As reviewed by Jal Mehta
Over the past decade, teaching has moved to the center of the debate about how to improve schooling. From teacher evaluation systems to value-added modeling to the recent Vergara decision in California, reformers have increasingly focused on selecting, measuring, developing, evaluating, and firing teachers as the key to educational improvement. Dana Goldstein’s far-reaching new book, The Teacher Wars, shows that these ideas are not new. Written as a history of American debates over teaching, Goldstein’s book insists that our efforts to make teaching more scientific or to control it through increasingly elaborate data systems tell us more about ourselves than they do about teaching.
Goldstein, a well-known magazine journalist, brings a reporter’s eye for a good story. Each chapter narrates one episode in the American history of teaching: how teaching became a feminized profession; initial movements toward the unionization of teaching; early teaching in segregated black schools; McCarthy-era attacks on teachers for their politics; conflicts between (mostly white) teachers and (mostly black and Latino) local control advocates; and then on through A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top. Chapters generally focus on one or more central protagonists: we meet familiar figures like Horace Mann, Margaret Haley, and Al Shanker, as well as lesser-known actors whom history has largely forgotten. More academically inclined readers might prefer a less character-driven approach, but on the whole, the book uses the central figures effectively to anchor broader stories.
The most compelling parts of The Teacher Wars show in vivid detail the ways in which our current debates were anticipated. Some of these examples, like Progressive-era efforts to impose scientific management on teaching, are familiar. Others are less so, such as the extension of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington’s famous debates into the training of teachers, with their positions mirroring the fault lines of contemporary conflicts. Du Bois saw teaching as an intellectual vocation and advocated for teachers who were top university students with strong and broad content knowledge. Washington saw teaching as primarily a practical skill and worked to create opportunities for blacks to open and attend normal schools, an advance he hoped would increase the number of good jobs available to African Americans.
Another story with a modern parallel is that of the National Teachers Corps, a 1960s-era federal effort to create a fast track to teaching for Peace Corps volunteers and graduates of elite colleges. Student teachers were placed directly in high-poverty schools, without going through indenture in subpar education schools that critics saw as adding little value but turning away potentially smart teachers. But, Goldstein writes, “Right away, resentments bubbled up between interns and veteran teachers…. Interns were young, and mostly white, and…veterans were generally middle-aged and black.” Anticipating by three decades the battles over Teach For America, the program inspired proponents who hoped it would bring more intelligent young people into teaching along with critics who saw it as denigrating the wisdom of veteran teachers and deprofessionalizing the field.
The Teacher Wars explores the roots of many of the core issues facing the field. For example, while much has been made of how the feminization of teaching contributes to its being regarded as less than fully professionalized, Goldstein relates how American teaching became feminized in the first place: teaching shifted from a largely male to a largely female occupation in the first four decades of the 19th century, driven by a potent combination of feminist crusaders like Catherine Beecher, who were looking for greater opportunities for women, and antitax advocates, who argued that women would be cheaper to employ than men. As Goldstein points out, it seems not to have occurred to the early reformers that if teaching were considered unsuitable for men with options, it would be difficult to argue that teaching was a skilled profession worthy of significant respect and pay.
Goldstein tells us that her father and grandfather were public school teachers, and that the current appetite for demonizing teachers, particularly veteran teachers, never rang true to her experiences. She describes the history of merit pay at some length, showing how its assumption that teachers would teach better if only they were motivated by money has again and again proved false. She is, in my view, rightly critical of the notion that good teaching can be easily reduced to test scores or value-added measures, or that you can fire your way to improvement. The implicit message of the historical material is that today’s reformers are not as original as they think, and thus their current ideas will not bring about the improvements they promise.
Goldstein’s conclusions are loosely aligned with what we might label the “Finland wing” of the school reform debate. She calls for more careful preparation of teachers, more time for them to collaborate, and more opportunities to teach in ways that are interesting and alive. She writes, “We must focus less on how to rank and fire teachers and more on how to make day-to-day teaching an attractive, challenging job that intelligent, creative and ambitious people will gravitate towards.” But at the same time, she resists easy comparisons to law or medicine: she notes that teaching is the largest occupation in the United States, and that just to fill openings each year requires as many teachers (200,000) as there are total graduates from even our moderately selective colleges (colleges that admit half their applicants or fewer). And thus while she hopes that teaching will become more of a profession, she is realistic about the substantial challenges inherent in that proposition.
The question raised, but not answered, by Goldstein’s analysis is how we might move away from the teacher wars and create the conditions for more sustained improvement. Her history suggests that teachers have largely been pawns in the games of others; if teaching is to become a professional field organized around common norms and standards, then practitioners and their representatives need to exert professional control over it, as we have seen in other domains. This, in turn, would require the establishment of much more rigorous standards for who could become a fully credentialed teacher, as well as the development of specialized knowledge about teaching that would parallel the knowledge base in fields like medicine, law, and engineering. While public control of public schools would still prevail, some things would not be up for debate; a new head of a hospital can change the slogan and reorganize the organizational chart, but she cannot abolish morning rounds or change the basic standards of care. Until education develops a similar professional core, the teacher wars will likely be as much a part of our future as they have been of our past.
Jal Mehta is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.