3 Reasons I'm Missing Teachers Union Legend Al Shanker Right About Now

Oct 6, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Chester E. Finn Jr.

Three recent experiences have served to remind me how much I miss—and how much the country and the cause of better education were diminished by the loss of— the late Albert Shanker, who passed away in 1997.

1. Charter Schools Were His Idea

While writing our new book on charter schooling, Bruno Manno, Brandon Wright and I were urged by our expert editor at Harvard Education Press to recall the origins of this reform and explain what its founders had in mind. Which drew us back not only to Ray Budde, Ted Kolderie, Ember Reichgott and the other Minnesotans, but also to Al’s seminal National Press Club speech on March 31, 1988, as well as the New York Times column that followed a few months later. Titled “A Charter for Change,” it set forth a vision of new teacher-created schools or schools-within-schools with many of the characteristics that mark today’s charter sector. Although Al was never able—on this issue as on many other reforms that he knew were needed—to get the American Federation of Teacher (AFT)’s state and local affiliates to embrace his visionary thinking, his restlessness with the status quo, [pullquote]his boundless creativity and his statesman-stature in the education field cause him legitimately to be viewed today as one of the parents of charter schooling in the U.S.[/pullquote]

2. He wanted national standards.

Second, the other day a friend who’s been cleaning out his files sent me another Shanker New York Times column, this from the eve of the famous 1989 Charlottesville summit joined by President George H.W. Bush, along with 41 state governors. That powwow was, Al pointed out, only the third time in history that a U.S. president had convened the governors in this way. (Each of the Roosevelts did it once.) Hence it was a rather big deal. Al urged an agenda for it that rings as true in my ears today as it did nearly three decades ago—an agenda that the summiteers followed in part, writing:
The top of the agenda should be the issue of national goals and standards and a system of assessments to go along with them. We’ve had a school reform movement going for six years now, and we still haven’t decided what our students should know and be able to do... ...[I]t’s possible to set national goals and standards—even establish a national assessment program—and still leave a tremendous amount of flexibility for states and local school districts.
He got the accountability part exactly right too, saying, “For the first time, people in a community would really have some firm basis for evaluating their schools; they would know how their students were doing compared with the students in the next county or state.” And that wasn’t all. He offered two more “top-priority items for the summit agenda.” One was “how to get schools to engage in the constant self-examination that allows successful organizations to renew themselves and change as problems change.” The other was “how to prevent and deal with the problems increasing numbers of our kids bring to school with them.” Right, right and right.

3. He Knew How to Work with the Enemy

And there’s a third reason I miss Al. Like many Washingtonians (from both parties) in those days, he had the capacity to fight you fiercely over issues of disagreement while also teaming up on shared causes. Either way, he’d join you for a drink or dinner afterward. In today’s absurdly polarized politics, where everyone gets dubbed an ally or an enemy and either embraced or scorned 24/7, regardless of the issue, where we inhabit echo chambers, and where collaboration and comradeship seem possible only within them, [pullquote position="right"]a major reason we don’t get much done is because we don’t have enough people like Al.[/pullquote] He and I would do battle over vouchers and collective bargaining and such—he usually trounced me—and then team up on curriculum, civic education and foreign policy. Did they throw away the mold, or what?
An original version of this post appeared on the Education Gadfly blog as Missing Al Shanker.
Photo of Al Shanker courtesy of the NY Sun.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. He is the Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Finn served as Fordham’s President from 1997 to 2014, after many earlier roles in education, academe and government. From 1999 until 2002, he was John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and previously at Hudson Institute. In 1992-94, he served as founding partner and senior scholar with the Edison Project. He was Professor of Education and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University from 1981 until 2002. From 1985 to 1988, he served as Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement & Counselor to the Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. Earlier positions include Staff Assistant to the President of the United States; Special Assistant to the Governor of Massachusetts; Counsel to the U.S. Ambassador to India; Research Associate at the Brookings Institution; and Legislative Director for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For 40+ years, Finn has been in the forefront of the national debate about school reform. His participation in seminars, conferences, and hearings has taken him to colleges, education and civic groups, and government organizations throughout the world. A native of Ohio, he holds an undergraduate degree in U.S. history, a master's degree in social studies teaching, and a doctorate in education policy, all from Harvard University. Finn has served on numerous boards, currently including the Maryland State Board of Education, the National Council on Teacher Quality, and the Core Knowledge Foundation. Author of over 20 books, Finn's most recent (co-authored with Brandon L. Wright) is Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, published in 2015. Earlier works include Exam Schools: Inside America’s Most Selective Public High Schools (co-authored with Jessica Hockett); Ohio's Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines (co-authored with Terry Ryan and Michael Lafferty); Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik; Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut; Leaving No Child Behind: Options for Kids in Failing Schools (co-edited with Frederick M. Hess); Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno and Gregg Vanourek); and The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Pre-School Through Eighth Grade (co-authored with William J. Bennett and John Cribb). A speaker and moderator at myriad events and frequent commentator in the national media, he has also penned more than 400 articles in such publications as The Weekly Standard, National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, The Public Interest, Washington Post, New York Times, Education Week, Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Business Review, TheAtlantic.Com, NationalReview.com, Education Next, and The Columbus Dispatch. He also writes regularly for the Fordham Institute's weekly Education Gadfly. He and his wife, Renu Virmani, a physician, have two grown children and three adorable granddaughters. They live in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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