Albert Shanker

The American Teacher, Part II

VTR Date: June 14, 1986

Guest: Shanker, Albert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Albert Shanker
Title: The American Teacher, Part II
VTR: 6/14/86

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’d like to begin this program as I did the last one, noting that I’ve at least always wanted to believe that among educated Americans who are, after all, those most familiar with it, our frequent American reference to George Bernard Shaw’s cruel little ditty, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” really reflects a basic uneasiness about doing, not about teaching; about churning up dollars and things, not about churning up minds. For who among us doesn’t look back with affection, with admiration, and with gratitude to those teachers who challenged our minds and molded our thinking about ourselves and the world around us, who charted for us paths that perhaps we’ve strayed from, but which we maintain as key to the good life, who in truth made “teacher” an honored title.

Well, I spoke about teachers that way because my guest then, as he is again today, was Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers. Mr. Shanker was a key figure in the recent Carnegie Forum Task Force on Teaching as a Profession. Its recent report, “A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century”, is considered splendidly innovative by some, not enough so by others. And I want to ask Mr. Shanker, as we begin, just how much he thinks you and I and other parents can bet on the realization of its plea for professionalization of this nation’s teachers. Mr. Shanker, how much can I bet?

SHANKER: I think you could bet with at least 50-50 chances of winning, which is a better bet than most reports. Most reports just come out and there’s a story and you get some editorials, you get a little bit of discussion, and then they get put on the shelves. This one is somewhat different. First, I think we ought to notice that we have now been through a wave of educational reform that’s lasted three years. Nobody would have bet on three years. They would have said a couple of weeks and then something new will come on the scene. But now it’s been three years. This report tells you how to make the others happen. The others said things like, “Make sure that every student takes three years of mathematics. Make sure that every student takes two years of science. Make sure that every student takes this.” Well, how do you get those students to take that if there are no math teachers, if there are no science teachers? The other reports didn’t deal with any of the practical questions of how you make these things happen. This does. It also puts into play certain institutions. That is, Carnegie, which sponsored and paid for this functioning of the task force, the printing of the report, will now devote anywhere between ten and $25 million over the next ten years. They will create a national board of professional teaching standards, which is the counterpart of the National Bar Association, which creates the bar examination.

HEFFNER: Is that the key element in this report, creating a national board?

SHANKER: That’s one of the key elements. The notion is that you have high standards, don’t call anybody a teacher just because there’s a shortage. There are no such things as substitute surgeons around or emergency lawyers, as we have substitute teachers and emergency teachers. Maintain a standard. Determine what that’s going to be, which is a person who knows their subject, the person who knows his or her subject matter, a person who knows the knowledge base in terms of the professional matters, and a person who has been through an internship, something like what a doctor goes through or what a new lawyer would go through at a law firm. And then treat that teacher like a person who has gone through a tough period of training and who knows something. Right now teachers come in and they’re told what textbook to use, they’re told what exam is going to be used on the students, they’re told how many minutes to treat each subject. They’re treated like a bunch of hired hands. You will not in the future get very many bright college graduates to come into a field where they’re treated like children. What this says is, make it tough to get in, but once somebody gets in, treat them the way you treat doctors and lawyers.

HEFFNER: Mr. Shanker, how many teachers are there now in the elementary and secondary schools of the United States, public and private?

SHANKER: 2.2 million, and one-half of them will be leaving teaching in the next seven years.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “Leaving?” Are they going to be pushed out by this new professionalization?

SHANKER: No, most of them will be retiring because you know that we had a baby bust period in the 1970s and so there weren’t many new teachers hired during that period, so what we have is a very aging teacher force. We also have the usual number of people who came in and they teach for a few years while they’re going to law school at night or while they’re saving up enough money for a business or something like that. But we’re about to lose half the teachers in this country in seven years, but we don’t have the usual sources for replacement. That is, we no longer have the men who would rather fight in the Bronx rather than Korea or Vietnam, the draft is gone, and the draft exemption with it. And we no longer have those tens, hundreds of thousands of women who used to say to themselves, “I’m either going to be a secretary or a teacher or a nurse.” Those women are now in business administration, law, medicine, banking, management. If you just look at the chart of the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees being awarded to women today, in the last few years, in all these fields where in 1973 women constituted three, four, five, six, seven percent of these fields. The Wall Street Journal had an article on this about five weeks ago, and the title of that story was “The New Majorities.” That is, women are now in the 40 to 70 percent range in terms of the number of degrees. That means that the only way to get teachers now is the same way that any business gets them, the old fashioned way. That is, we have to offer the right incentives. Now, money is part of the incentive, but it’s not the only one. People want to be treated right and they want to know that they are making a contribution. And that’s what this professionalism is all about.

HEFFNER: Okay. I think I understand you there. But I do want to go back so that I am, those who are watching us will understand what’s going to happen with the rest of the present teaching population that will not retire in the next seven and a half years. Do they get grandfathered in your grand scheme, or are they fired if they cannot pass the tests of professionalization?

SHANKER: No, we still have in the new scheme states will continue to license teachers. That is, the license will be the lowest form of entry. In a sense, the government says to people, “They won’t hurt anybody. Some of them are terrific. But we’re at least guaranteeing that they won’t hurt anybody and that they have a minimal…”

HEFFNER: What do you mean? Who won’t hurt whom?

SHANKER: It’s like licensing in other fields. Licensing, it’s the same reason that you have doctors licensing and then you have board certification. A licensed doctor is a person that essentially some agency says, “This person has met what we consider to be the minimum standards for not doing harm and for doing some good.” However, the reason…And these people can do anything they want in medicine. But if you’re smart and you’ve got a problem, you’re going to go to a board-certified surgeon of a board-certified anesthesiologist if you need anesthesia. So, in a sense, you’ve got lots of doctors out there who have got a right to practice, but then you’ve got certain doctors who are certified as being super in certain fields.

HEFFNER: Okay, let’s take the lots of teachers…

SHANKER: And we’re doing the same thing. What we’re saying is that the people who are there now are going to be, they are certified or really, they’re licensed, they’re saying, “You can continue teaching the way you’ve been teaching. You lost nothing.”

HEFFNER: No one is going to be pushed out.

SHANKER: No one will be pushed out. The current level of certification is going to be viewed as a standard level. We hope that in the, you know, in the future it will improve. We hope that many of the teachers who are there now will decide to take the new examination and to get the higher form of certification, because there’s more connected to it. The schools of tomorrow, the schools, there’s a vision of what school will look like in the future in the Carnegie Task Force Report. It is not a school where teachers are locked into rooms with, in rooms with 25 or 30 or 35 students, lecturing to those students. The school of tomorrow, which is going to happen very quickly, actually some of these schools are going to start opening up this coming September. But the school of tomorrow will be one where the curriculum is defined. It’s not the 1960s. The kids don’t’ get to do anything they want just because they’re having fun. The curriculum is defined, but no longer is a teacher lecturing to students from nine o’clock in the morning till three in the afternoon. The teacher is more like a prescriber or educational curriculum to each student. There are books, there are charts, there are videotapes and VCRs in the room, there are computers on each desk. There are interns who are practicing to become teachers. There are different levels of teachers. There are paraprofessionals. There are even retired businessmen and military people who are coming into the schools because they know some math and science, but they’re not going to take full charge. And those people who are board-certified teachers are essentially the people who help to train the teachers. They do a lot of coaching with individual students, the things that teachers don’t get a chance to do much of now, critical thinking, expression, writing; not just lecturing to impart facts. And those are the teachers who say, “This is the videocassette for you, Johnny. That’s what will help you learn how Eskimos live in Alaska,” or, “This is the computer program for Mary, because that’s where you’re at now.” It’s much more like what a professional does where…You know, doctors don’t see 30 patients at a time and ask them what’s wrong and then give them all the same prescription. Nor do lawyers. What we’re doing now is batch processing children. Teachers are treated, they’re not just teachers; they’re also in a sense wardens. They’ve got to hold onto and control a massive group of children. And what this new school is going to do is to free them from that control burden of teaching everybody at the same time. And it’s going to turn them into true professionals who are prescribing different courses of study for different students.

HEFFNER: You know, Mr. Shanker, the only thing that bothers me about this wonderful – I won’t say Never-Never Land; I hope it comes to pass – and you make the reference to doctors, and you say they don’t treat everyone. Well, not everyone is searching for an education, presumably, from the age of four or five to the age of 17 or 18. But every American is. And when you talk about such individual guidance, such individual teaching, I wonder if you aren’t a bit carried away with your vision of the future.

SHANKER: I don’t think so. I think that anybody who thinks that the current system works is a bit carried away.

HEFFNER: Didn’t say that it works.

SHANKER: But you have to have an alternative…In the current system you’ve got 30 students there. Some of them don’t understand what the teacher is saying; they’re lost. Another third of them perhaps know it already and they’re just bored. And so the teacher always has to wonder, “Am I going to teach to the slowest group in the class, in which case most of the kids are going to be bored? Am I going to teach to those who are ahead of everybody?” Well, then everyone else gets lost. “Or do I teach to the middle?” It is a process that’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating to students. The students are passive. They’re sitting there. How many adults can sit still from nine o’clock in the morning till three in the afternoon listening to someone lecture? The current system works for about 25 or 30 percent of the kids. Highly disciplined kids who have got a lot of push at home and who have got a lot of drive themselves. And this new system essentially gives…there are some students who need personal help. They will get it here. There are others who would rather not work with another person, who are embarassed about making mistakes. They’d rather work with a computerized program and do program instruction. There are others who do very well with lectures. What this does is it starts to treat children and teachers as people, as individuals; not as people who will always do exactly the same thing every day.

HEFFNER: You know, I’ve been following Shanker for many, many years. I’ve been reading you and I’ve been listening to you and I know what it is that you’ve said. You have excoriated a nation that has not been willing to provide the resources necessary for its schools. Now, that didn’t start three years ago; that started 30 years ago and more. Now, I understand what your report, your fellow, your colleagues in the task force have done. But what leads us to think that what they have called for will be achieved at this point? Because you’re talking about resources.

SHANKER: Yes, we are talking about resources. But let me say that the amount of resources that are needed…there will be some additional resources needed. And there is no question about it. But some of the resources are in the schools right now, and they have to do with the kinds of teachers you can attract depending on the kind of rewards you offer. And the rewards are partly monetary, but they’re also partly the nature of the pleasure or the enjoyment, the satisfaction, the fulfillment that comes from the job. Most of our school systems only spend from one-third to one-half of the money that they have – operating budget; I’m not talking about building buildings – they spend one-third, 33 percent 37 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent of their money on teachers. Where does the rest of the money go? Well, a little bit goes for textbooks. A little bit goes for heating. A little bit goes for transportation. But most of it goes to provide inspectors to watch the teacher, coordinators, curriculum creators, assistant principals, department chairmen, principals. Why do you need all these people watching the teachers? So you have that many people watching the lawyers or watching the dentists or watching the surgeons? No, you don’t. Why? Because there’s a standard in those other fields. You feel if a person has come into the field, and you also provide doctors and lawyers and accountants and these others with an opportunity to meet with their colleagues to constantly shape each other up. They don’t always do it, but at least the potential is there.

Now, in this new system, if you have teachers of a higher caliber, you won’t need as many inspectors. You will not need the 50 or 60 or 70 percent of the budget as overhead. You’ll be able to put it right…As a matter of fact, a lot of the people who are now principals or assistant principals or others will be teachers. They’ll be board-certified teachers who are like the senior partners in a law firm, who are still practicing law and also helping their fellow lawyers do things. Yes, we’ll need more. I’m not saying we don’t need more resources. But the rich part of this is that you could probably accomplish 75 percent perhaps of the cost factor in this by doing what the Japanese have done with management. You know what an American auto company does. You have 100 workers there, there are 50 inspectors watching them. In the Japanese company, they have two inspectors, and they give the workers 15 percent of the time to talk to each other to figure out what’s wrong in the production process. And what this does essentially is it moves the resource toward the children and the teachers and away from the administration, the bureaucracy, and the overhead.

HEFFNER: You know, if we had some alchemist here who could transfer or translate or turn Shanker’s enthusiasm into reality, I think that would be great. But I remember sitting at this very table with, well, with J.P. DeGrace talking about wastefulness in government. And there was all that enthusiasm for what we would have for the real things that we need if we could get rid of the waste. And it sounds to me as though you’re saying just about the same thing.

SHANKER: Not really, because what you have now is not waste. That is, if you hired people in who had low standards, you hire a lot of substitutes and a lot of people who are not qualified, you hired people who were English teachers and forced them to teach math, you better have a lot of inspectors there, you better have a lot of people watching them. Now, what we’re talking about is transforming the system. By the way, it’s being done elsewhere. It’s not being done very much as a result of…


SHANKER: It’s being done in the Saturn project. It’s being done in some steel mills. And I would guarantee that if you brought here the union and the management people from the Saturn project or from some of the new steel mills that are really turning things around, you’ll find exactly the same kinds of things happening. You would find a leaner management, you would find the end of paperwork, you would find workers operating in teams and being respected, and turning out a better product. You don’t know it about Saturn yet because they haven’t turned one out. But that’s what they’re about to do.

HEFFNER: You mention the key word, one of the key words. You bring the union people, you bring management together. Now that there is a rival educational establishment in this country, the NEA, that doesn’t look upon this plan as favorably as you do. Now, how are you going to be able to bring the unions and management, in this instance management is what? The schools as they now exist? Public officials, school boards?

SHANKER: School boards, superintendents.

HEFFNER: What gives you all these happy feelings along those lines? This report has been criticized.

SHANKER: Well, it’s criticized by officials, and I understand that, because there are official positions that organizations have. On the other hand, I’ve been traveling across this country – if you saw my frequent flyer mileage in the last couple of months, I don’t know when I’ll get the time to use it – but I’ve been all across the country and I’ve been talking to school boards and principals and superintendents and parents and teachers. And I can tell you that apart from official reactions of organizations, and some of them are favorable, people are excited. They have a feeling that the current system there’s no place to go. How much more money will teachers get? And where will you get the teachers during this period of the baby bust period in the colleges? We’re about to lose 1.1 million. And you know who’s out there waiting to come in? They’re not the top-notch people. They don’t want to go into teaching. There are a few who are believers. But the big bulk of people who are now lined up to come to teaching are the bottom quartile of college graduates. We’re about to face a disaster. Teachers know it, parents know it, principals know it, school board people know it. They also know that while we’re getting kids to answer questions on these idiot multiple-choice examinations, we’re doing that better each year, we still are not producing kids who can stand up and give an argument or kids who can write an essay, kids who can think. We’re not doing our job. They’re tired, they’re frustrated, they want something different. They want something that gives them hope. I’ll tell you what. I think that the NEA teachers are going to like this. Thousands of them are going to like it. But even if they don’t, doesn’t make any difference. We represent one-third of the teachers in the country. And I believe that a substantial number of our teachers will have their hands raised and will volunteer and will say, “I want to try this.” And when they try it and it works, the rest of the teachers are going to come along. By the way, that’s just what happened in 1960. The NEA said collective bargaining was terrible, trade unionism was terrible. “We are professionals, we don’t want it.” So they didn’t have it. So New York had it, Chicago had it, Detroit had it, Philadelphia had it, Boston had it. And you know what? All the teacher started leaving the NEA. I mean, we only had 50,000 members then. We’ve got 625,000 now. Where’d they come from? They came from NEA, people who were unhappy with their organization. That’s what’s going to happen here if they don’t buy this.

HEFFNER: But now you seem to have traded places. We’re not the professional union and they’re now the ordinary, narrow union (laughter) that doesn’t have any vision.

Where did Shanker of the past go?

SHANKER: Well, I’ve always felt that unions, all good unions will always have vision. And the vision has always been more than getting another few cents. Yes, people have to get fed. There’s nothing wrong with struggling for a better standard of living for your members. But I don’t know of any good union that only stands for that. They want the lives of their works to be different. It’s not the extra few cents you want. You want to really bring your members to the point where they enjoy their work, where they develop fulfillment. Good unions have educational programs and they have travel programs. They have things that enable their workers to go beyond what they are in terms of their work. And that’s what this is about. Sure, you start by organizing people, because you offer them another few cents an hour. Well, it’s something…had a great phrase in A Life of Reason, when he said, “Everything has a natural basis and an ideal fulfillment.” You start by going out to catch a fish because you’re hungry. But if you’re a human being, you end up by carving beautiful fishing poles and hooks and developing some art. And it seems to me that this is the highest point of trade unionism, to take something which begins as a matter of necessity and to turn it into something which is artistic and which is beautiful and which is far beyond what your basic necessities are.

HEFFNER: I guess I would feel worse about my seeming negativism if you weren’t so incredibly positive about this so I know that I’m not too much of a doom and gloomer. I just wondered in your statement of support about the report itself, you said, “I am enthusiastic about the goals and vision of the report, though I would have preferred to have had more of my


SHANKER: …and paper and pencil and others. We hereby certify them as being outstanding and terrific. And you know something, if we’re right, the public’s going to see it. And the public will ultimately make the decision. If the public agrees and says, “That’s right. Those teachers are really super. We want to do something special for them. We want to give them a different role in the school, we want to pay them more,” then the public will buy it. On the other hand, if we end up with a silly examination, if we end up giving the stamp of approval to everybody and the public says, “Hey, this doesn’t mean anything,” it’s not going to go anywhere. So this is going to be good because if we don’t convince the public, not through the media and not through a public relations campaign, but through the quality of the product, the public at one point got convinced of the fact that someone who passes the bar exam is probably a better lawyer than someone who hasn’t, someone who’s a board-certified surgeon is probably a better surgeon than somebody who’s a general practitioner. All voluntary. This is voluntary. There is nothing that’s going to compel anybody to buy it unless it’s real.

HEFFNER: Are we talking then about our children’s children and their education, or our children’s grandchildren?

SHANKER: We’re talking about a process that I think is going to start in about, well, it’s going to start this September. There will be a few schools that will begin parts of this. That is, there will be probably 150 schools that will have schools with computers and with video terminals and with some teachers assuming the role of certified teachers even though they’re not yet by some consensus process.

HEFFNER: When will there be a national test?

SHANKER: I think in about four years. I think in about four years we will start getting the first board-certified teachers. I think we’re talking about a process that will take 20 years before it’s full developed. I don’t think the first test is going to be the greatest one in the world, just as the first bar exam, if one were to look at it today, or the first board certifications in medicine probably couldn’t hold a candle to the things that are happening now. This is a continuing process. You see, that’s something we don’t have in education right now. What do you need to become a teacher right now? You take a basic vocabulary test. Half the states in this country, if you pass a sixth-grade arithmetic test on a multiple choice, then you’ve passed the mathematics. It’s shameful. It’s an absolute disgrace the standards that we have. This will raise them.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the report has in any way demeaned the activities in teachers’ colleges and teacher education even in the general university level?

SHANKER: No, I don’t think so at all. As a matter of fact, these teachers who are coming in now, they’re not flunking the education part of the examination; they’re flunking the arithmetic part, which didn’t occur in the professional school. We hope to do for people who are teaching education in colleges what was done for medical schools by Flexner and what was done for other professional schools. Now, in other professions you do not enter as a freshman and enter law school or medical school or…You take a liberal arts education. You might take pre-law or pre-medicine. And then your professional education comes later. And it’s always connected with some practical work, that is with an internship and with actual practice. We intend to do the same thing here. By the way, the biggest recent experience in this is what happened with business schools. Business administration was down there with education in 1939, 1940. If you flunked out of liberal arts, a dean would say, “You can either go to education or business administration.” Now business administration is a master’s degree. They select only the top people in the undergraduate work, and that’s really moved up. We think we can do the same thing with education.

HEFFNER: Mr. Shanker, we are going to bottle that energy and make use of it in education. Thanks so much for joining me today.

SHANKER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write The Open Mind in care of this station. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”