Sandra Feldman, who combined hard bargaining for teacher salaries with a willingness to embrace educational innovation, steps down this week as president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union.
As head of the 1.3 million-member AFT, Feldman followed the course of her legendary predecessor, Albert Shanker, as an old-fashioned fighter for better working conditions while trying to accommodate new ideas about curricula and how teachers might be rewarded for exceptional work.
Perhaps more than the nation's largest teachers union, the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, which sometimes resisted innovations such as public charter schools, the AFT has been willing to try new work rules for teachers in a bid to raise the academic achievement of the many low-income students in its members' schools, Feldman said.
"Sandy did some of her best work behind the scenes -- working with district leaders and others to help with reforms that might otherwise have been hampered by union positions," said Ron Wolk, founder of the weekly newspaper Education Week.
In an interview yesterday, Feldman, 64, said she tried "to fight to make happen the things that we know work," including quality preschool for children as young as age 3, smaller class sizes in the early elementary grades and more tutoring.
Feldman served on an advisory committee for a charter school organization that gave principals unusual power to hire and fire teachers. She encouraged experiments involving bonuses for teachers and schools that succeeded in raising student achievement.
The big difference between now and when she went to work at Public School 34 in Manhattan in 1963, Feldman said, is that, "when I was a teacher, I had children I couldn't unlock. I didn't know how to do that. Now we do."
Feldman told a meeting of AFT leaders in May that she would be retiring because of ongoing treatment for breast cancer and her desire to enjoy New York, which her work schedule has prevented. "I am hoping to go to a lot of museums, go to the theatre, go to concerts, read books and be available to give advice," she said.
The AFT has its roots in the progressive movement of the 1920s. The NEA resisted the union label until the 1960s, but then it surpassed the AFT with strong organizing in suburban districts. The two unions are influential in the Democratic Party, one reason that Democrats routinely denounce tax-funded vouchers for private schools. NEA and AFT leaders want to merge the two organizations, but their effort was voted down by members in 1998.
Feldman was less critical of President Bush's No Child Left Behind reforms, which demand regular testing, than her NEA counterpart, Reg Weaver. Andrew Rotherham, an adviser to President Bill Clinton and the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, praised Feldman for resisting "efforts to take a hard line on No Child Left Behind that would have satisfied vocal elements of her membership but harmed the cause of equity for poor and minority youngsters."
Feldman grew up in Coney Island and entered Brooklyn College at age 16. She was active in the civil rights movement and was recommended in 1966 to Shanker, who was looking for a full-time organizer, by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. She was chosen by the AFT executive council to finish Shanker's term when he died in 1997. She has been elected to three two-year terms since.
Many AFT publications during her tenure have focused on educational research. The union released major studies on the teaching of reading, in 1999, and on the deficiencies in teacher training, in 2000. In 2002, Feldman offered her "Kindergarten-Plus" proposal to start kindergarten in the summer for disadvantaged children who need more study time, and to keep them in school during the summer before first grade.
During her seven years at the helm, a union statement said, membership increased by more than 350,000. Her successor is scheduled to be elected Friday at the union's biennial convention in Washington, which opens today. AFT officials said they expect delegates to choose Edward J. McElroy, a former high school social studies and English teacher and the union's secretary-treasurer, who has long been a close colleague of Feldman's.
Feldman, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, has admirers from Republican administrations, too. Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and research professor of education at New York University, said that "because of her personal experiences and political views, the AFT supported standards, testing and common-sense policies -- as well as opposing totalitarian governments abroad. She is a wonderful woman."