Think of it as a clarifying tonic. Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession rips through 175 years of public education, from its early days as an experiment in moral uplift to its modern incarnation as a political minefield. Rhetoric around teaching is now at a high pitch: teachers are our saints and our sinners; the gateway for upward mobility and the scourge behind cheating scandals and lagging achievement. In a climate of disinvestment in public education, teacher pay is minimal, and there is little opportunity for it to grow. We are several generations beyond Brown v. Board of Education, but our schools are still, de facto, segregated. Religiously affiliated private schools are dwindling, even as charter schools are rising. Reformers and policymakers push for voucher programs, standardized testing as an accountability program, merit pay, year-round school, short-term teaching fellowship programs for college graduates, and a number of other ideas meant to “disrupt” the traditional school system. Meanwhile, union leaders and public education stalwarts are battling to revive our faith in neighborhood schools as a common good, served by teachers who deserve to be treated as trusted professionals.
None of this is new. Despite the urgency behind the arguments, they’ve all been heard before. The Teacher Wars, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, details how, with slight re-calibrations for time and place, debates about everything from the role of philanthropy in the classroom and the recruitment of “elite” teachers to impoverished communities are as old as the “common schools” movement itself. So, too, are the devastating racial disparities in American education. After the Civil War, formal state spending was up to 75 percent less for black students than for white students. This is stultifying: the deadening repetition of the same problems in our schools causes real harm to students and teachers alike.
For more than four years, I have been a writer-in-residence in Detroit Public Schools through InsideOut Literary Arts, working mostly in Osborn High School, an east side school named for a Detroit suffragette. Some years ago, the deteriorating building was carved into three different “small schools” in an effort to improve student outcomes, to middling effect. The school is sustained in part by philanthropic support, and a host of programs, like CityYear, Teach for America, and my own InsideOut, take up a lot of space. I’ve also worked in the Detroit School of Arts, a public application school for young artists in a beautiful new building downtown. At both schools, there are tremendously skilled people doing good work. There is talent, in both the teachers and students, that sings beyond the wall of any classroom. And there is also a feeling of profound instability. Things change on a dime: schedules shift, substitutes don’t show up, principals are transferred mid-year, students unexpectedly leave or come back, field trips and standardized testing gets scheduled with little notice for teachers who are trying to plan lessons. Printers break down, nobody can find the key to a particular room, enrollment isn’t what it should be, nobody has any idea of who is, or should be, in charge of the school district. Ever since the Detroit Day School for the Deaf closed, DSA has enrolled a good number of deaf students, and hired interpreters to follow them room to room. They are there not because they necessarily like the arts curriculum, but because the building, as one of the newest in the district, has modern fire alarms that flash light, and don’t just ring.
These schools, then, are a sort of real-life enactment of Goldstein’s description of the circularity in the history of the teacher wars: a lot of bustle and emotion, a huge amount of work proffered by well-meaning people, only to find ourselves spinning in the exact same place. It is a peculiar juxtaposition of stagnancy and precariousness.
Early in The Teacher Wars, we meet Catherine Beecher, an intelligent woman of means (and the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe). She felt unsatisfied with the low prospects for unmarried women, like her, who found little use for their time and talents. She led a fierce movement to increase the number of female schoolteachers, which was ultimately successful enough to practically reverse the gender dynamic of the profession. (It was about 90 percent male when she began.) In her writing, advocacy, and in the schools the she herself opened, Beecher pushed her belief that not only was teaching a perfect way to engage the latent energy of unmarried women, but that the classrooms were in need of the “naturally” more nurturing and pious presence of a female — especially on the expanding Western frontier. Beecher also, as it happened, opposed suffrage because she feared that voting rights would corrupt women. And she explicitly manipulated the fact that unmarried women didn’t have families in order to support her cause: schools, she suggested, could pay them less than men. Indeed they did, effectively leading us to where we are today: teaching is stunted in both prestige and pay.
How to train these new teachers? Horace Mann, Beecher’s contemporary, was a legislator from Massachusetts and the nation’s first secretary of education. A great advocate for universal and non-sectarian public education, at a time when schoolhouses were patchy and irregular institutions, Mann’s vision was to establish a network of normal schools, modeled on the system he visited in Germany in 1843. While most normal schools shifted into state colleges over the 20th century, they continue their legacy as being a primary nexus of the profession: they still train most of the nation’s teachers. Unfortunately, Goldstein writes, many also retain their legacy of mediocre expectations for the students they enroll, and the teachers they graduate.
In tracking the people who influenced the state of education today, we also see Susan B. Anthony, writing home during her days as a schoolteacher and taking pride in the pretty plaid dress she was able to buy herself. We see Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who viewed teaching as a profession that would doom intellectual women to days of boredom and lost prestige. And there is Charlotte Forten, a wealthy black woman from Philadelphia who ran a school in the Sea Islands of South Carolina for newly emancipated slaves in the immediate — and dangerous — aftermath of the Civil War. For a time, in what was dubbed the Port Royal Experiment, students shared ownership of the same property that had once been their owners’, while they worked with Forten to learn their numbers and letters, preparing, it was hoped, for a life of free labor.
W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, New York Union leader Al Shanker, and Ted Bell, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education when the influential “A Nation at Risk” report came out in 1983: these are some of the others who stream past us in this quick-moving biography of a profession. It is fascinating to visit the roles that each played in our public education history — fascinating enough that I wish Goldstein zoomed in closer. She writes this story with a cool distance. While that tone is a welcome counterpoint to the feverish emotion of education debates, and it brings beautiful clarity to the history, it also contributes to a feeling of detachment from her characters. They feel like figures, rather than fully realized people. The fact that Goldstein is working with a large ensemble over a great sweep of time does not make this distanced lens inevitable, as evidenced by the excellent narrative nonfiction of Adam Hochschild, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, and, to a lesser extent, Candice Millard’s books. Shifting the narrative stance closer to the characters, so that we can hear the swish of their dresses and the clack of their muddied leather shoes, would have brought welcome vividness and human feeling to a tale that is inevitably wonky.
In the epilogue, Goldstein articulates smart and nuanced ideas for where education reform is best targeted. Their sensibleness is obvious, making the lag on progress all the more maddening. We should recruit more men and people of color to the profession, because it is essential for students to see their own identities reflected in their teachers. Yes. Teachers should have meaningful opportunities to watch each other work. Yes. We should see tests as diagnostic tools for students, not as a metric to decide which teachers to fire. Please and thank you. And Goldstein also calls for a “better principal” movement that is at least as aggressive as the one for better teachers. “Almost every expert agrees that the one ingredient all successful schools have in common is a dedicated, highly respected leader who articulates a clear mission teachers believe in and strive to carry out,” Goldstein writes. Of course. That is, after all, exactly what kindled the beginning of our grand experiment with free education for every citizen. And it will be true for whatever comes next.about the author