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Legacy of Education Reformer Albert Shanker Discussed at Forum

In March 1980, union organizer and education reformer Albert Shanker spoke at Harvard for the first time, in the same Longfellow Hall room in which he would later teach his course on teacher policy. Twenty-seven years later, at the Askwith Forum on November 7, panelists gathered in the very same lecture hall to discuss Shanker’s career and legacy in the field of education.

“Most of us would be thrilled to do one big thing in life, but [Shanker] really did three,” said Richard Kahlenberg, author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy. The three major accomplishments of Shanker’s career, according to Kahlenberg, were the founding of modern teachers’ unions, his leadership of education reform in the ’80s and ’90s, and his dedication to “tough liberalism,” which the author described as a philosophy “more politically persuasive and substantively potent than either traditional liberalism or traditional conservatism.”

Shanker is perhaps best known for his work as a union organizer in New York City, where he founded the United Federation of Teachers in 1960 and led the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes. He became president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1974, a position he held until his death in 1997.

Shanker was effective, Kahlenberg argued, because he “saw that there was a need for unity” in a city whose teaching force was greatly divided. Paul Toner, vice-president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, added that Shanker “was all things rolled into one: he advocated for the profession, he advocated for the improved economic standards for teachers, and he was also an advocate of the very early civil rights movements.”

All of the panelists agreed that Shanker’s impact on education extended far beyond his union work.  Beginning in the mid-eighties, he published weekly column-like advertisements in the New York Times that “became a must-read for people in education policy.”  In his essays, Shanker proposed merit-based pay, teacher-led charter schools, and a system of peer review, all ideas that had been typically unpopular among union leaders.

“Through the work that he did on committees and commissions, but also through his weekly columns — which were incredibly powerful — these ideas started to take hold,” said HGSE Professor Susan Moore Johnson. “It’s just stunning to lay out, one after another, these reforms that were his ideas.”

Shanker’s most controversial legacy was his political philosophy, which Kahlenberg referred to as “tough liberalism.”  He was “liberal on issues of trade unionism and public education, colorblind on issues of race, and tough on areas of defense,” the author explained.

This unique philosophy made Shanker a fiercely independent political figure.  He was, however, still able to advocate popular reform while remaining committed to his own beliefs. “What tied together his seemingly disparate views was a profound commitment to democracy,” Kahlenberg said.

Shanker’s efforts had a significant impact on American public schools, but certain aspects of his legacy may be difficult to maintain. “I am struck realizing how much difficulty we have had making [his] ideas work,” Johnson said, citing the absence of a comprehensive performance-based pay system in American public education.  Furthermore, charter schools today are considerably different from the charter schools Shanker initially proposed.

Unions have also faced difficulties in recent years. They have experienced drastic declines in membership and frequent changes in leadership.  In order to be as relevant as they were under Shanker’s leadership, unions must focus on “being a voice for public education and for the children in public schools, as well as for the members,” Toner said.

Patricia Albjerg Graham, Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of Education, who knew Shanker personally and worked with him on several occasions, suggested that he possessed a broad vision that educators and policymakers would do well to emulate today. “He was knowledgeable, he was inquisitive about education, and not just about teachers and policy, but about education in any form,” she said.