The Teacher Wars

Dana Goldstein’s new history of American teaching is superb. But she’s much too easy on the "reformers" undermining public education.

A teacher reads to her students in a Westchester County classroom. Bettmann / CORBIS

As a series of breathless exposés in magazines and newspapers ranging from the New Yorker to the New York Post have documented, the New York City Department of Education places dozens of teachers in reassignment centers — so-called “rubber rooms’’ — while they await hearings on charges of misconduct. Teachers consigned to rubber rooms spend their days doing next to nothing yet continue to receive their full salaries, sometimes as much as $100,000 per year.

For detractors, rubber rooms have come to signify all that is wrong with American public education: teachers so bad they can’t be in a classroom avoid termination because of hidebound unions, and taxpayers have to foot the bill.

From another vantage point, rubber rooms are merely one instance of the alarmist, often anti-teacher rhetoric that has swept the US for the better part of two centuries. This is how journalist Dana Goldstein would have us think about it. One of the main purposes of her timely and well-crafted book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, is to show that the contemporary debate about teachers — and education reform more generally — is nothing new. We’ve been here before.

Moral panics about teachers over issues ranging from feminization to radicalism to ineffectiveness have been a perennial feature of American political culture since the early nineteenth century. Such panics are often proxies for other social anxieties.

Angst about rubber rooms — for some, an example of how the American teaching force is not equipped to ensure that every American child gets a fair shake regardless of race and class — is a way to talk about economic inequality and its effects without offending the rich. Poor kids aren’t doing well on standardized tests? Blame lazy teachers, sitting around collecting their paychecks instead of teaching!

Yet the reality, as Goldstein points out, is that teachers are more likely to be given the pink slip than many other groups of American workers: somewhere in the range of 2 percent of teachers are fired with just cause each year, compared to less than 1 percent of federal employees. Even most workers in large private companies aren’t as susceptible to termination.

Goldstein disproves several other education reform lies, including the idea that merit pay improves the quality of the teaching force and that unions oppose it merely because they are obligated to protect bad teachers.

Merit pay schemes were tried time and again throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with no compelling evidence that they were successful. And while nations that provide more compensation attract better teachers, it turns out that teachers do not respond well to crass market-based reforms that pit them against each other. The best teachers don’t compete with their colleagues. They cooperate.

The Teachers Wars thus makes a fact-based case that dispels the myths propagated by the education reform movement, and functions as a sober brief against Bill Gates, the Waltons, Teach for America (TFA) founder Wendy Kopp, former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and the entire gang of corporate education reformers.

Goldstein’s hyper-presentist style of historical analysis, in which examples from the past are constantly used as points for comparison to current events, is welcome in an environment in which reformers treat the “problems” of education as apolitical. Although many academic historians might reject such a didactic and sometimes ahistorical approach — academic historians are nothing if not slaves to context — Goldstein’s methodology works because it effectively counteracts the arrogance of the education reformers who think, like Tom Paine, that they “have the power to begin the world over again.”

In her chapter detailing the history of early teacher unionism during the Progressive Era, Goldstein writes of William McAndrew, a Denver school superintendent who sought to apply Frederick Taylor’s principles of labor efficiency by creating a new teacher evaluation system that anticipated those championed by Rhee and her ilk.

While she exposes the disingenuousness of much of the present-day criticism of American teachers, Goldstein also takes seriously the notion that the teaching force could be much better. And although she qualifies this argument by recognizing that economic insecurity is the chief barrier to educational success for millions of American children — and that teaching in schools populated by poor children is extremely difficult work — she does not let teachers off the hook entirely. There are problems with the American teaching force that even ardent supporters should acknowledge.

First, not enough teachers think of themselves as scholars or intellectuals. It’s a pattern dating to the mid-nineteenth century, when many states constructed “normal schools” to train teachers on campuses separated from flagship research universities. The vast majority of teachers-in-training receive their instruction in “teachers colleges” instead of alongside other academic disciplines. Teachers colleges, Goldstein makes clear, have always tended to emphasize abstract theories of knowledge that are ignorant of the habits of mind specific to disciplinary knowledge.

Much research shows that the best biology teachers are those with degrees in biology because they are acutely familiar with the questions and problems specific to the discipline. The same goes for history, where educational jargon about “critical thinking” is a lame substitute for a sustained academic confrontation with phenomena such as slavery or the labor movement.

As Goldstein implies, and as scholars like Stanford history educator Sam Wineburg have shown, teachers who major in history or sociology or English tend to be better at inspiring intellectual curiosity in the classroom, and at encouraging their students to ask questions about crucial concepts like fairness and power.

Second, since teachers make up a whopping 4 percent of the entire American workforce, their attitudes tend to reflect those of the larger American public, warts and all. Many American teachers share the biases of their fellow Americans, including racial biases. This is an acute problem given that the majority of American teachers are white, even in predominantly minority schools. Historically, white teachers have been less likely than black teachers to believe black students are capable of high educational achievement. Goldstein highlights this dynamic by analyzing the infamous New York City teacher strikes of 1967 and 1968.

In 1967, black citizens in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, with political and financial support from a host of white liberals and New Leftists — including Mayor John Lindsay, Ford Foundation President McGeorge Bundy, anarchist writer Paul Goodman, and the editorial boards at the New York Times and the New York Review of Booksundertook a controversial experiment in community control of schools.

Ocean Hill–Brownsville activists, influenced by the Black Power movement, believed their schools were failing largely because of the racism built into the city’s educational institutions. Such systemic racism was evident not only in resource disparities (which had actually been decreasing as a result of increased federal support under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society). Ocean Hill–Brownsville organizers also pointed to the racism of the teaching force. In this they were not alone.

Respected liberal psychologist Kenneth Clark wrote in his 1965 book Dark Ghetto that black children “are not being taught because those who are charged with the responsibility of teaching them do not believe that they can learn, do not expect that they can learn, and do not act towards them in ways which help them to learn.” Even Albert Shanker, the longtime head of the New York City United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), admitted that the UFT rank and file was racist to varying degrees.

Consequently, community controllers argued that black teachers should replace predominantly white teachers on the grounds that, unlike their white counterparts, they would not presume black students incapable of academic achievement. To Shanker and the union, whether black teachers would better serve black students was less important than the fact that community control infringed upon a collectively bargained contract.

As part of its community control prerogatives, Ocean Hill–Brownsville activists violated the terms of the UFT contract and fired several white teachers, replacing them with black teachers and non-unionized whites who were committed to the principles of community control. This move, predictably, brought the wrath of the powerful and savvy Shanker, who, thanks to union solidarity, decisively defeated the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community controllers.

When 54,000 of the 57,000 teachers in New York City’s public schools went on strike in response to the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community board’s decision to terminate unionized teachers, not once, not twice, but three times Shanker and the UFT brought Mayor Lindsay and the community controllers to their knees. By 1970, black community control was dead in New York City. But the problem of race remained a thorn in the side of the American teaching force.

Education reformers often emphasize these two endemic problems with the American teaching force — anti-intellectualism and racism — as a way to score points with people who believe in social justice. In crediting those like Kopp for bringing attention to these problems, Goldstein is too easy on education reformers. She implies some of the solutions offered by education reformers should be embraced, even though such solutions are often worse than the problems themselves.

The most obvious example is TFA, which funnels tens of thousands of graduates from elite universities into the teaching profession. TFA teachers work in public schools for about two years.

This approach hasn’t improved the teaching force in a meaningful way, however, because someone’s college has little bearing on that person’s future success as a teacher. The most successful teachers are those who commit to the profession for the long haul — not two years — and also those who dedicate themselves to a life of intellectual pursuits. Add to this the fact that the organization has a well-documented history of union busting, and it’s easy to conclude the cure is worse than the disease.

When it comes to the problem of teacher unionism and race, education reformers have been equally opportunistic. Ocean Hill–Brownsville is such an important historical case study for education reformers because it underscores the notion that teachers unions have not always had the interests of students in mind, particularly when those students were black. This is the smoking gun for those who contend teachers unions are impediments to ensuring all children have a good education.

But the message of Ocean Hill–Brownsville is not that teachers unions are the problem. Rather, the lesson is that teachers unions need to be better. But how to make them better?

The answer lies in the third problem with American teachers: politics. Not enough teachers see their work as political or view themselves as political activists. More teachers need to become left-wing activists, and more left-wing activists need to become teachers. A leftist movement in the American teaching force would be the best way to improve American public education.

One of the more original points that Goldstein makes — in what seems like an afterthought — is that many of the best teachers in American history have treated teaching as a mission. Mission-driven teachers ground their work in a larger purpose, making it easier for them to withstand the daily grind of what is often a thankless job.

In the nineteenth century many such purposeful teachers were literally missionaries, women who left sheltered lives of privilege to bring God and knowledge to the various heathens of the American frontiers. But in the twentieth century, a growing number of mission-driven teachers have been political radicals. If there is a usable past in Goldstein’s book, the history of these teachers provides it.

The mostly female teachers who founded the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF) in 1897 were militant feminists and fierce opponents of the Gilded Age plutocrats who controlled Chicago. CTF leader Maggie Haley’s remarkable investigations into the corrupt relationship between city government, including the school board, and the wealthiest Chicagoans, led to reforms that provided Chicago schools with millions of previously unpaid tax dollars.

Haley recognized that the only way to fund decent public schools for everyone — and fair salaries for all teachers — was to pry money from the venal rich. CTF teachers often hailed from Chicago’s many immigrant and working-class neighborhoods, but even when they didn’t they were welcomed because they shared class enemies.

Lessons also come from the New York City Teachers Union (TU), which was famous for its radicalism — and for its Communist Party members, which left it vulnerable to attack by vigilantes during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. As Goldstein documents, TU members were much more effective than other teachers at connecting with and advocating for students in the poor and largely black schools of Harlem, the Bronx, and parts of Brooklyn, in large part because racial justice was an important component of their left-wing political project.

Not only did TU members believe that black students were capable of high academic achievement, they were also sensitive to race in the curriculum. By having their students read historians like W.E.B. DuBois and Philip Foner, TU teachers anticipated the revisionist and multicultural curriculum that would become common in the decades following the 1960s.

TU teachers showed that having a radical mission is one of the best ways to engage working-class and minority students in relevant lessons, which is also a proven means to ensuring their future success. Harlem minister David Licorish later regretted that the TU teachers had been purged because they were “much more dedicated to teaching black children the way out of the crucible of American life than the teachers we have now.”

The best recent example of how politically engaged teachers have improved schools for themselves and their students is the work of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), to which Goldstein strangely only dedicates a few paragraphs.

The most important development in the recent history of American teacher unionism was kick-started by the radical activists who organized the CTU’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to direct the local away from the national AFT, which had become notorious for collaborating with education reformers under the stale leadership of Randi Weingarten. After CORE won the leadership of the CTU in 2010, the union began resisting the education reformers who had long dominated Chicago schools, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

When Chicago teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike in 2012, their objective was not only to improve workplace conditions for teachers, but also to fight Emanuel’s austerity agenda for public education. Reminiscent of the CTF a century earlier, the CTU connected its labor fight to the struggle against a capricious ruling elite, and in the process made allies of the majority of Chicago residents, especially in black and Latino neighborhoods. Their strike was a strike for all Chicagoans.

It is hard to imagine a socialist America without a vibrant system of public education, and it is equally hard to imagine a vibrant system of public education without an excellent, unionized teaching force.

So by all means, criticize teachers when it is warranted. But resist education reformers at all costs, particularly when they rationalize their reforms as a way to address the problems of the teaching force. Education reformers, no matter their intentions, are the enemies of a unionized teaching force. They are the enemies of public education.

Goldstein has written an excellent history of our ongoing teacher wars. She is clear in her support for American teachers. But she is not clear enough in her opposition to their enemies.