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Al Shanker's Last Stand

Provocative. Self-Serving. Freethinking. The Longtime Teachers' Advocate Is All These Things and More. Now He's Seriously Ill, and His Push for School Reform Has Taken On a Whole New Urgency.

December 01, 1996|ELAINE WOO | Elaine Woo is a Times education writer. Her last article for the magazine was a profile of the principal of Belmont High School

At the podium in an Oklahoma City banquet room filled with 400 school board members and superintendents from the nation's largest cities, Albert Shanker is charging headlong into his favorite topic. The longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers rocks on his toes. His fingers dance in the air. One minute, he folds his hands over his spreading paunch. The next minute, he shakes them gently, as if he were sprinkling ideas like drops from a cloud. But to those gathered before him, it feels like a storm coming on.

"What the hell is he talking about?" Waldemar Rojas, head of the San Francisco Unified School District, mutters to his table mates.

American public education is a crumbling domain, Shanker is saying, and urban schools like those Rojas oversees are in the deepest trouble. The voucher movement is growing, Shanker says, his arms extended, because schools have gone soft on students who chronically disrupt class. "We have to remove these youngsters from regular classrooms."

There's more: Schools need to separate students by ability. American schools would be better off if they emulated the tracking systems used in many European countries, which establish different but demanding requirements depending on whether a student is bound for college, trade school or work. "Even though it sounds very undemocratic," Shanker intones in his trademark baritone, "it is the only thing that works."

Rojas and his table mates--all members of the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization of top managers and policymakers from the nation's 49 largest school districts--are visibly disturbed. "When we were growing up, we knew what that meant," Rojas huffs to two colleagues at his table, Bill Anton, former Los Angeles Unified superintendent, and Ron Prescott, an African American who is that district's chief lobbyist. "It meant we got to go to vocational school and everyone else got to go to college."

Shanker is saying nothing in Oklahoma City that he hasn't said scores of times, whether on the stump or in his column, which has run nearly every week for 26 years as a paid advertisement in the New York Times. Public education is in crisis, his message goes, and we'd better change course or witness its sure demise.

This brand of plain talk about public schools has transformed Shanker's identity. In 1968, he vaulted to national prominence as a hard-line--and hated--union leader who led New York City teachers in three racially divisive strikes. (His actions earned him semi-immortalization as the madman who destroyed civilization in the 1973 Woody Allen film, "Sleeper.") These days, though, he is more often referred to as an educational philosopher and a statesman of reform--"a national public intellectual who shapes the education debate," in the words of Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University.

Although he leads the smaller of the two national teachers unions--with 2.2 million members, the National Education Assn. is more than twice as large--it is Shanker who holds center stage as the country's leading spokesman for teachers. Gifted with a folksy eloquence and a sharp tongue, he has spent most of the past two decades pouring out a steady stream of provocative ideas. Many of them have already altered the landscape of public education, from charter schools--now a reality in 25 states--to national certification of teachers through the 9-year-old National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The earliest and loudest voice for establishing and raising universal curriculum standards, he has helped spawn efforts in 48 states to draft goals for student achievement.

To many in Oklahoma City, though, he is no longer the tribune for progressive reform. "We were all just shocked," says Prescott. "I saw him as an advocate of poor and minority children. I didn't hear that today." After the speech, the Council of Great City Schools sent Shanker a scathing letter denouncing his call for tougher discipline as a "national campaign of exclusion" and slamming his proposal for a new form of student tracking as "a slide backward to 'separate but equal.' "

Witheringly brutal, Shanker returned the fire, accusing the council of outrageous distortions and blasting its attempt to smear him as a racist. Citing opinion polls showing that discipline is a top concern for teachers and the public, he charged that the council, like most American educators, is more concerned with being politically correct than educationally sound.

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