Albert Shanker

School for Survival

VTR Date: May 18, 1992

Guest: Shanker, Albert


Hosts: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Albert Shanker
Title: School for Survival
VTR: 5/18/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … and over the years I’ve heard and read today’s guest say and write so many negative things about the nature, and quality – and, of course, the failures – of the American educational system that first I’ve wanted to cry out with rage, and then I simply despair.

But he doesn’t … he never seems to despair. Albert Shanker, the demanding indomitable, outspoken, quite judgmental critic and leader of educators in his long-time role as President of the American Federation of Teachers just keeps storming along, pushing and cajoling his colleagues (and all the rest of us concerned to tears over the failure of our schools), to make those changes, take those innovative first steps that just might at least start us on the path to the real educational turnabout that is so absolutely necessary to our survival as a nation, as a force for civilization rather than barbarity.

Well, now, I’ve always thought that Al Shanker’s ebullience and optimism and determination in the face of an educational chamber of horrors that of all people he knows and so often chronicles far better than the rest of us… that these up, rather than down, qualities of his are probably glandular, hormonal in their origin, and so can’t just be mimicked by the rest of us. But after all these years of watching my guest urge us on to action and to hope for the best, even after all the Commissions and the Reports and after all the Surveys that show American education at or near the bottom of the international barrel, I would today first press my guest to tell us what we Americans must do educationally-speaking and what indication there is at all that we might just be able to do it successfully? Mr. Shanker?

Shanker: Well I think we need to do two things at the same time. One is to try to develop a totally new type of school or new type of educational institution. I think for a long time critics have realized that having 20 to 35 youngsters sit in front a room, listen to the teacher lecture most of the time, write things down in notebooks and go out and end up with some multiple choice test is not the ideal way to learn. We all learn through various informal apprenticeships in life… we learn all sorts of complicated things without sitting through that sort of thing, and we all know that when we’re finished with many years of that, there’s not that much that we remember. So the first thing to do is to see whether we can get a, a new sort of institution. School is the only institution in our society that today looks the same way it looked when George Washington was around or even before that. Everything else has been so radically transformed. But that will take time and we’ve had many efforts at school reform and innovation and so far they haven’t succeeded, and so I certainly would not take all 100,000 schools in this country and set them on the road to trying to radically change what they’re doing. I think we need some pioneers to do that, stay with it long enough to come up with a number of models that work. Now the other thing we need to do is to improve the schools that we have. After all, if you go to France or Germany or Canada or Japan or Australia or Sweden you’ll find youngsters sitting in classrooms, listening to a teacher and using text books. And they’re doing much better than we are. Not only much better for their top youngsters … they do much better … they, they turn out a top group of about 25% or 30% who are equal to our top 3%. So that that is a vast difference, but they do it without neglecting those who are at the bottom … some of them do neglect those at the bottom. The Australians do and the British do. If you don’t make it in high school there is a huge drop out rate at age 16 or so. But these other countries don’t have the huge illiteracy rates, or border illiteracy rates that we do at the bottom. So there’re doing something right and by looking at what are the differences between what we do and what they do, we get some sort of a notion as to the changes we need to make. Now, of course, we can’t make all of them because they are different societies and different countries. But, but those that we can’t make we can do something that’s functionally equivalent within our society.

Heffner: I’m lead to two questions. Number one, there seems to me, if you forgive me, a contradiction there. You seem to be saying that in other parts of the world their doing rather well with techniques, older techniques that now seem to be failing us. Or am I misunderstanding it?

Shanker: Well, we’re not doing exactly the same thing. It looks … if you walk in for five minutes and see a German classroom and a Swedish classroom and an American classroom, on surface they will look alike. But there are some rather big differences. For example, in the United States we have local control of education, we have something called School Boards … School Board members have to get elected, to get elected they’ve got to respond to constituents, so you have a kind of regular interference with what goes on in schools in the United States, which you don’t have in any of these other countries. You have more professionally run schools with the policy makers in the nation’s capital at some distance setting policy, but not … but, but nobody calls up the Education Minster saying that “in PS2 and 2 I don’t like the class they put my youngster in”. So that’s … that’s one thing. The professionals … that, that there’s distance. Second, a very important thing is that each of these other countries have a curriculum. Now in the United States we don’t have a national curriculum, and for the most part, we don’t even have states and in many cases, school districts don’t. That really means that the textbook publishers decide what’s going to happen or each individual teacher. Now this is a huge difference because it essentially means that every other country, as a nation, they have brought together the best minds in mathematics or in history or in science and they have decided what they want youngsters to know at the age of 18. We, in our own way, say, “well, it’s not important, each person can sort of figure it out, or each district. We’re a very diverse society and we’re not going to allow anybody to do that”. Well, once … once you get away from a national curriculum, it means that as a youngster moves from one school district to another, or even one teacher to another, they may face the kinds of abrupt shocks and discontinuities that they would never face in other countries. Secondly, our textbooks are awful. Why are they so terrible? Well, if you’re a textbook publisher and you want to sell your books in, let’s say, nine states, you’re going to have an awfully boring book because you’re going to look at nine different sets of ideas, and you’re going to cram them all into this big fat book so that you can sell it in California, and in Texas and in Illinois and some other places. It’s going to be unfocused, it’s going to be more like a compendium. Then, furthermore, in other countries if you know what the curriculum is, you can train teachers to teach the curriculum. You, your training for professionals can be rather specific, whereas here it’s very fuzzy … methods of teaching this, and philosophy of teaching that …most teachers say they didn’t get much out of. So that’s, that’s a second area. There’s a third area, and that is that if, as I indicated a minute ago, 30% … that is all the youngsters that go to Germany … who go to a university in Germany meet the standards for Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago in the United States. Then the whole business of quality of teachers in terms of their own academic standing is very different in those countries. And there’s one other that I would like to underline at this point, and that is that there are very clear stakes in terms of learning or not learning in other countries. In Germany … in every one of these other countries there is some form of national, or provincial examination. If you don’t pass that at a very high level, you can’t read difficult and important things, if you can’t write well, if you can’t do mathematics at a, at a pretty competent level, you cannot get into any college or university in the country. So students turn off the tv set, they turn off the radio set. When Mommy or Daddy tells you, “sit down and study instead of doing something else”, you know that they’re doing it in your interests.

Heffner: So there are student stakes?

Shanker: Student stakes … whereas in the United States when kids get to high school they find out “gee, I also wanted to go to Harvard, Stanford or Chicago or one of the 5% of the institutions that have high standards, in the United States. I don’t have to do any work to go to college … colleges are out there trying to recruit me. They’ve got empty seats and they want me”. The same is true, by the way, for those youngsters who don’t go to college. In other countries, the kinds of courses you took, the curriculum, your grades, the reports from your teachers, all that makes a difference as to whether you end up unemployed, or whether you end up sweeping floors, or whether you end up in the, in German IBM, or, Siemens or one of the major companies. So that there’s a very clear relationship …if you work hard, if you do well, if you have good habits in terms of your habits in school in terms of working effort and so forth … something happens at the and which is very clearly related. Now in the United States that just isn’t so. And that, and that it seems to me is one of the most important differences of all because, after all, learning takes place not because so much of what the teacher does, because of what the student does. If students work hard, if they listen, if they read on their own, if they write on their own, it is their work … it is their engagement even within the classroom. Students can sit there and just be turned out, and it’s their desire to accomplish something … and now of course, that doesn’t happen with a six year old youngster … six or seven or eight year olds aren’t thinking, of college or work. But high school youngsters are and that failure to have clear stakes, that the youngsters can see, that working hard makes a difference and “it’s going to make a difference in my life”. That’s one of the major differences between our system and theirs.

Heffner: But, you know, it’s interesting to me that you say “it’s a matter of the stake that the student feels”, he or she has in achieving. There have been those who have said and I believe that you’ve emphasized this in the past, but you’re dismissing it now, seemingly … and that the teacher must have a stake, too. That there are two… it takes two to tango here, educationally. Mustn’t the teacher be rewarded similarly, or not rewarded if the … if the achievement level is not high enough?

Shanker: They’re not rewarded on the basis of achievement levels of students in any other country in the world, so that all those who are succeeding are not doing it that way. In these other countries, teachers have more than tenure. That is they have civil servant status in Germany. That’s a very high status, indeed. A very high form of security. Now, I believe that in order to try to transform schools, in order to get teachers to take the kinds of risks … in a sense to jeopardize the order of the classroom, the kinds of relationships that you have … when, when you start to do something new, you have to renegotiate all of your relationships with faculty with students … it’s a … it’s very, very messy … it’s messier than re-doing your kitchen, or something like that. In order to get teachers to be willing to tolerate that kind of turmoil, and indeed, to look for it, I think you need school-wide incentives in terms of success or failure of schools as well. But that doesn’t … but, but we could have a much better system without any incentives for teachers because there are no such incentives anywhere else in the world and they are doing much better.

Heffner: But you’ve changed your mind on this, haven’t you? You’re talking about school stakes rather than teacher stakes, but you’re changing your mind about stakes for anyone other than the student.

Shanker: No, I’m not. I am changing in this sense. I think that in terms of student outcomes it won’t make any difference unless the stakes are there for students because it’s students who have to work for those outcomes. On the other hand, I don’t think that you’ll ever get school boards to step back and stop telling people what to do in the schools unless teachers can say, “look, we’re going to do as well as we can because if we don’t do well we’re going to be punished as a group within the school. And if we do exceptionally well, we’re going to be rewarded so you can leave us alone, you don’t have to tell us what to do we’re going to do these things because, first of all, we’re professionals, and secondly, those who don’t have a professional attitude, or who aren’t thinking about it, and are motivated by extrinsic goals they’re going to do the best job they can, too, because there are stakes involved in it. They can either get large bonuses, or they can get other things or at the other end, they, they can be held accountable by losing their jobs”. Not as individual teachers because I think you want to get an entire faculty to work together, so I would do it in terms of some … either the school as a unit, or a grade level, or a department, but I would have …I would use it in such a way as to compel people to work together and not to have them competing against each other, if they’re next door neighbors within a school building.

Heffner: Does this represent a shift on your part?

Shanker: Well, the idea that there should be… that, that there should be compensation based, to some extent, on outcomes does represent a shift on my part. At one time the very notion that that one could or should measure these things was merit-pay issue. And I think on the old merit-pay issues we were right because I think it’s very difficult to measure individual performance of teachers over a very short period of time, like one year. I think it is possible to measure the performance of an entire school over longer periods of time, like three or five years. And, and I do think I have changed because I, I do think that most people kind of want … like to continue doing what they’re doing. Now that’ s true in business too, except in business you know that if you keep packaging and selling and making exactly the same product while everybody else is getting better than you are, you know you’re going to be out of business in a short time. And that’s what get people to go through the painful process of change. And I think our public institutions, not just schools, but I think the future of public institutions in this country will largely be dependent on whether the public feels that they get the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit, willingness to change, willingness to move away from rules and regulations if there’s a focus on the desired outcomes. I think if we don’t have that we’re in for a massive period of privatization in the United States.

Heffner: Now, do you think that Al Shanker, democratic-socialist of 20, 30 years ago would have used that entrepreneurial notion?

Shanker: No but the democratic-socialists in France are using it, and the democratic-socialists in Germany are using it, and the democratic-socialists in Sweden if they’d like to win the next election will use it. The, the fact is that, that those who placed a lot of faith in government, government’s ability to do things, and by the way I still think that the Reganite notion that government isn’t … that, that private enterprise does everything well… that’s nonsense, too. Look at our, our banks, and look at our economic system. So that’s not something we ought to hold in such high esteem. But I do think that the, that those who felt that we were rather simple-minded abut it were right, and that people who believe in government delivery of services and the importance of certain things being delivered as to everybody within society on a fair and equal basis, are really going to have to change their minds, and are changing their minds about how those services need to be organized. They, they do need to be organized so that they’re sensitive to what society wants to get out of them, so that they don’t become so bureaucratized that the original intent is lost.

Heffner: Well, now isn’t there some tension between what you’re saying now, which I respect … understand and respect … and you’re looking for well, the equivalent of a national economic policy in almost a national educational policy. Isn’t there some contradiction there or at least some tension between those notions?

Shanker: Well, every country that has …that operates on a market system also has national policies. And if you look at the Japanese and the Germans who are very successful in terms of world trade and economics, they have some very clear and strong national policies. They, they don’t destroy the market, but essentially there always is a balance … there’s no such thing as, as a market that … without governmental policies and I would say the same thing is true in education. I think that what needs to be centralized is … “where do we want to go and what do we want kids to learn”. You don’t want 2.7 million teachers each making separate decisions on what the goals of our society ought to be. That’s a political choice … a policy choice of a whole society … it takes time to do that, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I … at least on some things, the ability to write very well the ability to perform well in mathematics, the ability to read difficult and worthwhile things… that there’s a consensus on these issues. When we get to the question of “how should history be taught”, there will be a little less consensus, but not much less.

Heffner: Truly? Not much less?

Shanker: Not much less, no.

Heffner: As an old teacher of history, I would … I would challenge that. But what particularly fascinates me is, is the fact that in this day and age when presumably there has been in our times, going on right at this moment, a break-up of nationalized economies and nationalized systems of teaching and everything else … you’re urging us to get into that business.

Shanker: Oh, I don’t want … I don’t want the national government or any national group telling people how to teach. But to say that you want youngsters to be able to write an essay that’s as difficult as this one … they can write it on all kinds of different topics, but they ought to be able to write something of this quality, which shows this type of thought, this type of ability to persuade, to communicate and so forth. And tests have been made to show that adults who look at these essays even though they’re on different topics and subjects can pretty accurately agree on what reaches a certain level. Now, that doesn’t tell them how to do it. You might have some teachers who rigidly stand up there and lecture about how to do it. You may have someone else who has the kids write journals every night. You may have someone else who has some sort of a computer program. You can have a tremendous variety of ways of getting there. But what you all agree on is where you want to go. You want youngsters to be able to read a good newspaper and good books or good literature and to understand poetry and you want them to be able to solve mathematical problems of the following type. And there will be lots of different ways of getting there.

Heffner: But we’ve been saying that forever. Has there been a time when we haven’t agreed that we want to turn out, if that’s the proper phrase, or lead to students who can read a newspaper, a good newspaper, intelligently, who can write a mature essay.

Shanker: But, but …

Heffner: We’ve always said that.

Shanker: … how many…
Heffner: What do you want to change?

Shanker: … how … well, how many … well, we … you know saying that you want something …

Heffner: Yeah.

Shanker: … and meaning it are two different things. Now how do you mean it? To a youngster … what’s the first thing a youngster says… “does it count”? (Laughter)

Heffner: Okay … accountability …

Shanker: “Does it count”? Does it count, is it going to count on my final mark, is it going to count for getting into college. Does it count? Now the fact is that there are practically no states in this country that require any sort of a written essay on any examination as a requirement for graduation. Here are very few colleges that do. We have SAT exams that have multiple choice. Very few require any … they don’t require what we used to have in the College Entrance Board exam … I remember for sitting for five days and writing essays and solving problems. Well the Germans still do this. The French do this. The British do it. Every other country … if you want something, then you’ve got to say, “look this is what you’re going to have to do to get into college, or this is what you’re going to have to do if you want a work certificate, you’re going to have to sit and you/re going to have a half a day to write essays … or a day or two days, or three days”. So, we may say we want this, but there isn’t anything, and by the way, if the only thing that’s tested at the end are multiple choice … if you’re a teacher … and you know that your youngsters at the end will ultimately take an SAT or they will take other, they’ll take these standardized reading exams, and if you knew that no essays were going to be given, but the only marks were going to come out of multiple choice tests … how would you spend your time with those kids? You’d have quite a conflict as to whether … now you might know that it’s a lot more important for them to be able to express themselves in an essay, you would know it, but you’d be very torn because in doing this you might reduce, you would reduce the amount of time in practicing over and over again how one handles these multiple choices.

Heffner: But not you’re a philosopher by training. Now let me ask you whether you see any connection between developing accountability in our country now, in our schools, and the problems that we are having as we develop a dichotomized society between the intellectually, culturally rich and those who are poor. Any, any, any future misgivings, or any misgivings about the future if we now go full force, full speed ahead with accountability?

Shanker: I don’t think so … well, it could happen. That’s always one of the things that’s wrong with anything … the United States can get worse. I’m not saying it can’t get worse …

Heffner: Unforeseen …

Shanker: On the other … other hand I’m not saying we develop a curriculum and accountability system which will be in stone … we return and look at these things every ten years. And if we see that, that the gap is widening there are things we can do about it. The fact is that all these other countries that are doing better than we are have a smaller gap from top to bottom than we do. There’s only one other country that has no national curriculum and that’s … that’s Holland …the Netherlands. And the Netherlands and the United States have the widest gap between top and bottom of all the industrial countries. Now there are other things we have to do. I mean there’s one thing that all these countries do that we don’t, and that is they, they spend the same on all their children. If there’s something called equality of educational opportunity, then you don’t say that one youngster deserves a $3,000 a year education because this is where the boat landed and someone else deserves $12,000 a year. That’s a … there are other things that I didn’t enumerate on my list, but that’s, that’s clearly one of them. But we, we’ve got this … we’ve got a worse gap between top and bottom and I think one of the reasons for the gap is that upper middle class kids find out what’s needed in other ways and if the schools don’t send strong messages to working class youngsters, to poor youngsters, to under-class youngsters… this is what is wanted and if you do this, here’s what you get for it, it is an opportunity to get out of your present situation. If it doesn’t create that visible link between the two … it’s the … it’s the poorest kids, economically, socio-economically, the poorest kids who are most hurt by not giving them a clear message of what’s wanted, and the way out of their current economic status.

Heffner: Which leads me, in he one minute we have left to ask you… why now … why in this year can we make the assumption that we will begin to do what we haven’t begun to do up to this point? You have been saying much the same thing for many years. Different …

Shanker: Well, you have a Secretary of Education who’s saying it … two Presidential and probably three Presidential candidates who are saying it. There was a National Commission which is bi-partisan said the same thing. It’s going to be tough to do, very tough to do. On the other hand, we have never been as close to moving on all these items as we have now. There’s national agreement as to the crisis and there’s very substantial agreement at least on a theoretical level, as to what needs to be done. It’s in the details that all the fights are going to come out.

Heffner: Of course, every ten years or so we sit down and “aye de me” … not you, I do about the state of American education. I wonder what we’ll say ten years from now? Al Shanker, thank you very much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order. In the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.