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[Review] 'The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession'

January 07, 2015

Bookcover_The_Teacher_WarsConventional wisdom has it that America's once first-rate public education system is a shadow of its former self, today surpassed in both quality and cost-effectiveness by the educational systems of any number of European and Asian countries and with little hope of improvement.

Although some of this decline has been blamed on larger societal problems such as poverty and racism, the teaching profession itself has come in for a large share of criticism. In this view, "bad" teachers — those seen to be undereducated, coddled by their unions, and/or unmotivated and uncaring — are virtually untouchable, while good teachers are forced out of the profession by poor pay and lack of respect.

According to Dana Goldstein, there's nothing new about the conventional wisdom. Indeed, throughout U.S. history, she writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, teachers have been unfairly blamed for the state of American public education even though a host of larger "villains" — misguided reform movements, an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests, ideological crusading, political meddling — are more rightly to blame.

Goldstein characterizes the regular attacks on public school teachers as the product of "moral panics," a term used by sociologists to identify an all-too-common feature of American society in which "policy makers and the media focus on a single class of people . . . as emblems of a large, complex social problem." She identifies at least a dozen such panics, and in each one she finds that blame for the failings of the American educational system, real or imagined, was assigned to one easily vilified group or another: intemperate male teachers, undereducated female teachers, black intellectuals, unionized teachers, unpatriotic teachers, alternative-program recruits, and teachers protected by seniority, to name a few.

Along the way, Goldstein, a journalist whose father and maternal grandfather were public school teachers, traces the history of American education from the 1820s, when the common schools movement transformed teaching from a male- to a female-dominated profession, to the present day, with George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy supplanted by the Obama administration's Race to the Top program and Common Core Standards in English language arts and mathematics. In the intervening decades, she writes, a dizzying array of educational strategies and reforms have been introduced and subjected to intense scrutiny, from unionization and parent leadership, to merit pay, value-added measurement, and alternative learning pathways.

In too many instances, the story of these experiments has followed a distressingly familiar arc, with one special interest pitted against another, often with more regard for ideology and individual ego than the best interests of children. Goldstein recounts almost two centuries of friction between male and female teachers, community control and centralized authority, states' rights advocates and desegregationists, teachers unions and non-unionized charter school advocates, veteran teachers and inexperienced neophytes.

Complicating the picture she paints is the fact that conflicting aims and interests make it difficult to evaluate the efficacy of promising reforms, while competing efforts often work at cross-purposes. For example, the decades-long trend of falling SAT scores may have less to do with the intellectual ability of the general student population and more to do with the fact that a broader cross-section of the population has been encouraged to take the test. Smaller class sizes, often hailed as a critically important reform, may in fact have been achieved by ignoring truancy and/or by implementing a zero tolerance policy with respect to poorly performing students. Early certification programs may have resulted in classrooms being populated by inexperienced novices, infuriating veteran teachers, while nevertheless succeeding in their goal of recruiting more male and non-white teachers to the teaching profession. And so on.

Goldstein has done her homework, and her lively, journalistic style humanizes her cast of characters, which includes heavy hitters such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as lesser-known figures like Mary McDowell, the "flawless" Quaker teacher fired for refusing to sign a loyalty pledge. While it may be stretching a point to single out teachers as "America's most embattled profession," her book offers a balanced picture of American public education, past and present. If her primary thesis, that teachers always have been unfairly targeted by non-experts with their own agendas, remains a matter of debate, she is willing to concede that "the majority of American teachers have academically mediocre backgrounds" and that too many of them provide substandard instruction in their classrooms.

Which is why it is both surprising and encouraging to find a thread of optimism running through her narrative. This hopefulness extends to the author's own recommendations for reform in the book's epilogue, recommendations that range from the pragmatic (increase teacher pay) to the ill-defined ("keep teaching interesting"). In the end, Goldstein reluctantly concludes that, absent broader economic and social reforms, there are no easy answers to any of these questions. If we hope, however, to succeed where earlier generations failed, delivering a world-class education to every child regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, teachers must be embraced as part of the solution.

Chuck Bartelt is data integration liaison in the Foundation Center's New York office. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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