America’s love-hate relationship with educators

The Obama Administration’s proposal to rate and reward schools of education is just the latest salvo in America’s campaign to fix schools by improving the teaching profession. And as Dana Goldstein shows in her new book “The Teacher Wars,” this effort has been underway for a very long time.

Starting with the common schools movement of the early to mid-1800s, teachers have been the focus of a great deal of our anxiety about national progress and our children’s future. We’ve debated the best ways to recruit, train, evaluate, reward and fire teachers. We’re as far from agreeing as ever.

book_coverAnd in recent years – as often in our history – concern over bad teachers has becomes a “moral panic,” in which a small group comes to represent big societal concerns. How did it come about, Goldstein asks, that American teachers are “both resented and idealized” while countries like Finland and South Korea shower teachers with respect.

Goldstein is a journalist whose reporting on education has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Slate and elsewhere. (She is now part of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit media organization covering criminal justice). She has a journalist’s sense of story and character. She understands that you write about individual soldiers, not the entire army. And the history of the teacher wars is rich with fascinating combatants, from the Civil War-era African-American educator Charlotte Forten to the Chicago labor pioneer Maggie Haley to the sometimes confrontational and often unpredictable union leader Albert Shanker.

As Goldstein shows, teaching entwines with the great social movements of American history: the settling of the West, the rise of feminism, the progressive movement, anti-communism, civil rights, and the creation, growth and decline of unions. It has always been inseparable from political philosophy: Progressives and accountability types have butted heads forever.

Nineteenth-century advocates for women play a key role in the story. The “first media-darling school reformer” was Catherine Beecher — sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and friend of Horace Mann – who promoted the idea that pious young women should become teachers as a missionary duty. Her influence remains in the notion that teaching is “women’s work” that is done for the love of children, not money.

Race is also a recurring topic, from the debates between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington over how black students should be taught to Brown v. Board of Education and the struggle to integrate schools. Then there were the 1960s battles between black-power community activists and the Shanker-led New York teachers’ union, which prompted Woody Allen to joke in the film “Sleeper” that a nuclear disaster had occurred because “a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”

It’s striking, as Goldstein shows, that nearly all of today’s schemes for making better teachers are based on old ideas. As Harvard professor Jal Mehta writes in a review, “The most compelling parts of ‘The Teacher Wars’ show in vivid detail the ways in which our current debates were anticipated.”

But the book is much more than a critique of wrong-headed reforms. Goldstein writes from the position that teachers do essential work and we should support policies that help them work better. She suggests improving salaries, creating communities of practice, recruiting more men and people of color to teach, ending “last in, first out” layoffs – and returning tests to their proper role as diagnostic tools.

It’s tempting to say “The Teacher Wars” should be required reading for those of us who write and argue about education. But that makes reading it sound like taking your medicine. And it’s nothing like that. This is a revelatory book, full of surprises and insight. If you don’t read it, it’s your loss.

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