Building Power, For Teachers And Educational Justice

For nine years, I have served as the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute. Over this period of time, the Institute has done much work in our mission themes of public education, trade unionism and democracy advocacy. It has built a record and a reputation which makes all of us who work here—and everyone in the American Federation of Teachers, with which we are affiliated—quite proud.

One of the important responsibilities of leadership is to know when the time has come to turn over the stewardship of the work you have achieved and the organization you have nurtured to a younger and fresher generation. Social justice work is a relay race, and as much as we do our individual best on our own leg, it is the race that is important, not our personal performance. When the time comes to pass the baton to the next runner, fresh and ready, we should not hesitate. That is why, earlier this year, I told my long-time and dear friend Randi Weingarten that the time for a new Executive Director of the Shanker Institute had come. At the last meeting of the AFT’s Executive Council, I tendered my resignation, and the Council elected Mary Cathryn Ricker as the Institute’s new leader. As of July 1, I have moved to the AFT proper, where I will be an assistant to the president.

At these junctures in our lives, we are often moved to reflect on what has been accomplished, and what is being passed on to those who follow us.

The Shanker Institute is a unique place – not only in the world of AFT and among teacher unions, but also in the American labor movement. Most unions are focused on what political scientists might think of as a “hard” form of power – organizing and political action. They have research, communications and legal arms that support the “hard power” work, and white collar unions often have professional issues departments. But, to my knowledge, no American union has anything like the Shanker Institute, which focuses on what might be called “soft” forms of power. We are a strategic think tank where the AFT can engage in long term thinking and debate about its core mission and how to promote it; where the union engages in the contest of ideas over the future of the vital institutions in which it is embedded – public education and the labor movement; and where the union defends our democracy when it is in peril. Given the unprecedented ways in which public education, unions, and now democracy itself has come under attack over the last decade, there has been no shortage of work for us.

Over the last nine years, we organized a vast number of major conferences, colloquia and conversations, many more than I can recount here. The subjects of our conferences ranged from recurring themes—the future of the labor movement (here and here), the crisis of American democracy (here and here), and the state of the public square—to single events on career-technical educationPuerto Rican recovery and reconstruction and the reform of student discipline policies. Up until the pandemic, we held a yearly series of monthly conversations on education issues (here are the conversations for just one of those years), and numerous introductions to interesting new books. A remarkable roster of individuals, both those already well-known and those who were just beginning to make their mark, spoke at our events.

There were political figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Secretary of Education John King, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Richard Blumenthal and a number of members of the House of Representatives, including Pramila Jayapal, Keith Ellison, Andy Levin, Tom Suozzi and Mark Takano. There were union leaders such as Lee Saunders, Mary Kay Henry, Becky Pringle, Larry Cohen, Chris Shelton and our own Randi Weingarten; leading educators and scholars such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Tim Snyder, Danielle Allen, Deborah Meier, Tony Bryk, Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, Lisa Delpit, Jamie Galbraith and Andy Hargreaves; authors and journalists such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Joy-Ann Reid, John Judis, Harold Meyerson and David Cay Johnston; civil rights and religious leaders such as Rev. William Barber, Marian Wright Edelman, Ernie Green, Norm Hill, and Wade Henderson; and international democracy leaders such as Han Dongfang, Mac Maharaj and Shuli Dichter.

We wrote as much as we talked. Our Shanker Blog was always busy with analysis and commentary on various issues, and we ran themed series such as Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic and reflections on the legacy of Al Shanker on the 20th anniversary of his death. We had a roster of guest authors on the blog which was in many ways as impressive as our speakers. 

We produced policy briefs on issues, including recent ones for government funding for preK-12 public schools and public higher education in the months before the much-needed aid of the 2020 stimulus and the America Rescue Plan.

We did our own research: it is important to arm educational justice efforts with the best arguments and supporting evidence. In 2015, the Shanker Institute published the report The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education, bringing much needed attention and definition to the issue of the racial diversity of American teachers. We combined a general analysis of what was happening in the nation with a detailed study of trends in nine major urban centers. This work opened the door to more recent studies on the subject. Matt Di Carlo has continued our work in this area with studies of racial segregation in Washington DC and New York City public schools (here and here). And Matt has been the lead Shanker researcher on a project on school finance that we do jointly with Bruce Baker and Mark Weber of Rutgers University that provides data and analysis on the adequacy and fairness of state education funding systems.

In 2017, Harvard Education Press published a collection edited by our Esther Quintero, Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education. It grew out of a series Esther had curated on our blog and a conference we organized which brought together leading education researchers, all focused on demonstrating how school improvement should be centered on questions of school culture and the quality of relationships among adults and students in a school. Esther is also the lead Shanker researcher on an innovative IES funded study of teachers’ work life, which promises to bring new and rich insight to the subject.

In 2020, Harvard Education Press published a book I wrote, The Teacher Insurgency, that addressed the questions of strategy and organizing posed by the unanticipated wave of teacher strikes during 2018 and 2019. It was my effort to democratize discussions on those questions in teacher unions, so that rank-and-file members and activists could fully participate. 

There were many other projects organized by the Shanker Institute, such as a Democracy Declaration, signed by America’s leading educators, on the sanctity of the vote and democratic elections as it became clear that both were under attack in the 2020 election. There were lessons plans on various aspects of the civil rights movement. 

And there is important Shanker Institute work that has just begun. There is a project underway on teacher union history that will be published on the Shanker Institute web site in the coming months. The Institute is embarking on a Civics education project, with teachers at its core, that will make a unique and powerful contribution to that field at a moment when the highest quality civics teaching could not be more necessary.

None of these achievements would have been possible without the editorial and other support of Burnie Bond, and the tireless organizing of Vicki Thomas. The various members of our board provided invaluable support for our work, as did the AFT Executive Council. At every step of the way, my friend Randi Weingarten and the officers of the AFT gave us everything that we asked for and needed to do our work. That made it possible for a small group of five full time staff to produce what we did.

As you might imagine, it is not easy to leave a group that has compiled such an extraordinary record of accomplishment, and will only do more in the coming years. There are strong bonds that have been built over the last decade. Truth be told, I won’t entirely disappear: I will serve on the Shanker board, and you may even see pieces I write from time to time on the Shanker Blog. At my new position in the AFT, I will have much more time to dedicate to writing and speaking on the issues that have been my focus here – especially the threats to American democracy that now confront us.

But the Shanker Institute needs a younger leader that can give it the full measure of dedication that I have been able to give it this last nine years. That my successor is Mary Cathryn Ricker has made this transition easier for me. Mary Cathryn is an accomplished teacher of middle school English Language Arts, with National Board certification. She served for many years as the President of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (you can read a little about her impressive work around bargaining for the common good in this Dissent Magazine essay). She was a full-time national officer of the AFT, and most recently, she served as the Minnesota State Commissioner of Education. Having been a member of the Shanker Institute board for many years, she has a thorough knowledge of its work. Mary Cathryn brings to her new position as the Institute’s Executive Director a powerful vision of teacher professionalism, knowledge and expertise, the stature of decades of exceptional work in the field of public education and a deep commitment to social justice. I could not ask for a better successor.

Solidarity forever: the union makes us strong.

- Leo Casey