Classroom Saints and Fiends

Classroom Saints and Fiends

Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars shows that the failed ideas underlying today’s ed-reform crusade are as old as public education itself.

Teacher and student in New Hampshire, 1941 (National Archives)

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
by Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 368 pp.

The crusade—now more than a decade old—to remake K–12 public education in the image of a business enterprise moves on two fronts. One is private management of public resources: convert as many “regular” public schools as possible into privately run charter schools while also setting up voucher systems that allow individual students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The second front is transformation of the teaching profession into . . . what? Here the stated goals and actual policies of the market-model “ed reformers” are a tangle of contradictions.

Ed reformers, whose political identities run the full gamut, claim that putting a great teacher in every classroom will offset the disadvantages suffered by poor and minority children outside school and will close the academic achievement gap between these students and middle-class white students. Teaching, therefore, must become a highly respected, well paid profession that attracts the most talented graduates of the most prestigious colleges and universities.

Yet these same ed reformers have worked tirelessly and successfully to undermine the substance and reputation of the profession. They bear responsibility for focusing public school teaching on standardized test preparation and for using student test scores to determine how much teachers are paid (merit pay), who is fired, and which schools are shut down. They promote mini-length training programs to replace experienced teachers with lower-paid, nonunion neophytes; they help to pass state laws that weaken collective bargaining and cut pensions and benefits; they advocate abolishing tenure (due process) so that teachers can be fired at will; and they’ve conducted a nonstop media operation to depict public school teachers as greedy, poorly trained, and ineffective to the point of endangering the nation’s future.

The disrespect for teachers embedded in the ed reformers’ policies is matched only by their overt hostility toward teacher unions. Not surprisingly, job satisfaction among public school teachers has plummeted in recent years.

The ed reformers’ stance looks like a Madonna-whore complex: teachers are miracle-working saviors of poor and downtrodden children, or they are villains preventing these children from benefiting from a good education. According to Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, this kind of saint-fiend split has characterized Americans’ view of teachers since universal public education first took hold in some states in the 1830s. Again and again since then, reformers of different stripes have tried to improve teaching with some of the same fixes—merit pay based on test scores, fast-track training programs, ranking teachers—with the same lack of success.

In addition, writes Goldstein, the negative view of public school teachers has periodically erupted into a nationwide “moral panic” about national survival. We’ve been living through just this kind of moral panic for a decade (the seeds were sown during the Reagan years) with fingers pointing to the stock savior-villain: “[W]hen the quality of a teacher can make or break a child’s education, we’ve got to make sure our certified [read “public school”] teachers are also outstanding teachers—teachers who can reach every last child,” declared ed-reformer-in-chief Barack Obama in 2011.

Goldstein, whose father and maternal grandfather taught in public schools, began reporting on education in 2007. In The Teacher Wars, her first book, she sets out to compose a history of the debates that have shaped public school teaching from the 1820s to today. She writes not as a professional historian trying to shed new light on an established interpretation, but as a journalist trying to gain insight into current policy clashes. (Some of the reporting in the book first appeared in the American Prospect, Slate, the Daily Beast, and the Nation.) Although her tone is not argumentative, she doesn’t approach the subject as a neutral observer. Goldstein has opinions about what hasn’t worked and what might succeed in the future—opinions based on six or seven years of conversations with educators, researchers, public officials, and private funders and, most important, classroom observations. She lays out her point of view in the book’s introduction:

I do not believe schools are good enough the way they are. Nor do I believe that poverty and ethnic diversity prevent the United States from doing better educationally. Teachers and schools alone cannot solve our crisis of inequality and long-term unemployment, yet we know from the experience of nations like Poland that we don’t have to eradicate economic insecurity to improve our schools.

No rational person would argue that public schools cannot or should not be improved, especially those attended by low-income and minority children. And even without the Polish model (Goldstein doesn’t say what this is), reasonable people understand that school improvement doesn’t require first eradicating economic insecurity. But Goldstein’s statement raises a key question that she never investigates in depth: how much better can schools with large majorities of low-income and minority children do if nothing about the children’s lives outside of school changes? Can these schools do well enough to improve the life chances of millions of children who begin school unprepared to learn? No, she implies: “Teachers and schools alone cannot solve our crisis. . . . ”

In several places in the book, Goldstein mentions that families need social supports in addition to better schools in order for children to thrive academically. In passing she lists well-known supports, including living-wage jobs, proper housing, childcare, and health care. She refers approvingly to schools with “wraparound” social services for low-income families. But she doesn’t go beyond these mentions. Her decision not to delve into this conundrum is disappointing because she started researching the book with a strong premise: “I suspected that the key to understanding the American view of teachers lay in our history, and perhaps had something to do with the tension between our sky-high hopes for public education as the vehicle of meritocracy and our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included.”

Indeed the teacher wars have everything to do with this tension between sky-high hopes and the refusal to fund the means to achieve them. Pulling together the long history of this tension with the history of teaching reforms would provide the most complete understanding of today’s war. Goldstein opts instead for a narrower focus, training her eye on the job of teaching—certainly a relevant and complex subject. But because she writes with the unexplored recognition that teachers and schools alone cannot achieve what is demanded of them, her focus has serious limitations. More on these later.

Goldstein constructs her engaging historical account around the stories of people who were involved in the events. She describes the development of the nineteenth-century common school and the rapid transformation of teaching from male to female work through the stories of Catharine Beecher (she successfully promoted the ideas that women’s nurturing nature was better suited to teaching children and, all important, women could be paid less) and Horace Mann (Beecher’s like-minded reform ally and Massachusetts’ first secretary of education). Goldstein argues that their success produced the détente between advocates for universal public education and anti-tax activists that “redefined American teaching as low-paid . . . missionary work for women, a reality we have lived with for two centuries. . . . ”

The story of the feminist backlash against the “feminization” of teaching is told through the experiences of former teacher Susan B. Anthony and affluent activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Put schematically, Anthony struggled for equal pay and advancement for women in teaching, unionization, and better training to boost the quality and status of their work. Simultaneously Stanton fought to open all professions and careers to women so they could escape the teaching trap.

Goldstein recounts the efforts of African American teachers to inspire self-esteem and racial pride as well as academic achievement. She follows the careers of Charlotte Forten, who taught the children of freed slaves on St. Helena Island during the Civil War, and Anna Cooper, the nationally recognized public speaker and essayist who was the principal of a prestigious black public school in Washington, D.C. Goldstein also recaps the well-known debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois on the goals of education for African Americans. Washington advocated basic education in reading and math along with vocational training; Du Bois argued for a broad liberal arts education to create an intelligentsia and new leaders.

A pivotal chapter called “School Ma’ams as Lobbyists”—set in Chicago from the 1890s through the 1920s—covers the intensification and growing politicization of the teacher wars. Male ed reformers pursued a campaign in the 1890s to defeminize teaching. They supported regulations to keep women in the lowest-paid and least powerful teaching jobs in order to entice men back into the profession with higher-level, better paid positions. Women responded by founding the Chicago Teachers Federation in 1897. The next three decades saw the federation’s engagement with the women’s suffrage movement and its radical decision to affiliate with the male Chicago Federation of Labor; the consolidation of the reform notion that teachers are the determining factor in overcoming poverty; muckraking journalism that exposed school overcrowding and truancy; the temporary defeat of Chicago politicians determined to cut school budgets; successful struggles for higher pay and tenure; and battles over evaluating teachers’ performance.

One of the recurring themes in this history is the thorny issue of evaluating teachers accurately. Early twentieth-century reformers argued that evaluation was necessary to improve and professionalize teaching. The Chicago Teachers Federation dismissed proposals for testing teachers and merit pay as ploys to avoid raising salaries across the board—and, in fact, merit pay was used in other cities to lower payroll costs. The tug-of-war has never ended. Goldstein is critical of teacher unions for digging in their heels on teacher evaluation. After pointing out some of the Chicago union’s “achievements of high idealism” in the early decades of the twentieth century, she closes the chapter stating, “Yet the teachers union movement was (and remains today) a pragmatic, even sometimes cynical, lobbying effort, and one that protected some poorly performing teachers.”

In the post–Second World War period, Goldstein covers the federal government’s emergence as a force in K–12 education with Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the groundbreaking Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which allocated significant federal funds to improve schools for low-income students for the first time. She also discusses the Johnson administration’s National Teacher Corps—a teacher-as-low-cost-missionary program for recent college graduates, similar to today’s controversial Teach for America. Goldstein describes instances of successful school integration amid the overall failure of desegregation. She also pays close attention to the devastating loss of more than 30,000 teaching positions held by African Americans in the South and the lasting negative effects on African American children. In a chapter devoted mostly to the notorious 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, which created a long-term rift between African Americans and the union, Goldstein sides more with the minority parents and community activists than the union.

Goldstein confronts today’s reforms, reconfirming that “failed ideas about teaching
. . . keep popping up again and again, like a Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.” For critics, the reforms this time around come wrapped in market ideology and are structured for massive data collection, numerical ranking, survival of the measurably fittest, bottom-line efficiency, and freedom from government regulation. Goldstein doesn’t examine the reforms from this perspective, but, overall, she doesn’t think they are successful.

For anyone who isn’t paying attention to public education news (unfortunately, a majority of citizens), the chapter called “Big, Measureable Goals” would be a valuable compendium on the genesis and consolidation of the major market-model reforms for teaching: quickie training programs like Teach for America, which are often used to replace unionized veteran teachers; “no excuses” charter schools, which some educators are increasingly criticizing for their punitive style of schooling; value-added measurement (VAM), which uses algorithms to compute a number that represents how much each teacher has added to her own students’ standardized test scores each year; and Obama’s Race to the Top program, which offered grants to “coax” financially strapped states to implement VAM or VAM-like measures as well as other market-model reforms. Goldstein questions both the design and implementation of these reforms.

At this point, Goldstein’s readers will legitimately wonder what she proposes. Her epilogue offers eleven “ideas for improving both the teaching profession and, consequentially, the quality of our schools.” One of the strongest is restructuring the school day so that effective veteran teachers spend some time watching and coaching novice teachers, novices spend time observing veterans in the classroom, and they collaborate on planning lessons. Schools that use these techniques find that they not only improve teaching, they make the job more interesting. Goldstein advocates paying teachers “the upper-middle-class salary that would align with our sky-high expectations for their work.” Well-paid, interesting work is required to implement another of Goldstein’s recommendations: attract and retain “ambitious, intellectually engaged people.” Other important proposals include hiring principals who inspire teachers, recruiting more men and people of color, and using standardized tests as diagnostic tools, not as punitive instruments.

Under “End Outdated Union Protections,” Goldstein supports maintaining tenure but wants due process for dismissed teachers (that is, review of the decision by a neutral arbitrator or a peer-review board) to be “swift and certain.” Tenure plus effective due process is the soundest system, but getting the balance right—no effective teachers fired, no poor ones retained—requires careful oversight. When budgets demand that multiple teachers be laid off, Goldstein would use performance, not seniority (“last in, first out”), as the criterion. Seniority would be the tie-breaker to decide between two equally effective teachers. This presupposes an accurate and fair evaluation method. Goldstein’s proposed method fits into one sentence: “[T]eacher evaluation must be based on genuine measures of student learning, such as rigorous, non-multiple-choice tests and sophisticated, holistic classroom observations.” This is surprisingly skimpy after her examination of almost two centuries of evaluation controversies.

Most of Goldstein’s sound proposals would be expensive to implement. The money would be well spent, but “cost” resurrects the underlying dilemma that she acknowledges but doesn’t tackle: “our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included.” On the book’s last page, she again enumerates “the full range of social supports” that families require. Their cost must be added to the cost of effective teaching reforms. Despite the chasm between what’s needed and what Americans will pay for, Goldstein insists in her final sentences, “But there is hope”:

If we accept the limitations of our decentralized political system, we can move toward a future in which sustainable and transformative education reforms are seeded from the ground up, not imposed from the top down. They will be built more upon the expertise of the best teachers than on our fears of the worst teachers. This is how we will achieve an end to the teacher wars.

If we accept our system’s limitations, then conflicts over costs, resources, priorities, and values will disappear? This is, I fear, magical thinking.

I’ll close with two other reservations about her inquiry into today’s teacher war.

First, Goldstein provides no political context for the market-model reform campaign, which is thoroughly political, and often ideological. She doesn’t explain, for example, why ed reformers keep pushing VAM despite its error rates, which she cites: 35 percent for calculations based on one year of data and 25 percent even when three years of data are used. Thanks to ed reformers, close to forty states now tie teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. She describes how merit pay was tried and failed in the 1920s, late 1960s, and 1980s. Yet ed reformers keep selling the policy despite recent studies showing more failures. She doesn’t explain why ed reformers want more standardized tests in more subjects, starting in kindergarten, although it’s been obvious for years that testing is hollowing out public education. She doesn’t explore the deep ideological antipathy to government endeavors or the goal—embraced across the political spectrum—of weakening teacher unions; or the strength of market ed-reformism in state legislatures and its limitless funding; or the ties between ed reformers and testing companies (we’ll hear more about this as Jeb Bush pursues the White House); or the large politicized constituency consisting of employees of ed-reform think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofit projects; or the role of private mega-foundations in fueling the reform machine. All of this constitutes not a conspiracy (ed reformers accuse their opponents of being conspiracy theorists) but a successful political movement.

Goldstein might respond that she wants to quiet the teacher wars. She might have given high priority to the possibility of constructive engagement with ed reformers, many of whom complain that opponents are shrill and that only cooler heads and more polite wording will produce useful dialogue. “Throughout this book I have tried to be more analytical than sharply opinionated,” she writes in the epilogue. But political context is part of a full analysis. This book about public education—a fundamentally political topic—is strangely unpolitical.

My second reservation is that Goldstein doesn’t convey any sense that public education as a publicly provided and democratically accountable service is under assault. Perhaps she doesn’t agree that it is, but something new is underway. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the teacher wars were enmeshed in efforts to create, expand, or improve public education. One thrust of the current ed-reform movement is to curtail the role of government in running schools, to use tax money to fund privately managed education (the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit privately run schools has become largely meaningless). True, Goldstein isn’t writing about charter schools or vouchers—the most direct means of limiting government’s role, but today’s teacher war is tied up with this endeavor. Much as I support many of the proposals she makes, I worry about getting a chance to implement them widely. I worry that by the time the market-model reforms fail their way into disrepute, the “public” in public education will be damaged beyond repair.

Joanne Barkan graduated from public schools on Chicago’s South Side. Her articles on the education reform movement and the role of private foundations in a democracy can be found here.