The Long History of Blaming Teachers First


A high-ranking education official in a major U.S. city feverishly argues that schools should be operated like a business. Unapologetic about targeting and firing ineffective teachers, the official  pushes for an evaluation system that is rooted in student test scores.

You’re right if you think this sounds like  Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chancellor, circa 2009. But this description also fits William McAndrew, Chicago schools superintendent. The year? 1924.

The pillorying of teachers and the championing of misguided “reform” policies has a long and exasperating history, chronicled by journalist Dana Goldstein in her new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Anyone who wonders “How did we get here?” –  the divisive and polarizing rhetoric, the  mystifying staying power of discredited ideas and the recent raid on teachers’ collective bargaining rights  – will find the answers in Goldstein’s engaging and valuable book.

The Teacher Wars appears in a left-formatted inline image.Goldstein recently spoke to NEA Today about the origins of the most contentious education debates, the players in politics and media that have heightened the teachers wars, and how a greater teacher voice can help move the national dialogue in a more constructive direction.

The combination of a feminized teaching profession and unionism in the early 20th century triggered a slew of politicized attacks and what you refer to in the book as “moral panics” across the nation. To what extent  does that fact that the profession is roughly 80 percent women today still make it an inviting political target?

Dana Goldstein: We tend to have more of a public debate over teacher pay, teacher job protection, and the cost of teacher health care plans than we do about policemen or firefighters. Teaching is a larger profession, so it’s more expensive – because there is more of them. But I do think that, because this is a job done by women, it makes it easier to vilify.

When I was working on the book, I went back and watched videos of Chris Christie yelling at teachers, which are really difficult to sit through. It’s always a middle-aged woman, and the condescension is seething out of him in these confrontations! It’s like this concept of “mansplaining” – I think that happens a lot to teachers. Their expertise as the practitioners in the classroom is often not respected.

Probably the most contentious issue in education right now is teacher due process or “tenure.” What do you think is most important for people to understand about tenure and its origins?

DG: We have to understand why we have tenure in the first place. At the turn of the 20th century, teachers got fired very often for very stupid reasons. They were pregnant or they were black. Or they disagreed about the mayor about something. Seeing how politicized these firings were, good government reformers and teachers unions agreed about tenure. It was the consensus position in 1909 when New Jersey became the first state to pass a comprehensive tenure bill.

Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein

Secondly, at the turn of the 20th  century, like we do today, we looked to other countries for ideas about how to improve our schools.  People wondered  how to  make teaching a more respected profession and a more attractive job, considering the low pay, and tenure or due process was something that was going to help. The idea came from Prussia, where teachers had more job security.

There’s no evidence that suggests ending tenure will lead to student improvement, so why are we talking about it so much?

DG: Yeah, I agree with your take. There is nothing magical that would happen for kids if we ended teacher tenure. That’s partly because recruiting teachers to work in the neediest schools is so hard. Turnover is just as much a driver in poor student performance than those ineffective teachers who are stuck in those schools. There’s a lot of research on this that I cite in the book.

Why is everyone talking about this so much? I use a term in the book that teaching is seen as a somewhat “peculiar profession.” Only 7 percent of private sector workers are in unions. So when we see that teachers have fought and won for themselves a due process right, people ask ‘Why? I don’t have that.’ Because teachers are different from other workers, the way they are different is a source of debate.

There have been many eras in which teachers have been targeted, but this particular wave of concern has a lot to with the weak economy. People want to know – are schools sending kids out with the tools and skills they need to survive what is an unforgiving job market?

Has the media generally informed the public about public education in a constructive way or has it done more to escalate the teacher wars?

DG: Over history the media has played a big role in both calling attention to quality issues in our schools but also fanning the flames of these “moral panics.” The muckrakers wrote these sometimes overheated exposés of child labor and truancy. They would often point the finger at the school system and ignore some of the systemic causes.

Time magazine takes the teacher wars up a notch in 2014.

Time magazine takes the teacher wars up a notch in 2014.

When A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, you saw the media getting very, very excited. A lot of the coverage really fanned the flames and was much less nuanced than the report itself. Also, articles can become talking points. A very famous story by Gene Lyons in The Texas Monthly called “Why Teachers Can’t Teach,” published in 1979, was one. A few years ago, there was Stephen Brill’s “The Rubber Room” in The New Yorker, which failed to mention that these rubber room teachers make up something like only 1/10th of 1 percent of all teachers.

The book describes how the flaws in merit pay were evident back in the late 1980s – typical of what you call the ‘hype disillusionment cycle’ that follows many reform ideas. Are we seeing other policies reaching a similar point today?

DG: Definitely. We’re entering the “hype disillusionment cycle” with teacher evaluations based on student test scores. When you hear Arne Duncan, whose policies have incentivized that to a great extent, coming out a couple of weeks ago and saying that standardized testing is ‘sucking the oxygen out of the room,’ we are at a turning point from where we were in 2009 or 2010.

But what happens next? Are we really going to search for new ideas or are we going to go back and find another failed idea from the past?

You write that the teacher wars can be reined in when we come to a basic agreement about what great teaching is and then work together to support that vision. What kind of training, expertise, classroom climate and other qualities promote great teaching?

DG: In terms of training, I think there’s a good argument to be made that a teacher’s college education be rigorous and focused on a specific content area. When we look at other high-performing nations, teachers learn pedagogy but they are expected to achieve academically in a subject they are going to teach. I think that makes sense. But we can’t just pluck teachers straight out of college and drop them into the classrooms. That doesn’t work to prepare teachers on any large scale. A lot of the student teaching isn’t realistic to the conditions they will find. What I like about the residency model in Memphis that I talk about in the book is that you are there with a master teacher, who has already created the conditions of control in the classroom, on day one. You see how he or she establishes a healthy classroom climate and discipline from the very beginning. We know from surveys that first year teachers really struggle with these issues.

Regarding specific pedagogical skills, we know it is more important to have more conceptual questions be guiding lessons, not simple factual questions. It’s easy to understand why. Conceptual questions teach kids how to think, how to question, and how to learn over the course of a lifetime.

We talk so much about these accountability systems, which are meant to measure teachers, but tell us so little about what great teachers are actually doing. There’s very little systematized structures to take the skills of those great teachers and share them with others.

You include a quote by John Dewey, the 19th century educator and social reformer, in the front of the book that reads in part: ‘The teacher …is not like a private soldier, or like a cog in the wheel. He must be an intelligent medium of action.’ Given how under assault teachers have been recently and the daily pressures of the classroom, what would you tell a teacher who is struggling to find the time and energy to take on such a role?

DG: I’m very sympathetic to that. Demands on the teacher are high and getting higher all the time. Their day is exhausting. So the vast majority of teachers, even if they are interested in the policy debate and the political questions, feel that they don’t have time. And some teachers are afraid that administrative action will be taken against them, which is not an unrealistic fear. But we need teacher voices in the debate much, much more than they are currently.

I do believe that teachers who start a blog or find other ways to get involved in the policy debate will be  listened to. I think of someone like Jose Vilson, a full-time middle school math teacher in New York. He has a successful blog and he’s gotten the chance to meet with Arne Duncan. A lot of doors have opened up for him and people are listening because he has dared – and somehow managed to find the time! – to get involved. So when teachers ask me ‘what can I do?’ I encourage them with the success stories of some of the teachers who have built up a profile and have found an audience. Most people want to learn from teachers and welcome the opportunity to hear from them.