Albert Shanker

Kinder, Gentler Union Leader?

VTR Date: October 15, 1989

Guest: Shanker, Albert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Albert Shanker
Title: “Kinder, Gentler Union Leader?”
VTR: 10/15/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Some months ago I also hosted a series of interviews with a whole cadre of quite innovative teachers and educational administrators and researchers at a Washington meeting of the giant American Federation of Teachers. It was truly an eye-opening experience, because change at least seemed so much to be the order of the day. Just as an acceptance of change – indeed, this embrace – later characterized the response of the Federation’s outspoken president to George Bush’s so-called “Education Summit” with our nation’s governors which focused on what American students are presumably taught, what they are actually learning, and how our schools can be reformed to enhance both sides of that equation so crucial in a democracy whose well-being by definition depends first and foremost upon what we really know as a people about our world, past and present, and then do about its future.

Now, you have to realize that the president of the American Federation of Teachers is no pussycat given to agreeing with the powers that be…which is probably why the Wall Street Journal editorialized with such delight the other week when it could quote Albert Shanker to the effect that “it’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy”.

Well, now, that’s from an old-time militant labor leader…while long-time conservative William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education and George Bush’s own drug czar, sort of said “piffle” to the “Education Summit”, actually saying that much of what happened there was “pap”…just the sort of thing Al Shanker used to say…which leads me to ask my guest today what has made him so much gentler and kinder these days. Is this the “switch in time” that hopefully will save mine? Mr. Shanker?

Shanker: Well, I don’t think I’m gentler at all. I’m very much involved and militantly fighting to transform our schools, and I think that what Bill Bennett wants is to go back to something that used to exist. The school that he describes, which he calls “James Madison High School” is just like the school that I went to in the 1940s and it provided a great education for me, and for those who made it. However, in 1940 only twenty percent of the kids in this country graduated high school, and 80 percent dropped out, so as far as I can tell, Bill Bennett’s vision is “Let’s raise the standards and let’s go back to the old system, and if you can make it…great…twenty percent of you will get an excellent education and the rest of you…ah…go out”. I think that what we need to do is something that’s radically different. Schools in every country in the world are hurdles. If you go to jumping them…fine, and if you can’t make it, you’re consigned to something else. There isn’t any school system in the world that reaches out and instead of weeding out students, there’s no school system that really cultivates…that takes kids who aren’t naturals, that takes kids who don’t fit the existing system and says, “The hell with the system, we’ll find other ways, other systems, other ways of reaching you, but many more of you can be developed and the reason so many of you are falling by the wayside is that not everybody fits this system”. Now, I think that Bill Bennett wants to go back to the past, and the reason I really liked Bush’s speech was he said, “We can’t go back to the past, we’re going to make mistakes”, there was an experimental outlook, and he talked about building a new system for the future. He took a shot at multiple choice examinations, and used figures from the national assessment of educational progress, which dealt with whether kids can really read, or really write, organize their thoughts. Whoever did that for the President…(Laughter)…whoever wrote that speech, knew an awful lot about education and, as a matter of fact was probably a closet progressive, a closet follower of John Dewey.

Heffner: You mean the closet followers of John Dewey are now, at this stage of the game, saying this sort of thing? Doesn’t that demonstrate that perhaps the Dewey-ish approach never could work? It hasn’t worked in all these years, has it?

Shanker: Oh, I think it hasn’t worked for a reason and I think that there is a particular reason why it can work now…

Heffner: Why?

Shanker: …when it didn’t work in the past. I think the notion that different kids, as a matter of fact, not just kids, but adults…that we all learn at different rates, and we all learn in different ways and therefore, instead of having a single system that you need…you need to provide a variety of experiences. I think the reason it never worked in the past was that there aren’t any teachers, who over a long period of time, can develop all those different experiences for each individual kid or group of kids. It’s…you just burn out too…you know, if you’re going to go home and develop a bunch of lessons where you stand up there and do the same for all the kids, that’s not so difficult. It’s very difficult to go home and look at all the audio tapes, all the video tapes, all the computer programs, all the textbooks, all the charts, all the pictures and come in with a dozen different ways of reaching the kids. It’s impossible. You can’t do it, especially…you know, five periods a day, and every day of the week, you burn out. So, when you had some of these programs in the past, even if you had cooperation of the other teachers on the grade level, or in the school…too much. Now what we’ve got, we’ve got technology that we never had before. John Dewey never had computers. He never had ways in which a teacher in New York could reach a teacher in Los Angeles and a teacher in Chicago, as a matter of fact a whole group of Social Studies teachers across the country that say, “These are the best three video-tapes to use in introducing the Declaration of Independence. These are the best audio-tapes. These are the best computer programs. These are the best readings in books. These are the best pictures and posters. These are the questions that one would throw out if you had a group of kids around a table and you wanted to get then to learn, through a stimulating discussion…these are the kinds of questions that you would throw out there”. For the first time, you no longer have the Lone Ranger in the classroom. That makes a tremendous difference. John Dewey essentially had a marvelous vision, but it was too much for any individual human being to do, or even a group of human beings in one school, and his vision can now be realized because of the, the miracles of modern technology.

Heffner: Then you seem to be talking about a national education policy. You seem to be talking, not about the kind…there were notes, or overtones of localism, of local control…of school control in what the President had to say. And yet that seems to be contradicted by this national educational policy that you’re talking about.

Shanker: Well, there’s no necessary contradiction. For instance…it obviously depends on the goals that you set. If you were to set goals that say, “Here are the 816 facts that everybody must memorize”, and you do that nationally, you’re going to get rid of localism. I don’t see it that way. What I do see is that we could have national goals that would say that, “We will try to bring as many youngsters up to the highest levels of reading functioning”. Let’s say if you start with illiterate at the bottom, and above that are the kids who can read a word here and there and a sign and follow very simple instructions, but not much more, and next are those who can read easy comic books, and a few other things, and then there are those…finally we get up to the top people who can read something that’s worthwhile, and that has some complexity to it. And you could do the same with writing, the total…a person who can’t write anything, next a few words, and next a person who might write two paragraphs with some errors, maybe…it would have an idea in it. All the way up to a person who is able to write essays. What…you can adopt national goals that say, “Look, our national goals are to bring as many people out of the bottom three levels of either illiteracy or near-illiteracy up to those who can really communicate, express, organize their thoughts, persuade, read things that are similar to that. Now that doesn’t tell you what the essays are going to be, or which books or which stories. The way that people reach the goal is local. There are a million roads to literacy…you don’t have to read the same books to get to that place, and you don’t have to write the same essays, and that is the relationship, as I see it, between the national and the local. And national ought to say, “We are going to push, we’re going to hold up as an ideal, that everyone reaches these top levels, or almost everyone”, but the roads…ah, we don’t know. There is no one road. Even in a given system, it’s not just localism, it’s individualism…for each individual, there’s a different road to getting to that place.

Heffner: Now, you…you, you want to show me that this isn’t really…you’re not really focusing on national control, right? You’re leaving room for localism.

Shanker: It’s not national…as a matter of fact I don’t view this as a national or federal government thing at all. I view this…I think what was nice about the summit was it…you’re going to end up with a voluntary agreement with the governors and the President…some Governors may say “No, it’s not for our state”, and that’s alright. You’re going to end up with a voluntary agreement…what you’re goals…they will be very powerful…just because they’re out there and because so many people have agreed to them, and then it is…it seems to me the important thing is not just the establishment of the goals but a bunch of assessments. If every five years or four years the states cooperate and say, “Alright, we’re going…we’re going to report to the American people how many of our high school graduates can really read a good book, and understand it. How many of them can really write an essay”? Do you know what those percentages are now?

Heffner: What are they?

Shanker: Well, let’s take 17 year olds who are about to graduate. Now the drop-outs have dropped, so 28% of the kids have left and most of those who have deft would not score very well on this, so that you would think that those who are about to graduate…most of them are about to go on to college…would do very well. But when it comes to the highest levels of reading, writing, mathematics or science, and that just means being able to read editorials in The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or Newsweek or Time, we’re not talking about reading something that is super difficult…we’re talking about writing an essay of a few pages or a letter of a few pages, we’re talking about mathematical problems with two steps, not calculus or trigonometry, but arithmetic and algebra…the number of kids who are about to graduate who are able to function at that level, depending on whether you’re talking about reading, writing, math, science…3%, 4%…

Heffner: Oh, come one.

Shanker: No…5%…that’s it. Now…

Heffner: So we are essentially an illiterate people.

Shanker: Well, we’re under-literate…

Heffner: That’s…

Shanker: …there are…there are very few who are illiterate…that’s the good news. The good news is …there’s almost nobody who really looks at something and says, “I can’t understand anything”. Or can’t write a single word. The other good news is the Blacks and Hispanics are catching up real fast. They were very far behind Whites twenty years ago, now half the gap has been narrowed and in another ten or fifteen years, there’ll be no difference between Blacks, Hispanics on the one hand and Whites on the other.

Heffner: We’ll all be under-literate…is that what you’re saying…

Shanker: And we’ll all be under…way under-literate, and to give you a picture of how under-literate we are, we can tell…now they don’t give these same exams or assessments in Germany or England…I’m not even going to talk about Japan, where the different culture…I’m going to talk about Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Great Britain, Holland…we’re talking about Western societies where the parents, you know, where the mother isn’t home…(laughter)…taking care of the kid every second and pushing him…where there are some of the lifestyles that are the same as what we have in the United States. Well, in Germany there’s a national examination to get into colleges and you’ve got to sit for five days and write essay examinations and solve mathematical problems…there’s absolutely no doubt that anyone who gets into college in Germany is at this top level in the United States. Twenty-eight percent of the youngsters in Germany meet the same standard that our top three percent meet, and in France it’s twenty-one percent who meet that top standard, and in England it’s sixteen percent, in Canada it’s twenty-four percent. In other words, it’s not just Japanese and Korean and Singaporeans, but people in cultures with family problems and other problems very similar to ours. Now mind you, I’m not talking about the top…I’m not talking about the kids with disadvantaged…and the kids who were subjected to racism, poverty and everything else. I’m saying that some for the most advantaged kids who ever walked the face of the earth, upper middle-class and middle-class kids who’ve got everything going for them, are not learning how to read, write, and they don’t know any mathematics, and they don’t know any science.

Heffner: Mr. Shanker, you are the President of the American Federation of Teachers. Would you say that those statistics are an indictment of your profession?

Shanker: No, not really. I would say that they’re an indictment of the school system that we have today, and by the way they’re also an indictment of some things that are outside of school. I’m not going to talk about families…I’m going to talk about incentive systems. I would say they’re an indictment of the system because we have had these facts and figures for a long time, and we’re not doing anything about them. That is, it’s not an indictment to say, “Things are going wrong”. I mean we, you know…

Heffner: They’re just wrong.

Shanker: Well, look, if you have AIDS you don’t indict the doctors. You would indict them if they didn’t do anything about it. You don’t indict them because they haven’t solved a certain problem, or because a problem exists. You indict people if they continue making believe it doesn’t exist, or acting in ways in which they did before when they know that these are the results, and that is an indictment of the system. I would say that there are a number of very key issues…one is that all these other systems have things that are substantially different from ours, and in some respects, we can change our system so that it becomes more like business…some…we shouldn’t change.

Heffner: What are those things?

Shanker: Well, one is that all those places do have national goals and objectives and a national curriculum. We haven’t had it. We’ve had sixteen thousand school districts all deciding what to do.

Heffner: Do they have local control?

Shanker: No, in none of those places do they have local control. They may have state control, or national control, but in none of those places do they have local control. Another big difference is the amount of money that they spend on administration and supervision. In the United States we spend about fifty percent on bureaucracy. Martin Mayor wrote a book in 1961, and what he said at that time was the big difference between these other school systems and ours, that you see immediately, is the number of supervisors and administrators, and then he came out with two sentences…it’d be worse today…but what he said in 1961 was, “There are more supervisors and administrators in New York City than in all of France, and more supervisors and administrators in New York State than in all of Western Europe”. Now our philosophy is to hire teachers on the cheap and when you hire people on the cheap, you don’t trust them. So what do you do? You immediately hire someone to watch them very carefully. Whereas in Europe the notion is employ highly qualified people and don’t watch them because people who’ve got dignity and self-respect aren’t going to allow themselves to be treated that way, and besides which you move the money down to the students. Now there’s something else that happens in those countries…which I don’t want to copy and that is that they track students, at a very early age they say, “Here are the bright kids and we’ll put them in these classes and schools. And here are the dumb kids, and we’ll put them here. And here are the ones in the middle”. But it does do something. They are essentially taking individual differences into account. Some kids move fast, others slow…what do we do in the United States? Well, I think our gut instincts are right…you shouldn’t separate kids out at an early age. You make a lot of mistakes, you…you label them, you move classes in society apart when the whole function of education is to enable people to learn to live together. But what we need to do is to have something which is a substitute for tracking. That is, we have to say, “Alright, we’re going to keep the kids together, but we recognize the fact that they learn in different ways and at different rates”, and that’s what technology would enable us to do.

Heffner: You really are focusing on technology, aren’t you?

Shanker: Well, not just technology…it’s also different ways of group…I think the main thing that we do wrong in schools, is that we stand in front of kids and we lecture to them about 85 to 90% of the time. Now most adults can’t sit still for five or six hours a day and have anybody talk to them and remember very much. Just imagine six, seven or eight year old kids. If I were to take my kids when they were younger at home and sit them all there and force them to sit still and listen to me for five or six hours, somebody would come to pick me up and say, “That’s child abuse”. In school if a child can’t sit still for that many hours of lessons, we say the child is handicapped…special education…move the child out. Learning is an active process. You don’t learn much by sitting back and listening to somebody, and what about the kid who doesn’t sit and remember all those words, but who could learn by watching pictures or by building things or by having a discussion? Doctors know that…a doctor knows that if he gives you a pill, maybe it won’t work…when you come back, he doesn’t blame you for not being cured with his pill, he says, “I’m sorry, I gave you what works with most people…here, try this”, and he gives you something …where is the “now, here try this”? Where are all the alternative ways of trying to reach youngsters? And it seems to me that that’s what education is about, not setting up one way and demanding that every youngster comply with your one best system of education…it’s a reaching out to find what are the ways in which I can reach them.

Heffner: You’re most articulate and no one could disagree with what you’re saying…everyone would want to follow the same path. How do we do that? I mean that’s never not been an American objective…that kind of differentiation, that kind of concern for individuals. That’s always been, at least on the level of philosophy or point of view, what we’ve embraced. We haven’t done it…clearly, in large part because we haven’t been able to. We haven’t had the resources. Or is that a misstatement?

Shanker: Well, I don’t know whether we have the resources or not. Obviously there are some places in this country that are very under-funded. There are some where the funds are not properly allocated. As a nation we spend more than most other nations do…I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend more, I’m saying that we’re obviously not using what we have the right way, and if we were to spend more doing exactly what we’re doing right now it would make things more comfortable for people, but it would not necessarily make for better educational outcomes. I think that’s what’s happened in Rochester, and Dade County, and Toledo, where people are doing some very different things, and then the community says, ”Well, gee, you guys are sticking your necks out so we are going to support you”. I think…I think the answer is not to sit and wait for, you know, more to fall from heaven…(laughter)…more dollars. We need more dollars, but I think that it goes the other way…that, in a sense the schools have to say, “We are going to do something new, we’re going to do something exciting, we’re going to take some chances, we’re going to take some risks, we’re going to do some unusual things, and as we move along we’re going to need some things, and we need your help in this”, and I think that the response of the public will be very different if we take that stance.

Heffner: You obviously feel that if parents have choices among schools that will be an incentive to the schoolmasters to provide the kind of opportunities that you’re talking about.

Shanker: No, I don’t, really. (Laugher)

Heffner: You don’t?

Shanker: I favor choice, but for a very different reason. I think that the “choice” movement…I think the idea behind it is right, but it’s wrong-headed in terms of its analysis. The idea is that there should be a competitive market in public education. It’s my view, it’s not necessarily, at this point, the view of the American Federation of Teachers…we’re having a grand debate within the organization, and I hope it will accept that view, but the debate is there. My view is that you need to have…you do need to have competition…the reason people change in the private sector, the reason they get technology, the reason they decide to re-train somebody, or to get rid of somebody who’d really no good, is because they have to. Otherwise the competition is going to beat them, and they’re going to be out of business. If they do the right thing, maybe they’ll get rich. If they do the wrong thing, they’re going to be out. Now there are no such incentives in schools. You can be…you can do things that are absolutely wrong, you can have huge drop-out rates, you can have kids who are leaving without knowing how to read, write, count or anything else…so what do you do next year? Do the same as you did this year, and the following year, and the following year, and we’ve had these…this information for years. So how do you get people to make painful decisions? Well you…only if there is something at stake will people make painful decisions. Alright, that’s what Gorbachev is saying in the Soviet Union, it’s exactly…or in Poland. I was in Poland twice last year…if there are no consequences, if the commissar keeps his job and the employee keeps his job and the enterprise stays there, no matter whether it’s failing or not failing, then there’s no reason to change anything.

Heffner: You’re really…

Shanker: Stay right with where you are. So I believe very strongly that what you need to do is give the professionals in the school the right to run the school. Stop telling them what to do. Set the goals for them and tell them what you’re going to measure…five years from now, not in one year, because in one year you can’t change adults or children quickly enough. Give them a period of time and at the end of that period of time there ought to be real rewards and real punishments…there ought to be real consequences for making it or not making it.

Heffner: You really like the ethics of the marketplace, then?

Shanker: No. I was most of my life a democratic socialist…I liked, I loved Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs was a hero, and I wished and hoped and prayed and worked for a society where people would work for things other than money or power…just because they loved their fellow man and wanted to build the “Great Society”. But the fact is that all those places that have tried to build a system without some economic incentive…hasn’t worked. And, as a matter of fact, not only hasn’t it worked economically, but it hasn’t worked from the point of view of democracy either. The system that comes closest in terms of enlarging democracy and personal choice and providing the best standard of living are those places that do have economic incentives, and I must say that that debate is over because all the leaders, the gurus of the other system, all around the world, are now saying that they want to move over to this kind of system, and I…I think this is a period in human history where that issue is settled. Now, the choice issue, by the way…see if New York City could lose all of its kids tomorrow through choice…then New York City would have $300,000,000,000 dollars left over (laughter) because it would lose the kids, but it would still have its local tax money. The only thing the kids take with them is the state aid. The whole business of choice as a market model is silly because sure you don’t want to lose customers if you’re making money on them…if you’re making money, then every customer you lose, you will lose money on…who’s making money on these kids in public school? Every kid you lose, you’re losing money on each kid. (Laughter) So every one that you lose, you’ll make money. I happen to favor choice because if you do what I just suggested…that is if you put a market out there, and if some schools are going to win and some are going to lose and some are going to be in-between, and if the faculties of those schools run the schools, they’ll be some that decide they’re going to be very progressive, and others very traditional…you’ll have very many different theories that people are going to act on.

Heffner: And let the best man win. The only trouble is…

Shanker: And let the best school win because that way you’ll find out what works, but also, since you’re now going to have very different schools, it’s immoral to compel parents to send their children to schools that are like this…rather than like this, if they don’t like this one.

Heffner: Unfortunately what does work is the clock, and we’ve reached the end of our time. So, Mr. Shanker, thank you 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, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, 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 Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The Lawrence A. Wien Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.