Union head applauds education debate
New York City
Like the principal of a school on parents' night, American Federation of Teacher's (AFT) president Albert Shanker is beaming. In less than six months since a national commission on education filed its report, ''A Nation at Risk,'' schools have become a dominant domestic issue. He and the teachers his union represents no longer feel like voices crying in the wilderness.Skip to next paragraph
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''I'm very optimistic, because I think that the essential direction of the debate is in terms of tightening up on standards. It's in terms of quality. It's in terms of discipline. It's in terms of accountability.''
Mr. Shanker has been president of the nation's second-largest teachers union since 1974. In a lengthy interview, he explained what he sees happening - and hopes will happen - concerning the nation's public schools.
In what sense do you see the current debate on education as a positive factor , as opposed to being misused for political ends?
I think it's going to be positive, because I think anybody that just goes around dumping on the schools and saying how terrible it is - that the people, in turn, say, ''Well, it's so terrible, what are you going to do about it?'' I think Ronald Reagan's approach of just being negative so far is not going to work. I predict that Ronald Reagan will soon come up with some positive programs. I think he has to.
You can't say: ''I'm the President of the country. The nation is at risk. The ship of state is sinking. Will all the governors please do something? I won't, because I don't believe in it.'' It just won't stand up.
But I really think that the Democrats are wrong, too. Democrats have just been engaged in a kind of competition with each other as to who can come up with more money. I think that any Democratic candidates, to be successful, are going to have to combine what seems to be the concern of the Republicans with standards and with quality, and turn around and say: ''That's not enough. You also need money.''
You've proposed an ROTC scholarship for teachers. Would you explain what you mean by that - and then how you think public schools, public education, can go about implementing it?
We need about 2 to 3 million teachers in this country - and it may very well be that in our society we are not going to be able to find 2 or 3 million top-notch people who want to devote an entire lifetime to teaching. We may be able to find 600,000 to 700,000 very dedicated people who want to do that.
So what I propose is turning to bright people who are in college and saying, ''Look, we'll pay for your college education if you'll agree to teach for five or six years when you come out.'' I wouldn't do it for every college student. I would do it for those who, let's say, are in the top 10 to 15 to 25 percent - top students in mathematics and English and science or most any field. I think that will be very attractive.
And collective bargaining could protect teachers from a school district that just hired those new teachers and forced the turnover and didn't want to build up seniority?
We don't really have to worry about that because I don't think we're going to have enough teachers even with such a scheme. If you had people waiting in line , then management of course could decide they're only going to take transients so that they never have to pay anyone a pension.
I think, if we can grab a certain number of talented people for five or six years, we'll be lucky to do it. And I don't think there are going to be too many people on line waiting for this - even if we improve salaries - which I expect, too.
I expect, as a result of these reports, that within a few years we will have a national minimum standard of $18,000 in current dollars. California has already enacted it. Governor Kane in New Jersey is talking about $18,500 as starting pay. That is essentially starting pay, which is equal to that of the liberal arts graduates who go into training positions.
When the smoke clears from the merit-pay issue, what would you like to see happening?
I think anything that doesn't destroy the morale of teachers, that is acceptable to them, is all right. Just how that would work out I don't know. I do know it's very hard. By the way, it's not only hard for teachers, it doesn't work that well in industry.