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The Teacher Wars: A Review in Two Parts

 Published on February 4, 2015 /  Written by and /  “School daze” by David Barnas; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  2

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein. 349 pages. Doubleday: New York, etc. 2014. ISBN 978-0-385-53695-0.

A Review by R L Widmann

This book is the type that you want to inhale as fast as possible, throw across the room at the wall in furious rage, or read slowly, slowly, page by page. Or all three.

Dana Goldstein gives a substantive account of the history of how teachers in the US have been supported, demonized, idealized, and/or pilloried over several centuries. In so doing, she also keeps the students in the classroom in focus. These two strategies make her book compulsive reading, especially for people who know only the very recent history of the teaching profession in the last decade or two.

Goldstein aims to be “more analytical than sharply opinionated” (263) and she succeeds. While her own views are often quite clear, she does have history speak for itself. The chapter titles of the book illustrate her discussions. She begins with “‘Missionary Teachers’: The Common Schools Movement and the Feminization of American Teaching.” For those who do not know the heavy influence of strong-minded and determined Catherine Beecher, who established the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, this chapter provides a wealth of background against which we can map present-day problems and issues. Concomitantly, Horace Mann set up the first “normal schools,” with 3 open by 1840. By 1870, he had 22 in operation. The first one, at Lexington, Massachusetts, today is Framingham State University. The legacies of Beecher and Mann are long and profound.

Goldstein’s second chapter, tracing the work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lays out very clearly how these early feminists were working for a functioning social movement in order to advance women’s rights. In this chapter, Goldstein indicates how “the toxic mix of uneven, highly localized training; low pay; anti-intellectualism; and lack of social prestige pushed just not men but ambitious women, too, out of the classroom” (44). Goldstein’s assessments here are sobering, making clear that America did not begin its venture into public education for all in a rosy or golden haze of good will and deep support.

In Goldstein’s chapter three, “‘No Shirking, No Skulking’: Black Teachers and Racial Uplift After the Civil War,” she inflects her discussion with very clear-sighted analyses of how racial politics explicitly entered the teaching profession in America. After the Civil War, the need for freed slaves to learn to read and write was crucial. The spirited bravery and achievements of Edward Pierce and Charlotte Forten in teaching stand as monuments to their beliefs in fairness, civility, and opportunity. This chapter also brings in the better known Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, who regularly debated “the proper education for the descendants of slaves—especially those who would become teachers” (55). The crucial contributions of another significant educator and author, Anna Julia Cooper, are laid out in this chapter. Her ground-breaking A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892) provides the linchpin here.

Goldstein’s successive chapters trace the birth of teachers unions, employing recurring witch hunts during the 20th c. wars, the formation of the Great Society, the rise of Black Power and its struggles with Union teachers, the loss of local control and desegregation, establishment of data-driven teaching, and the reform of education by empowering teachers. (Yet again.)

Each of Goldstein’s chapters is a worthy read on its own. Some of the nonsense that has passed for “education” or “policy” or “practice” over the years really will make you want to tear your hair out and set it on fire. That successful teachers do succeed often appears to be in spite of heavy odds against reaching their goals.

The Epilogue is a pithy commentary on improving teaching today by looking to lessons from the past. These lessons are all ones that we should ponder and think over before demanding that more money be thrown at schools, by gleefully going after the “deadwood” teachers supposedly walking zombie-like through our schools, or by sinking our total trust in outcomes assessment.

Yes, American public education is in trouble. When has it not been? Dana Goldstein’s thoughtful book is carefully researched, cogently written. Should we read it? Yes. Might we want to throw it across the room at times? Yes. We need to know where we have been in our commitment to public education before we can go forward with sensible planning and practice.

I began writing this review with a heavy heart on September 29, 2014, the day the trial of teachers and administrators began in Atlanta, Georgia. The defendants have been accused of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to inflate test scores in Atlanta public schools. At the time of publication of this review, the jury is still out on that case and on public education in the USA.

A Response by Alex Mueller

Like R L, I find Goldstein’s history of the contention surrounding the American teaching profession to be illuminating, provocative, and maddening. Most enlightening of all is the combative dialectic she establishes between teaching as a vocation and teaching as a profession. Missionary teachers like Catherine Beecher who felt “called” to teach have been both revered and exploited. Highly educated teachers like union-boss Al Shanker who approached teaching as a profession have been both respected and vilified.

As a former high school English teacher and current advisor to K-12 public educators in the Boston area, I regularly feel and witness the disturbing consequences of this vocation/profession opposition. For example, on December 26th, 2014, the Boston Public Schools announced a long awaited agreement for an extended school day. The agreement was long in coming, not because of significant resistance to the educational benefits of more instructional time, but because of concerns about the money that would have to be paid to teachers for extending their work day. Teachers naturally want to be paid for their work, but the expense of paying them at their normal pay rate was considerable. Rather than concede to pay them at this rate, however, extended-day reformers invoked the ghost of Catherine Beecher, emphasizing the needs of students over the needs of teachers, expecting teachers to sacrifice their pay in the name of their educational calling. The ghost of Al Shanker, however, was strong enough to broker a deal that would pay teachers 80% of their pay rate for the extended time.

Even though vigorous support of teaching as a profession remains, Goldstein convincingly demonstrates that teaching is largely haunted by its vocational history, a legacy nurtured by sexist and racist educational policies. Consider Horace Mann’s mid-nineteenth-century argument for employing the female teacher, who is divinely called to the role, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!” (27). Angels only accept grace as payment, of course, which conveniently enabled the state of Massachusetts to pay them less than expensive male teachers, effectively cutting $11,000 from the school budget. And as if the education of African-Americans were a form of racial remuneration in itself, early-twentieth-century black teachers in North Carolina were only paid 60% of the salary of their white counterparts (62).

As R L points out, Goldstein offers a number of useful solutions to ending the “teacher wars,” especially the injunctions to increase teacher pay and to reduce the emphasis on high-stakes testing, a weapon increasingly used against teachers. Yet, I don’t think Goldstein goes far enough. As history also tells us, wars cost money and the money currently funding the teacher wars is coming from educational testing companies. A 2012 Brookings Institution study estimates that states spend $1.7 billion annually on assessments, a cost predicted to increase with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Among the testing companies receiving this money, Pearson receives 39%, the largest share. Pearson is the largest educational publishing company in the world and 47% stakeholder of Penguin Random House, the publisher of Goldstein’s book. If, as Goldstein suggests, we should avoid “focusing obsessively on rating teachers” and instead attend “to the design of the larger public education and social welfare systems in which they work” (11), why then end the book with teacher-focused suggestions regarding “outdated” union protections and professional development (265-72)? While I greatly appreciate the history Goldstein tells, there is more to be told. I do not think we are telling the full story without a more thorough interrogation of the impoverishment of educational budgets by high-stakes tests and the deskilling of teachers through standards movements such as the Common Core.

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2 Responses
  1. Lauren Boyle

    While I have not yet read The Teachers War, I very much enjoyed the thoughtful two-part analysis of this review. So many of us public school teachers believe that our profession is currently under siege by the politicians, “school reformers”, testing companies, the list goes on. It is important that we fully appreciate the history behind our profession so we can move forward advocating for best practices yet keeping in mind the historical implications of so many policy decisions made today.

  2. Alex Mueller

    I completely agree, Lauren. When you have time (and I know that public school teachers generally don’t), Goldstein’s book is worth the full read. She writes in a clear and engaging style with an admirable sensitivity to the complicated nature of the issues. My critiques reflect mostly my desire for more, and mostly more history, backwards and forwards. There is much we can learn, for instance, from the invention of medieval schools, which were largely shaped by the desires of students, just as there is much we can learn from the recent history of what we can now call the Common Core era, which has already posed considerable challenges for teacher workloads and autonomy.

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