A Continued Commitment To The Common Good

I am proud to announce my position as Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute on Labor Day. Labor Day is the federal holiday dedicated to workers, and it signals both a traditional back to school and a traditional start to election season. The Albert Shanker Institute is a think tank dedicated to voices for working people, strong public education, and freedom of association in the public life of democracies. These ideals are interdependent. 

Strong public schools are the foundation of our democracy. Workers’ voices—in their workplaces, professions, and at the ballot box—contribute to a vibrant democracy. A resilient and sustainable democracy protects and secures the voices of workers, the right to participate in our democracy, and the support of our public schools as a common good. I am honored to be immersing myself in this confluence of ideals at a time when our collective recommitment to the common good would create so much mutual progress in our communities, our country, and our world. ASI has a mission to generate ideas, foster candid exchanges and promote constructive policy proposals related to public education, worker voice, and democracy. Ideas, candid exchanges, and constructive policy proposals are all necessary avenues to our cooperative commitment to progress to the common good. My lived experience and my study of history convinces me that the triad of strong public education, healthy worker voice, and a vibrant democracy can make progress for all unstoppable. I relish the opportunity to convene great and divergent thinkers and successful activists to make meaning, shape plans, and accomplish policy to improve people’s lives across our country.

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.

A Tribute To Nat LaCour

Our guest authors today are Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill. Norman Hill, staff coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is also the former civil and human rights director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“Try to leave this world a little better than you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate, you have not wasted your time but have done your best.” - Robert Baden-Powell

No words in any earthly language can adequately express our aching sorrow and heartbreak upon learning of the recent passing of our dear, dear friend and colleague, Nat LaCour. Yet, we must—as he would urge in all things—do our best, and so, in that light, we humbly offer tribute to this remarkable man and his undying legacy.

At this time of both grief and celebration of Nat’s long and fruitful life, we add our voices to the great chorus of sympathies pouring forth to cherish his memory. We particularly extend a special embrace and comfort to Connie, Nat’s wife and true partner, and their children.

The world, as we know and love it, will never be the same without Nat’s steady, tireless hand guiding and protecting progress for the many; all the while, illuminating the way with his reassuring smile.

In Memoriam: David K. Cohen

We are devastated to report the death of David K. Cohen, a founding member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s board of directors who honored us with his service for 20 years. David was a gifted teacher, a brilliant scholar, and an absolute mensch. He was an inspiration and mentor to his colleagues and the many students he taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan, and the many students they in turn will touch. 

David was the John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education Emeritus and Professor of Public Policy Emeritus at the Graduate School of Education and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. For the past five years, he served as a visiting faculty member at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he had been a tenured faculty member from 1971 until 1984. He also served as  president of The Huron Institute (1971-86). He then served as the John Hannah Chair at Michigan State Universitys College of Education (1984-93) before coming to the University of Michigan.

Prior to his academic career, David was a consultant on schools and race to the general counsel of the NAACP (1964-66) and then director of the Race and Education Project for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1966-67), where his research established how Northern states preserved segregation by redrawing school district boundaries and how early federal funds for under-resourced schools did not greatly improve instruction.

In Memoriam: Eugenia Kemble

It is with great sorrow that we report the death of Eugenia Kemble, the founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, after a long battle with fallopian tube cancer. “Genie” Kemble helped to conceive of and launch the institute in 1998, with the support of the late Sandy Feldman, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Endowed by the AFT and named in honor of the AFT’s iconic former president, the Albert Shanker Institute was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research reports and fostering candid exchanges on policy options related to the issues of public education, labor, and democracy.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Manila, Genie entered the teacher union movement as part of a cohort of young Socialist Party activists who were close to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. She began her career in 1967 as a reporter for the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the AFT’s New York City local, and became a top aide to then UFT president Albert Shanker. She was a first-hand witness to the turbulent era during which Shanker served as UFT president, including the UFT strike for More Effective Schools in 1967, the harrowing Ocean Hill Brownsville strike over teachers’ due process rights in 1968, the remarkable UFT election victory to represent paraprofessionals in 1969, and the masterful bailout of a faltering New York City government through the loan of teacher pension funds in the mid-1970s.

How Books Inspire Action: The Citizen Power Project

Our guest author today is Marissa Wasseluk, Digital Communication Manager for non-profit FirstBook.

All too often, young people feel they don’t have the power to fix problems in their communities How can books inspire students to take action and become engaged citizens?

Earlier this year, First Book, along with our partners the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute, presented educators nationwide with a challenge: identify an issue and a civic engagement project important to their students, school or community. We then asked for proposals on how, with the support of books and resources from First Book, their students could take action to address that issue and show their students that they have a voice and the ability to make positive changes happen.

We called this challenge The Citizen Power Activation Project. Funded by the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project, 15 proposals  - five each from elementary, middle and high schools - would be chosen to receive a collection of special resources to help them implement their projects and a $500 grant for use on the First Book Marketplace.

More than 920 proposals were received.

In Defense Of The Public Square

A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.

And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.

In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”

Looking Backwards Into The Future

This is an adaptation of a recent message to AFT staff and leadership from Eugenia Kemble, on the occasion of her departure as the Albert Shanker Institute’s founding executive director, a position she held from March 1998 through September 2012.

I hope you will accept a few reflections from an old-timer as I leave the Albert Shanker Institute, which was launched with the support of the American Federation of Teachers in 1998, a year after Al’s death.

I started in 1967 as a cub reporter for New York’s Local 2 and have worked for the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and the Albert Shanker Institute since 1975, so I have been on duty for awhile. I was particularly grateful for the decision to create the Shanker Institute.  It has become a very special kind of forum – directed by an autonomous board of directors to ensure its independence – where, together with a broad spectrum of colleagues from both inside and outside the union, core ideas, positions, and practices could be discussed, examined, modeled, and debated.  Its inquisitive nature and program attempt to capture a key feature of Al Shanker’s contribution to union leadership.  As a result, the Institute’s work has helped many, including me, to reach a clearer understanding of the essential character of the AFT, unionism, public education, and of democracy itself, as well as what about them we hope will endure.

New Policy Brief: The Evidence On Charter Schools And Test Scores

In case you missed it, today we released a new policy brief, which provides an accessible review of the research on charter schools’ testing effects, how their varying impacts might be explained, and what this evidence suggests about the ongoing proliferation of these schools.

The brief is an adaptation of a three-part series of posts on this blog (here is part one, part two and part three).

Download the policy brief (PDF)

The abstract is pasted directly below.