Union head applauds education debate

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.

''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.

A lot of industries have abandoned it. In a lot of industries, they have merit pay, but everybody gets it except for a handful of people that they are trying to convince to leave. You know, if you are trying to send someone a message to get out, that's a pretty successful way of doing it.

I just think that if it's done properly, we may end up with something like a college or university system with a number of ranks and with a substantial amount of peer review.

How would you like to see the bill paid for public schools?

I think the federal role will continue and should continue to be a limited role, but I think it has to be a much greater role than what it has been up to now. If we have a national problem in terms of recruiting teachers - which we do , and every report says that - that problem is not going to be solved separately by l6,000 school districts turning to their taxpayers, talking about increasing their real estate taxes.

Secondly, I've been very disheartened about these reports in that most of them do not stress the great success of Title I (which provided federal funding for the education of disadvantaged children) and the fact that the civil-rights effort of the federal government is not over. We're not finished taking care of the effects of discrimination and of racism in this country, and those programs have worked. The only group of kids who in the last l5 years have had their math and reading scores go up consistently are those who were specifically targeted by Title I.

Then I think that there are certain special needs, such as math and science and foreign languages, that relate very closely to productivity and national defense. So those, I would say, are areas that the national government ought to be into.

I guess one other thing that the federal government should do is spend a lot more money than it does on educational research.

Your organization, the AFT, is heavily concentrated in cities. How do you think you can create an environment in city schools that will make middle-class families - black or white, Hispanic or Oriental - want to keep their children enrolled?

Well, I would be very specific. I would go to those parents who have their children in nonpublic schools, or who are thinking of taking their children out of public schools, and I would say: ''What is it that you have or think you have or will have in those other schools, and whatever it is we will provide it for you and guarantee it for you, except for one thing: We will not guarantee that you're going to have a segregated school. We will not guarantee anything that's illegal in that sense.''

But I think basically what parents want when they go to the suburbs or private school - first of all, they want to make sure their kid has a reasonable chance of not being beaten up or otherwise handled violently.

I think, secondly, they want to make sure that their children have something like what you might call a traditional education - and that certainly can be provided.

And I think the third thing that they want is that they want the schools to teach values, not religion, but things that have to do with judgments in terms of right and wrong. I don't think that any of these things are beyond the public schools.

In the education debate, is there anything being left out that you think is of significance and should be included?

I think that one of the things that has been missing up to now - but is about to be corrected in the Boyer report, the Carnegie Report on High Schools - is that up to now most of those reports were concentrated on educational policy, on the kinds of standards that we ought to have, but very few of them have talked about, 'Well, why aren't these things happening?'

Very few of these things have dealt with how a school is organized, what are the conditions under which teachers work, what are the conditions under which students learn. The Carnegie report does that. Essentially it takes the same direction as the other reports, but it gives many more specifics.

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