The debate over education in America is high-stakes and high-stress. “Crisis” captures the mood as many argue that education in the United States as ineffective and inefficient. Some political and educational leaders demand wide-scale changes. Others, like Diane Ravitch in Reign of Error, believe that things are not that bad. Graduation and student success rates are improving. The very scope of the conversation is difficult to define.
Into this cognitive and policy dissonance steps Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, a fascinating look at the broader history of K-12 education in the United States. Goldstein is a journalist from a family of teachers. Her stated goal is to present facts, neither to defend teachers or reformers. She does make arguments, of course, but what makes the work so interesting is the informed context that she provides. The Teacher Wars is not a history of educational theory or of practice. It is a study of the interplay of educational policy, practice, politics, ideas, culture, and power. The greatest takeaway from the book is that education in America is always in crisis. Today’s battles are borne of yesterday’s conflicts, and there is a strong likelihood that they will also be the base for tomorrow’s debates.
Goldstein uses history to discuss recurring themes, such as class size, teacher pay, teacher accountability, and the importance of teachers to the economy and the public work force. From the mid-19th century, the question of teacher qualifications and value was hotly contested. Catherine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) publicly pushed for women teachers on two grounds: morality and cost. She claimed – and many Americans agreed – that female values were inherently suited to the classroom. Taxpayers and administrators found the lower salaries for a female workforce inherently attractive as well.
With a female workforce chosen, in part, for who they were (and not what they knew or could do), teaching lost prestige and its agency as a “serious” profession. The latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s witnessed the flowering of white-collar professionalization in law, medicine, engineering and many other kinds of work. Teachers did not enjoy the same movement. They did, however, unionize to protect themselves and secure rights. Teaching schools emerged as a regular feature of American higher education. Teachers’ reliance on public funding, their alignment with left-wing values as organized labor, and their gender, insured that the role of public school teaching was always part political conflict. Goldstein contrasts America with Europe, where teachers were more male and more professionalized. Teaching was also centralized and more a matter of broad policy.
The lens of gender, class, and politics is extremely helpful in understanding the battles over teachers and teaching. Goldstein explains how it gives perspective on Teach For America, which places smart and highly motivated college graduates in classrooms in high-poverty areas. The same model was used by the Peace Corps in the 1960s in Washington, DC., and became the National Teacher Corps. If teaching was a white-collar profession with the same schools, preparation and practice as accounting or engineering, for example, we would never imagine placing recent college graduates with limited training in front-line roles with great responsibilities. But because of our history and practice, we collectively tend to feminize teaching and attach moral and behavior expectations to it. Those very same assumptions color the collective assumption that bad teachers are the cause of schools with low rates of student success. Further, teaching is always in crisis because it is so difficult to identify less successful teachers.
Goldstein highlights the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school conflict of the 1960s to show how this can plays out as public policy and politics. Ocean Hill-Brownsville is a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. In the 1960s, most of its public school teachers were white and/or Jewish. Local politicians and school leaders, gaining control of a school district that was not successful (graduating high numbers of college-bound or employed high school seniors) fired most of the existing staff and replaced them with teachers and administrators of color. It was an exercise in community control. The teachers union, the UFT, fought back fiercely. The UFT went on strike for two months, polarizing the entire city. The union eventually won, at great cost, leaving both the community and the profession badly scarred.
Some of the other facts Goldstein discusses:
- Approximately 2% of teachers are fired each year. This is greater than federal employees (1%) and most large companies. She notes that firing more teachers is not the same as preparing better teachers.
- Merit pay does not improve student success. It was tried in the 1800s, in the 1900s, and even today there is no scheme or structure that demonstrates effectiveness in improving student success.
- Similarly, no “valued added” teacher evaluation system has ever been effective over the long-term. It was tried in the progressive era and many times since.
Bottom line conclusion, Goldstein writes, is that the evaluation of teachers and the evaluation of schools is very complex. Sound bites and simple solutions are no solutions at all.
American school systems are decentralized and deeply politicized, whether we want them that way or not. A community’s hopes and fears is often played out in how it treats its teachers and schools. And as Goldstein emphasizes, that dynamic has been a constant in America’s teacher wars for well over a century. This is a very helpful corrective when thinking about today’s debates.
Teacher Wars is a very good book, well worth your time and consideration.