I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It has been interesting to learn how cyclical educational mores and politics have been. The romantic ideal of the missionary teacher, for example, has its roots in Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann’s advocacy for troops of underpaid female teachers spurred to teach morality and character. Goldstein also traces the tension in educational philosophy of serving African American students to debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker Washington. Washington was a strong proponent of vocational education, while Du Bois advocated for a classical education for the “talented tenth.” “Over the next half century,” Goldstein writes, “vocationalism remained the ascendant education reform ideology among philanthropists and politicians. . . ”
Goldstein’s presentation of the rise of teacher’s unions is balanced–she demonstrates how unions provided much needed advocacy for the rights of women and of labor, while at the same time noting the tension between maintaining worker’s interests and the educational interests of children. Goldstein writes, for example, that “amid increasing political and business pressure on schools during the interwar years, teachers unions in Chicago and beyond often found themselves making unsavory alliances, and engaging in rough-and-tumble politics far afield from education itself.”
I especially appreciated Goldstein’s presentation of efforts at desegregation, as this has been a topic of study here at Schools & Ecosystems. She notes the promising results of districts which did make substantive efforts to integrate, while also noting the challenges and complications, such as “Where integration led to staff redundancies and school closings, black schools were disproportionately closed and black teachers disproportionately dismissed or demoted, regardless of their seniority, qualifications, or success in the classroom.” She also spends time digging into the Black Power and community control movement in NYC and the warfare that erupted against a Shanker-led UFT. “This seemingly local event triggered not only the most infamous and largest teachers’ strike in American history, but also a political and racial crisis of national proportions, which continues to reverberate in almost every debate about contemporary school reform.”
One insight that really struck me here was how teacher’s unions are in reality more closely allied to a strong, central administration, rather than community control. Goldstein attributes this insight to historian Marjorie Murphy’s Blackboard Unions, and she states, “Under collective bargaining, it was easier for unions to negotiate with one strong administrative body, such as a city superintendent, board of education, or mayor, than with a plethora of neighborhood school boards or principals, each with their own set of demands.”
I was also interested by Goldstein’s tracing of the the lineage of the community control movement to present-day “no excuses” schools, a correlation which I’ve sensed when exploring the issue of segregation with my students. Goldstein writes that “Though the rhetoric of black separatist politics has all but disappeared, in many ways today’s “no-excuses” school reform movement has inherited the mantle of community control by aligning low-income parents with elite school reformers and philanthropists from outside their neighborhoods.” She points out that such schools, however, tend to be “deeply segregated,” and not necessarily high performing. What she also brings to the fore is how the critique of teacher’s unions which arose from the Black Power movement has been co-opted by reformers since the “Reagan Revolution”: “These new centrist critics rejected Black Power, but, more powerfully than ever before, they promoted a view of career public school teachers as professionally incompetent and insufficiently committed to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.”
Goldstein presents support for the success of school integration efforts, and suggests that perceptions that “desegregation did not work” are unfair “because the United States did not, in fact, commit to integration.”
The Teacher Wars explores various reform efforts, such as merit pay and value added. On the latter, she points to the detrimental effect of tying individual scores to evaluation systems, and notes that the repercussions of this can be to increase competition, and reduce collaboration. Her presentation of the fall-out from past evaluation schemes is especially salient right now, given NY Governor Cuomo’s push for heavier weight on value-added measures in an individual teacher’s evaluation. “If the key to systemwide improvement is not through mass firings or union busting, than what remains is to turn the existing average teacher into an expert practitioner . . . [which] will require a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like, and the mentorship and training to get teachers there.”
Goldstein advocates for a bottom-up efforts that seek to “replicate the practices of the best.” “These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities. As history has taught us,” Goldstein writes, “that is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground.” She points to programs that provide in-classroom professional development and coaching, such as The Children’s Literacy Initiative, as actions that hold much greater promise than typical reform efforts like merit pay, charter schools, and evaluation. She also points to the promise of urban teacher residency programs beyond TFA, which can boost longer term teacher retention, such as the Memphis Teacher Residency and Boston Teacher Residency.
Unlike many out there who try to tell us that teachers shouldn’t be developing curriculum, Goldstein advocates for increased professionalization of teachers: “reform programs that combine high-stakes standardized tests with scripted lesson plans and a limited arsenal of pedagogical strategies may make teaching a less attractive job for exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, high-achieving people we most want to attract.” She provides an example of a former TFA teacher, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and his efforts with teachers at Crenshaw High School to create an “Extended Learning Cultural Model,” in which “teachers worked together to create interdisciplinary units built around neighborhood problem solving.” This model reminded me of an Australian model of a Global Learning Village we once discussed on this blog.
In the Epilogue of her book, Goldstein presents some conclusions from her research which are all tenets that I can get behind:
- Teacher pay matters
- Create communities of practice (she gives NYC’s Relay School and San Diego’s High Tech High shout outs here)
- Keep teaching interesting (please!)
- Focus on the principal as much as the teacher (yes, yes, yes!)
- Return tests to their rightful role as diagnostic tools
- Recruit more men and people of color
And many other lessons worth considering. Her final suggestion is to “be real about the limitations of our system.” She points out that the US system of education is decentralized in nature, and that as a result, we put unrealistic expectations upon the federal government and upon individual teachers, leading to the volatile political battles at the heart of “the teacher wars.” She hopes that “sustainable and transformative education reforms” can be “seeded from the group up. . . built upon the expertise of the best teachers.”
This is certainly a recommendation that a recognition of schools and school systems as ecosystems also supports.
I recommend reading The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. History has much to teach those of us who work in the educational minefield. It’s remarkable how many of the debates that are ongoing in our field can be traced consistently over the course of these last two hundred years, like motifs in a novel.