The recent, breathless opposition to the idea of common curricular content led us to reflect on just how long educators have been asking for this practical tool for better schooling – only to be rebuffed by those more interested in playing politics. It’s been generations. More than 20 years ago, Al Shanker waded into the fray. The following, entitled “An American Revolution in Education: Developing a Common Core,” was published by Al in his weekly Where We Stand column on Feb. 24, 1991.
If anyone had talked about a common curriculum for US schools a few years ago, people would have said he was crazy. Sure, that’s the way they do it in most other industrialized countries; and, sure, their students achieve at a much higher level than ours. But the education system in those countries are under the control of their central governments, and the idea of our federal government dictating what children learn in schools was out of the question. Now, we have begun to understand the price we pay for our fragmented curriculum. We’ve also begun to find ways of building a common curriculum in a typically American way — through voluntary effort rather than government intervention.
Why should we be so eager for a common curriculum? Exactly what difference does it make in an education system — and, ultimately in what children learn? Read More »
Outgoing New York City Chancellor Klein loves to try to wrap himself in the mantle of Al Shanker. He is especially fond of pulling clipped Shanker quotes out of his hat—and out of context—when speaking about his favorite education “reforms.” At first this may seem puzzling, because the ex-Chancellor is disinclined to give either the United Federation of Teachers or its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, credit for much of anything except intransigence. It must be an inconvenient truth for Klein that Shanker devoted his life to making both organizations into the strong and aggressive advocates for teachers and teaching that they continue to be.
In “What I Learned at the Barricades,” a December 6 Wall Street Journal column, Klein leads up to his latest Shanker references with a characteristic litany of inaccurate claims – ones that Al would be quick to correct:
First, it is wrong to assert that students’ poverty and family circumstances severely limit their educational potential.” And “Second, traditional proposals for improving education—more money, better curriculum, smaller classes, etc —aren’t going to get the job done.
Really? It’s hard to imagine which barricades Klein learned at. There is plenty of evidence to support the impact of all of these.
But, for those of us who knew and worked closely with Al (I did from 1967-1984 and from 1989 until his death in 1997), what’s truly galling is Klein’s distorted use of Al’s thinking to shore up a simplistic, narrowly punitive agenda that Shanker would have discredited. Read More »