Dr Albert Shanker, President, American Federation of Teachers

“Once in a great while, and usually sparred on by a crisis, a combination of forces and ideas come together in a way that makes real change possible. In the field of education I believe that now is such a time.”

These are Shanker’s words.  Shanker, now Life President of the second largest teacher union in the States, the American Federation of Teachers, worked his way up through both teaching and union politics the hard way. Starting in a Polish ghetto in New York , and twice accepting a spell in jail for defying a court ruling on union activity, he now occupies a position of rare influence in his country.

Union leader, and powerful exponent of radical educational change, one of his key strengths is his ability to speak clearly, concisely and in language which the public can comprehend, and the professionals can accept (full marks from GCSE!).

He knows that radical change needs an inside/outside perspective; no system changes more than a few points just from pressure within… so he, personally, has sought to popularise educational issues.

Every Saturday, for many years, his union pays for ten column inches of advertising space on the editorial page of The New York Times. Wherever in the world
Shanker might be he faxes in his weekly article. No diretride about union affairs will you read.  This is serious stuff.

A couple of years ago a Professor at Pittsburgh completed a lengthy thesis on ‘Learning in School and Out’. It was a weighty tone, dry to read but with fascinating conclusions based on extensive research. An executive summary could have said that the findings reinforced the view that “It is not so much the content of schooling but rather the process, which needs to change if youngsters are to develop the skills demanded by society”.  In England a few of us would have read the thesis, possibly nodded at the reinforcement this gave to our own theories, and left it to gather dust. Not Shanker. For three Saturdays running he berated his audience.  “School should focus its efforts on preparing to be good adaptive learners, so that they can perform effectively when situations are unpredictable and the task demands change”, he thundered.  He was convincing, and he was listened to.

America has an initial advantage, he once told me.  “Education has been the mechanism to weld together generations of immigrants into this single nation.”

Shanker has frequently quoted the observations of Jack Bowsher, the former Director of Education at IBM, when he said that if IBM were producing results comparable to those of American schools – that is, if 25% of their computers were falling off the assembly line before they reached the end and if 90% of the completed ones didn’t work properly 80% of the time – the last thing in the world the company would do would be to run that same old assembly line an additional hour each day for an extra month each year. Instead IBM would rethink the entire production process.  “We, however, have acted as though we have a good system that has somehow become soft.”

“It is easier to think in terms of improving the kind of the kind of school we all know than it is to imagine totally different kinds of schools.”

“We demonstrate a faith in the traditional model of education that is almost religious. We believe things were better in the past.” Shanker quotes his own boyhood experience in New York city schools in the 1930’s and 40’s “Teachers were rigorously selected; schooling was highly structured – a mandated” curriculum; plenty of homework; considerable pressure for achievement on both teachers and students. Times were simpler, broken families unusual. 
Parents pushed their children; mothers stayed at home, commercial television didn’t exist; drugs were practically unknown. In other words if ever there was a time when the traditional system could and should have shown its powers this was it. Yet in 1940 only 20% of students graduated from High School. It was not until 1953 that a majority graduated.”

If that is a shock consider this figure for the U.K. When your ‘0’ levels were first introduced in 1951 there were only 16,500 possible candidates from the entire
country; 1/3 left school before taking the exam, 1/3 gained less than 3 ‘0’ levels and only 1/3 more than 3. There are, if my sums are correct, the current 61 year olds in your society.

“History, therefore, suggests that the traditional model of education is dependent for its success on at least three conditions: a cohesive family and social structure; a willingness to accept educating the vast majority of children to only a low level (and then pushing them out or letting them drop out) and a small minority to a high level; and a large supply of well qualified teachers. Schools have no control over the first condition. The second is unacceptable for moral, economic and social reasons. In the 1940’s and 50’s dropouts  dropped into a different world. Decent-paying jobs were available to unskilled workers. Times were tough, certainly. But a grade school dropout could still work his way up, and a high school drop out could almost count on being able to afford a house.”

Times have changed.  “If our standard of living is to be maintained, if the growth of a permanent underclass is to be averted, if democracy is to function effectively into the next century, our schools must graduate the vast majority of their students with achievement levels long thought possible for only the privileged few.” (a Nation Prepared : Teachers for the 21st Century of which Shanker was a signatory)

“The education profession, too, will have to be restructured if schools are to make more intelligent use of their human resources. It requires rethinking all our assumptions about schools, from the egg crate organisation to the concept of class size; from age grading the use of teacher’s time. Restructuring education so that all young people have access to good teachers means restructuring our traditional model of education.”

“The rigid and confining structure that the traditional model of education imposes on teachers and students doesn’t enable even the majority of children to be educated – and it never did. The rigidity of the traditional structure forces us to try to fit diverse children into the same mould. Given the way we organise schools, children must learn in lockstep or not at all. It has been found that teacher talks takes up an overwhelming percentage of class time; lecturing (and questioning) is the most obvious and “natural” way to operate in the traditional structure. Our schools are based on a fundamentally mistaken idea about the role of students in their own education.”

“The traditional model of education sees students either as vessels into which knowledge must be poured or as raw materials that the education process turns into finished products – high school graduates. But people become educated because of the work they do. No matter what the root meaning of the word educate is, no-one can educate you. You must talk, you must read, you must imagine, you must build, you must listen. Merely being present as someone else tries to pour something into you does not mean that you are learning. You must be actively engaged.”

Shanker is a fan of Britain’s Charles Handy.

“The traditional model of schooling is, therefore, incompatible with the idea that students are workers, that learning must be active and that children learn in different ways and at different rates.”

“The factory – rather than a moral, learning community – is the inspiration for the traditional model. When the factory was touted as the ideal organisation for work and when most youngsters were headed for its assembly lines, making a mass public education system conform to the model of the factory may have seemed like a great achievement. But America’s old fashioned factories are dead or dying and will not be resurrected as we knew them. The limitations of America’s traditional factory model of education have become manifest, and they are crippling.”

Shanker was particularly impressed that, in President Bush’s first State of the Union Message, in an unprecedented move, he announced six ambitious goals for all the Nation’s schools to achieve by the year 2000. The first goal – that within a decade every single child in America would come to school ‘ready to learn’ sounds to the European ear somewhat strange.  But to that ‘land of immigrants’ readiness to join in the learning process is a critical factor. Recently the Carnegie Foundation, with which Shanker has been much involved over the years, produced a detailed report, based on research drawn world-wide, entitled ‘Ready to Learn’. It starts with a simple statement.

“America is losing sight of its children.  In decisions made every day we are placing them at the very bottom of the agenda, with grave consequences for the future of the nation… millions of children in this country are physically and emotionally disadvantaged in ways that restrict their capacity to learn…”

“We have failed to recognise that the family may be a more imperiled institution than the school and that many of education’s failures relate to problems that precede schooling, even birth itself.”


The Carnegie Report posed seven key questions in its ‘Ready-to-Learn’ agenda.

1. How can we ensure that all children have a healthy start?

2. How can every child live in a-supportive, language rich environment, guided by empowered parents?

3. How can we make available to all children quality child care that provides both love and learning?

4. How can work and family life be brought together through workplace policies that support parents and give security to children?

5. How can television become a creative partner in a school readiness campaign, offering to pre-schoolers programming that is mind enriching?

6. How can we give to every child a neighbourhood for learning, with spaces and places that invite play and spark the imagination?

7. How can we bring the old and young together with new inter-generational arrangements that provide a community of caring for every child?

I am not sure which of many ‘strap-lines’ Shanker would pick out of this report, but I give you two:

“The continuity of all culture depends on the living presence of at least three generations”, stated the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead.

And another “In the end, inter-generational connections may be the real key to quality in education”. 

In words that interpret so much of Shanker’s own ideas the Carnegie Report concluded “We must acknowledge the inter-relatedness of the home, health clinics, pre-schools, the workplace, television, neighbourhoods, and connections across the generations – all of the institutions that influence the lives of children.”

Shanker argues for radical, empowering change. He believes in the creativity of teachers. “If there is one principle on which all studies of effective schools – and effective businesses – agree, it is this: top down management does not work.” Shanker wants schools “set free from their routines and from the constraints of the bureaucratic factory model of education”. I have not had the chance of talking with Al Shanker about the latest innovation to capture American headlines – The Edison Project, a private sector initiative to establish a thousand “schools for profit” for the year 2010.

Chris Whittle, Chairman of Whittle Communications of Tennessee, is proposing to raise $2.5 billion not for a reform programme (reform he describes as incremental) but something different.  “It was clear to me that the people of education, particularly those who go to work everyday in classrooms and schools, are not the cause of our educational problems. The system, the whole construct of education, is our problem. That construct is based on a set of assumptions, accumulated over literally hundreds of years, that are in general no longer valid. We need to disassemble the structure we currently have, and then – combining old parts, many of which work quite well, and new parts – we need to put it back together in some fundamentally different way that functions more effectively.”

“We need a complete re-design of the way we teach our children. This means we cannot begin with the system we now have. When Edison invented electric illumination, he didn’t tinker with candles to make them burn better. Instead he created something brilliantly new: the light bulb. In the same fashion, American education needs a fundamental breakthrough, a new dynamic that will light the way to a transformed educational system.” (Tennessee Illustrated, Winter 1990)

I do not have Shanker’s response to this, but another American innovator, Ted Sizer, Chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a “public school” person, wrote recently in The Washington Post “Today’s schools are poorly designed and go by rules that defy both serious research findings and common sense… they function more for the convenience of the adults they employ than for the children they claim to serve.  ‘The Edison Project’ should force us to re-think our efforts… it will have deserved our gratitude for forcing issues on us that we have so deftly avoided.”  Quite simply it is not just good schools, nor reformed schools but a whole new community wide system of education that is needed.

Shanker stated when he agreed to sit on the Council of Education 2000 that he believed the creation of a new system of learning required a major international effort.  The extent of the change is so great, the political, economic and emotional issues so huge that a single nation is unlikely to be able to make the necessary breakthrough on its own.

Al Shanker sends his greetings to the meeting, and hopes to be present at our next function in the Spring of 1993.