The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
Dana Goldstein (Twitter)
Audiobook read by Nan McNamara
Doubleday (September 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 038553695X / 9780385536950)
Nonfiction: history/education, 368 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Audible Studios, September 2014, ASIN B00M4LUO90)
Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars is not the comprehensive history of two centuries of American public education. In fact, this book strongly suggests that such a history may never be written, in part because there is no single, unified system of American public education, There’s barely a unified vision of American public education, although there have been a number of movements in the direction of one (Common Core being the most recent). But if all politics are local, education may be even more so, and a primary theme of The Teacher Wars is just how often, and how closely, they’re connected.
The obvious point of intersection between education and politics is teachers’ unions, and the histories and activities of several of the most prominent national and regional unions get a significant amount of attention in The Teacher Wars. Particularly in the large, urban school districts that are the focus of much of the book, it’s nearly impossible to separate the politics from the educational issues in battles over such matters as accountability, funding, and teacher tenure—a concept originally meant to protect teachers from being fired based on political or philosophical whims, now often viewed as one that prevents teachers from ever being fired at all.
Politics are also a factor in education policies driven by what Goldstein describes as “moral panic”—“an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order”, and which she elabortates on in an interview with Everyday EBook:
EVERYDAY EBOOK: “One of the themes that runs through your book is the ‘moral panic’—these recurring moments in history when people become convinced that teachers are indoctrinating kids, or abusing them, or something else. How did you arrive at that theme?”
DANA GOLDSTEIN: “I had read the literature from sociologists describing the moral panic, and it was a phenomenon I was familiar with as a journalist from covering poverty issues. It comes up a lot in ideas like drug-addicted moms who give birth to crack babies – that was certainly a big moral panic in the eighties – or welfare queens, that’s another one. Basically what I argue is that the panic over teacher tenure, teacher job security, and low-performing teachers that we’ve seen over the past decade in the United States is our new moral panic. It’s about poverty, because we’ve asked teachers to close socioeconomic gaps, to solve child poverty, to address inequality, and these problems are so bad that we have very high expectations for teachers. But it’s difficult for them to meet these expectations, so it leads to this cycle of outrage and panic.”
Goldstein’s point about poverty is reinforced throughout The Teacher Wars, with multiple examples of underperforming or ineffective schools and school districts whose problems seemingly can’t be disconnected from the struggling poor and lower-middle-class populations so many of them serve.
The Teacher Wars confirms and documents some misgivings many of us may already have about public education. As it stands now, politics seem to play a much larger role than effective educational theories and proven instructional practices in determining what is taught and how teaching is done. (I was a bit demoralized to have that suspicion confirmed by the book, to be honest..) The inconsistencies of teacher-training methodologies are discussed in a variety of contexts, as are the pitfalls of “accountability measures” in which student test scores reflect perceived teacher “effectiveness” more than any actual knowledge gained by their pupils. However, Goldstein balances her reporting on what’s not working with examples of strategies that are, and maintains her journalistic objectivity until the book’s epilogue, where she makes recommendations based on the latter.
As I mentioned earlier, The Teacher Wars seems to concern itself chiefly with large urban schools and school districts, and I was a bit disappointed by that. On the one hand, it’s a logical choice; these are the settings for the most prominent conflicts in modern public education, especially when the socioeconomic class issues are factored in. On the other, I would have appreciated some perspective from rural and suburban schools as well. I can’t fathom that they’re not dealing with “teacher wars” of their own.
I read this as an audiobook and found Nan McNamara’s narration satisfactory, but I also bought the companion ebook so I could refer back to things more easily, and I’d recommend that approach, because I’m recommending this book. There’s no single system of American public education; the Constitution doesn’t even guarantee Americans the right to a public education. But we do have the right to understand the system we do have, and the responsibility to make it better than it is. The Teacher Wars is a tool that might help us do that.
Teaching is a wildly contentious profession in America, one attacked and admired in equal measure. In The Teacher Wars, a rich, lively, and unprecedented history of public school teaching, Dana Goldstein reveals that teachers have been similarly embattled for nearly two centuries. From the genteel founding of the common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the violent inner-city teacher strikes of the 1960s and ’70s, from the dispatching of Northeastern women to frontier schoolhouses to the founding of Teach for America on the Princeton University campus in 1989, Goldstein shows that the same issues have continued to bedevil us: Who should teach? What should be taught? Who should be held accountable for how our children learn?
She uncovers the surprising roots of hot-button issues, from teacher tenure to charter schools, and finds that recent popular ideas to improve schools—instituting merit pay, evaluating teachers by student test scores, ranking and firing veteran teachers, and recruiting “elite” graduates to teach—are all approaches that have been tried in the past without producing widespread change. And she also discovers an emerging effort that stands a real chance of transforming our schools for the better: drawing on the best practices of the three million public school teachers we already have in order to improve learning throughout our nation’s classrooms.
The Teacher Wars upends the conversation about American education by bringing the lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today. By asking ‘How did we get here?’ Dana Goldstein illuminates the path forward.
From Chapter One:
“In 1815 a religious revival swept the Litchfield Female Academy, a private school in a genteel Connecticut town.
“In those years, there were few truly ‘public’ schools in the United States. The U.S. Constitution did not mention education as a right (it still doesn’t), and school attendance was not compulsory. Schools were generally organized by town councils. local churches, urban charitable societies, or–in more remote parts of the country–ad hoc groups of neighbors. A mix of tuition payments and local tax dollars supported the schools. Two-thirds of American students attended one-room schoolhouses, where as many as seventy children from age five through sixteen were educated together, usually by just one overwhelmed schoolteacher, who was nearly always male. School was held only twelve weeks per year, six in the summer and six in the winter. There were rarely any textbooks on hand, and the most frequent assignment was to memorize and recite Bible passages. Naughty children were whipped or made to sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap.
“At Litchfield, a relative island of privilege, girl after girl loudly and publicly achieved the state of ”conversion“ expected of all fervent Calvinists, a transcendent, nearly manic period in which God’s plan for one’s life would be revealed, setting an individual upon her predestined path toward heaven. Conversion tended to be catching, like the flu. But fourteen-year-old Catharine Beecher refused to convert. This made her conspicuous, because she was the daughter of a celebrity preacher.”
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