SHORTLY after word was out that William Bennett would be President Reagan's designee for secretary of education, Albert Shanker, the savvy, philosophy-spewing president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), phoned to congratulate him. Henry Kissinger could not have shown more aplomb.
``Will it help you more in being confirmed if I come out for you or against you?'' he asked Mr. Bennett, more seriously than in jest.
It was one more indication of how Mr. Shanker, once widely perceived as a militant union boss (on two occasions he was jailed for leading illegal school strikes in New York City), has kept his 600,000-member union in the forefront of education reform by being cooperative rather than defensive over recent changes in the nation's classrooms.
His leadership has put the AFT in a position to exert an influence beyond what would be considered narrow, self-interest lobbying.
Shanker gave Bennett a ringing endorsement. He praised the new secretary's stance on tougher academic standards for students as well as teachers, curriculum reform, and opposition to hiring quotas. He tactfully avoided mention of Bennett's support of tuition tax credits and vouchers, both strongly opposed by the AFT.
The six-foot, three-inch former junior high math teacher describes himself as a ``practical political man who deals with the possible.'' He was quick to seize the opportunity -- ``a once-in-a-generation chance'' -- opened for public education with release in April 1983 of the presidential commission study, ``A Nation at Risk.''
Shanker realized education would become a dominant domestic issue. If there was a ``rising tide of mediocrity'' to contend with in schools, he sought to keep the focus of the debate on the positive aspects of how a school can be better organized.
If the public could be led to ask about the conditions under which teachers work and the conditions under which students learn, Shanker believed meaningful reform for teachers would follow.
This pragmatism has come to be seen by some critics as a drift to the right, especially manifested in his steadfast opposition to hiring quotas for blacks and minorities and his willingness to consider merit pay plans, something no teachers' union was even contemplating two years ago.
``Shanker is a true trade unionist,'' says Denis Doyle, director of educational programs at the American Enterprise Institute. ``He will bargain anything in good faith.'' Theodore Sizer, dean of education at Brown University and author of one of the better-known education reports to have surfaced in the last two years, ``Horace's Compromise,'' ranks Shanker as one of the top three educator-philosophers in the United States today.
Shanker, born on New York's Lower East Side and raised in Long Island City, Queens, can remember showing up his first day of school speaking only Yiddish. His father, who had been a rabbinical student in Poland, drove a newspaper delivery truck. His mother was a sewing machine operator and member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
He grew up in a neighborhood where Jews were few, and confrontations with bullies schooled him in the toughness and single-mindedness that later served him well at the bargaining table.
Shanker majored in philosophy at the University of Illinois and received a dual master's degree in philosophy and mathematics from Columbia University.
Take-home pay of $42 a week in the early 1950s left him with little difficulty in reconciling his professional status with unionism.
Teaching is ``the only profession where a person begins with the same responsibility on the first day he will have on his last day,'' Shanker says. His rise to the top of the nation's second-largest teachers' union as well as a position on the powerful executive council of the AFL-CIO was rapid and direct. A former prot'ege' of George Meany, he shares the same anticommunist convictions once held by the elder statesman of the US labor movement.
``Power is a good thing. It is better than powerlessness,'' Shanker has said in connection with his activist unionism. ``But there are two ways to use power, by having control over people or by leadership.''
One way he has exercised leadership, and perhaps the one he is best known for outside the teaching profession, is through a weekly column he writes on education. It carries his picture and has run as an advertisement in the Sunday New York Times for more than a decade.
Earlier this month, at the National Press Club in Washington, Shanker called for a national teacher exam for all new teachers, and possibly all teachers. The test would be developed or selected by an ``American Board of Professional Education,'' comprising individuals from all sectors of the education community.
Shanker says he wants the test to be as rigorous as a bar exam or a Certified Public Accountant's test. ``Passing it would signify a true professionalism,'' he says. It would be very unlike a number of such tests now in place that measure minimum competencies.
The idea stems from Shanker's conviction of the inherent danger the present lack of confidence in teachers holds. If left unchecked, he says, it will lead to the demise of public education, because the public will not pay the higher salaries needed to attract and keep quality people. Education majors continue to score in the bottom third in standardized tests compared with other college students.
A national teacher test would do much to dispel doubts about the quality of teachers, as well as serve as ``a national barometer . . . to indicate the caliber of personnel entering teaching,'' says Shanker.
The test also arises, he explains, from the fact that in the next five to seven years half the teachers in the US will be new, the result of retirement and attrition. He foresees a ``substantial teacher shortage nationally'' in the 1990s.
``We know what is coming, a crunch between quantity and quality,'' Shanker says. Amid all the talk about excellence, he is concerned that the nation is about to lower standards de facto by hiring unqualified teachers to fill vacancies.
``There is no place in the country where children will be sent home [for lack of fully qualified teachers],'' he says.
Rather, when the shortage hits, ``states and school boards will do what they have always done. They will ignore the standards they themselves set.''
Temporary teaching certificates will be issued to meet shortages, and ``they will be as temporary as the temporary buildings set up around Washington, D.C., after World War II; they are still here,'' he says.
The National Education Association last summer called for the matter to be handled in a similar way, but only at the state level, with the establishment of education-standards boards similar to state legal and medical boards.
Shanker objects to this approach. Critical to his plan is that a single national standard be used. ``If each state sets its own passing score, you might as well burn the examination,'' he says.
At first, public pressure would be the incentive for schools to hire only teachers who passed the test, he says. Eventually, he believes state legislatures could be persuaded to require it.
When this happened, the AFT would refuse to admit members who failed the test, a move that ``would be very difficult for us,'' but one which extensive polling of his membership indicates would be acceptable.
Larry Uzzell, president of Learn Inc., a Washington-based education study group in favor of tuition tax credits and vouchers, gives qualified support to Shanker's idea. But Mr. Uzzell would like very definite guarantees that the teacher test will not be, or become, a government test -- state or local; that test takers have the right not to have to take college courses in education in order to receive certification; and that there is clear provision in the certification process for distinctions between public and private schoolteachers.
If the test is properly handled -- a big if, Shanker admits -- the hope is to end up ``with something like a college or univeristy system with a number of ranks and with a substantial amount of peer review,'' he says.