EDUCATION

Is Teachers Union Scrubbing Al Shanker's Legacy?

10/14/2010 02:32 pm 14:32:52 | Updated May 25, 2011

This story has been updated

The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, claims to respect the legacy of longtime president Al Shanker. On its Website, it praises the late Shanker as a "relentless proponent of democracy and freedom" whose "ideas seem as potent and relevant today as they were during his 23 years as AFT president."

But the union, whose president Randi Weingarten is at the heart of the heated national debate over the abysmal state of education in the country, recently dropped Shanker's legendary speeches from its Website, which are now only accessible through a link to a research library at Wayne State University. The deletion of the speeches by Shanker, who was known for his passionate leadership and his openness to reform, has alarmed some reform advocates who feel the union is resistant to reform.

Chester Finn, Jr., a former Assistant Secretary of Education and current president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, told The Huffington Post that it is a "pity" that the union's Website no longer has Shanker's speeches. Asked if he thinks that the union is living up to Shanker's legacy, he replied:

"I'm not sure anything is living up to its legacy nowadays, with partisanship and self interest the dominant motivators of just about everything in the policy sphere. The Democratic party isn't living up to the legacy of Jefferson, Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman. The GOP isn't living up to the legacy of Lincoln, Reagan, etc. It's sad but not exactly surprising that the AFT is behaving likewise, living for the moment, for the ideology, etc. (I also think the teacher unions are increasingly desperate, besieged -- and arguably losing -- on multiple fronts.)

A spokesman for the AFT explained that the site was redesigned earlier this year in an effort to "focus more on current information and activities of our members, while still helping visitors gain access to historical materials -- such as the Shanker speeches -- maintained elsewhere. For years, the AFT archivist has been a member of the faculty at Wayne State University, and many of the historical materials are maintained there at the Reuther Library. So it seemed to make sense to link to that more complete collection."

Though Weingarten has often praised Shanker, the union has questioned some of the reforms he promoted, such as national competency tests for teachers and the widespread growth of charter schools.

Weingarten has been praised by reform advocates in recent weeks for her support of the Baltimore teachers contract, which will base pay on professional development training, join management-teacher evaluation and measure student achievement, a career ladder system advocated by Shanker.

Shanker, a cantankerous personality, dubbed a "fierce liberal" often stressed the importance of teacher accountability and merit pay for teachers.

In one of the speeches that is not available on the site or at the research library, "Al Shanker Speaks on Unions and Collective Bargaining," he said:

As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don't perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we're playing a game as to who has the power...

What would happen if we had a system where you had pay for performance in the sense of a series of graded sets of rewards depending upon student outcome? Let's imagine that this September a system goes into effect where five years from now all the teachers in schools that made the most progress in student achievement could get bonuses of $30,000; in other less successful schools, they could get bonuses of $5,000; and in others they could get cost-of-living increases; in schools that made little or no progress, the teachers' salaries would be frozen; and the worst schools could be closed down, the faculties dismissed, and the school later reopened on some sort of restructured basis by a faculty from, let's say, the top schools, like a bankruptcy and hostile takeover.

In that speech, he also admitted that many teachers are underqualified -- an issue that has dogged the union, since reports emerged about rubber rooms, where incompetent teachers were taken out of the classroom but paid to sit in a room all day. Shanker said:

"In our system, we have a large number of teachers who have not reached even very low levels of literacy and numeracy."

Shanker stirred up controversy within the union during the 1970s with his support of the Vietnam War but he is lionized for leading a series of strikes during the 1960s that created collective bargaining rights for teachers. Though he was known for leading the union to generate new ideas in education, he was also fiercely protective of teachers, once quipping: "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."

His overall legacy has been praised by a wide range of education officials, including New York City's Chancellor Joel Klein, who told The Huffington Post in a statement:

"He expressed a vision for reform almost 20 years ago that is today cutting edge - professionalizing teaching through real accountability, rewarding success, consequences for non-performance; bringing charters, choice and competition so that we can focus on great schools, not the label on a school; and using technology to transform the way we instruct children. I hope his visionary words are fully embraced."

Suggest a correction