By Lara Zarum
The comedian Louis C.K. doesn’t tweet all that much, but in the spring, a pressing concern moved him to bang out a series of damning dispatches: the federally mandated Common Core standards that were turning his daughters’ math homework into what appeared to be a series of high-concept riddles.
It wasn’t exactly what you would expect from the creator of a critically acclaimed dark comedy, but, as Dana Goldstein points out in her new book The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, the history of public education in this country is itself a kind of dark comedy. Goldstein, who for several years has reported on education for Slate, The American Prospect, and The Nation, among other publications, struggled with the title of her début book—as she points out, it’s become a cliché to talk about public education in terms of warfare. But in the end, she says, the déjà vu-inducing history of public school teachers really did feel like a series of never-ending battles.
As The Teacher Wars demonstrates, issues like teacher evaluation, skimpy salaries, and closing achievement gaps between poor and middle-class children have deep roots in the history of American public education. Louis C.K. and his fellow public school parents may find recent school reforms such as the testing push totally baffling. But Goldstein’s illuminating jaunt through the classrooms of yore demonstrates that the current debate surrounding methods of student and teacher evaluation is not exclusive to our time—nor is the kind of “moral panic” that surrounds the public discussion about the people to whom we entrust our children for six or seven hours a day.
—Lara Zarum for Guernica
Guernica: I know you’ve been an education reporter for a number of years, but was there a specific inciting incident that prompted you to write this?
Dana Goldstein: I would say probably the onset of the recession and the way education and teachers more broadly were talked about in an economic context. There was a big national conversation about poverty and inequality and it was being put on the shoulders of teachers to close these inequality gaps or achievement gaps that separate poor kids from middle class kids.
Guernica: Did you find that unrealistic?
Dana Goldstein: I think I came into it not having a real strong opinion on whether it was realistic or not but I was certainly curious about the answer to that question. I wanted to know how fair it was to expect public education to be the solution to macroeconomic inequality.
Guernica: I hear so many people saying that teachers shouldn’t complain about anything because they get their summers off.
Dana Goldstein: To me it’s just sort of a ridiculous argument if you know what a teacher’s workday is like during the year. I think a lot of people truly underestimate how much planning is involved in a teacher’s work cycle. Just to deliver one high-quality 45 minute lesson requires many hours of planning in advance, and then of course there’s also work that teachers have to grade after school and on weekends. So the idea that because the school day is shorter or the school year is shorter than the sort of white collar workday or work year, that does not actually capture how teachers spend their time.
The question is rarely asked, “Why is it that so few other Americans have these protections?” The question is more often asked, “Why do teachers have it so easy?”
Guernica: But it does end up being a source of resentment toward teachers. How much of the public’s attitude towards teachers is driven by this kind of resentment?
Dana Goldstein: A lot. This is something that Randi Weingarten said to me when I interviewed her once, which I think I quote in chapter nine. She talks about how only 7 percent of private sector workers in the American economy are in unions. So all the protections that teachers have that are due to collective bargaining —including generous pensions, generous health plans, limits to what they can be asked to do after school and in the summers—all of those things are sources of resentment to the public. And I think that politicians have played off of that quite effectively. The question is rarely asked, “Why is it that so few other Americans have these protections?” The question is more often asked, “Why do teachers have it so easy?”
Guernica: It seems like most people have had a relatively significant experience with teachers, as opposed to, say, lawyers or doctors.
Dana Goldstein: There are a lot of polls that show that actually Americans have a pretty high opinion of teachers, that Americans think teachers are just about as prestigious as doctors. And yet there’s this political conversation —this reform conversation —that paints a very negative picture of the effectiveness of the teaching population. So there’s definitely a tension between the way teaching is talked about and understood at the political level and how everyday average Americans think about teachers.
Guernica: Why has it continued to be so difficult to recruit men to the profession?
Dana Goldstein: When you see that 76 percent of teachers are female today, I think you have to acknowledge that there’s a cultural bias, and it does date back to this nineteenth century idea that teaching is a form of mothering. [Nineteenth century American educator] Catharine Beecher is really associated with the idea that a mother works with children in the home and a teacher works with children at school, and that therefore women are almost biologically predisposed to do this job.
And secondly, the pay. You really can’t talk about bringing more men into the profession without acknowledging that the median income is $54,000 per year for a teacher, and that there is research suggesting that men are more salary-sensitive when they’re choosing a job.
Guernica: It appears that younger teachers are more enthusiastic and supportive of charter schools. Why is that?
Dana Goldstein: Younger teachers are definitely more likely to have worked at charter schools as opposed to have just heard of them. Charter schools explicitly look, often, to hire younger people. Since the recession hit, there were budget cuts that caused a lot of traditional schools to go on hiring freezes. During that time for new folks entering the profession there was often a lot more opportunity, especially in big cities like New York or Chicago or LA, to get a job in charter schools. I’ve even talked to people who didn’t necessarily go into teaching thinking they wanted to work at a charter school or even may have been considered critics of the charter school movement, and found that it was the only way for them to get their foot in the door. So young people just have much more familiarity with the concept.
We have a lot of rhetoric today about “high rigor” and you often hear terms like that thrown about when discussing the Common Core. But the American education system historically has not embraced intellectual seriousness.
Guernica: Why is it that charter schools look to hire younger teachers?
Dana Goldstein: A lot of charter schools are non-union schools that take a lot of teachers from alternative tracks, like Teach For America. They do this in part because a lot of charter schools have very strong ideologies around how they want teachers to teach. And they find that starting with a younger or more inexperienced teacher allows them to more effectively inculcate those ideas.
Guernica: It seems to me that your view of teachers depends on your view of the role of public school —on whether you see it as a community hub or, to quote a term you use in the book, an “achievement factory.”
Dana Goldstein: We rarely take the time to step back and ask, what is the purpose of public education? If you look at the early nineteenth century you see the idea that we educate children to be voters and to be participants in our popular democracy. And then at the turn of the century when more and more immigrants are coming into the schools, Americanization becomes a more explicit part of the agenda. Coming to the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, we begin to have this idea that’s still with us today, which is that the main purpose of public education is closing achievement gaps. What about schools as intellectual training grounds? We have a lot of rhetoric today about “high rigor” and you often hear terms like that thrown about when discussing the Common Core. But the American education system historically has not embraced intellectual seriousness.
Guernica: Which is interesting, because teaching itself has not been seen as an intellectually serious profession.
Dana Goldstein: Definitely. One of the terms in the book is that it’s been seen as kind of a moral calling and not as an intellectual job.
Guernica: I’ll read education columnists who write things like, “teachers should only be in it for the students,” and I think, “So I guess you’re only in it for the reader.” It does seem to be this narrative that we’ve gotten stuck on.
Dana Goldstein: Yeah, and definitely we see throughout history that American teachers are asked to be very self-abnegating. They’re not supposed to be concerned with the conditions of their labor, they’re not supposed to care about pay. This is the kind of vision of the ideal teacher, which is again and again brought to the fore by reformers, the ideal teacher as someone who is passionately driven to serve children. Almost to the exclusion of a more pragmatic view of what the job actually entails.
Guernica: Your book is chronological, but it’s also structured thematically to show how different movements were popular at different times. Which historical period would you say has had the most impact on teachers today?
Dana Goldstein: I think chapters six, seven, and eight tell a story that a lot of folks would be interested in if they want to know the roots of today’s reform push. Because what happens in those chapters, which take us from about 1954 to the late 1980s, is that we see a huge wave of optimism that school desegregation is going to be the way to improve educational outcomes for poor children of color. And we see a consensus build on the left and in the center that this is going to be a transformative education movement like none other we’ve seen in American history. Then there comes in the wake of that a wave of cynicism. The courts don’t require desegregation as strongly as they could have. And the persistence of housing discrimination and housing segregation makes it difficult at times to integrate schools. So what flows from that is disappointment and cynicism and the search for what’s next. And it’s really in the search for what’s next after that that we come upon ideas like increasing standardized testing for kids and using those tests scores to hold teachers accountable.
Guernica: You write that Catharine Beecher was the first “media darling school reformer.” What parallels do you see between Beecher and contemporary school reformers?
Dana Goldstein: I think you see that the first generation of school reformers I talk about —[nineteenth century education reformer] Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher —they are true believers in their vision for public education. They have a missionary zeal. And this to me connects them a lot to folks today, whether it’s [education activist] Campbell Brown or [former D.C. public schools chancellor] Michelle Rhee. It’s a righteous sense, a reform push that’s driven by a strong belief in a particular set of solutions.
Guernica: Is it not such a bad thing to have an almost religious zeal for what you’re doing?
Dana Goldstein: I don’t think school reform should be motivated by missionary zeal. I think it should be motivated by evidence of what works.
Guernica: Is there one vision for school reform that you see as particularly hopeful?
Dana Goldstein: I have been critical of Teach For America in the past but I think one of the things about their model that’s interesting is that they’re constantly looking at it and whether what they’re doing works and reassessing their model, and making changes. So to the extent that I believe everyone in the education sector should be looking at evidence, reassessing, making tweaks to figure out what works, I think it’s a positive model.
Guernica: The idea of merit pay comes up again and again. Is better pay the answer to better quality in our teachers?
Dana Goldstein: I think it’s hard to debate the current starting salaries and just how flat the profession is in terms of pay. In North Carolina, for example, it takes 15 years to move a teacher’s salary from $30,000 to $40,000. So it’s really difficult to argue that pay doesn’t have something to do with the lack of prestige.
I always make the point that teachers are people too, and that they don’t just want to be in front of kids all day and have children be their only feedback loop.
Guernica: You hold off for the most part, until the epilogue, on weighing in on a lot of the controversies you write about. But one thing that’s clear from your book is that you believe teachers should be afforded more control over the curriculum they teach and the policies that govern their profession. How do you see this playing out in practice?
Dana Goldstein: There’s a small movement of teacher-led schools across the country. These are schools that don’t have a traditional principal, teachers come together and actually run the school themselves. One school I like that I’ve reported on is the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy in Denver. That’s kind of the most radical way, but I think something that’s more doable across the board is just creating career ladders for teachers that allow certain teachers after a certain number of years to inhabit new roles. Roles mentoring their peers, helping train novice teachers to be better at their jobs, roles writing the curriculum, leading on lesson planning.
I always make the point that teachers are people too, and that they don’t just want to be in front of kids all day and have children be their only feedback loop. They want to be leading among adults in addition to leading among kids. And I think any sort of system that gives teachers more opportunities like that is a positive one that’s going to lead to better retention in the profession, and it’s going to be more intellectually challenging, so teachers stay engaged with their work over the many years of their career.
Guernica: In some schools there does seem to be a real disconnect between teachers and their administrators —I sometimes hear of teachers hiding in their classrooms if they don’t get along with their school’s administration.
Dana Goldstein: That is such a common experience.
Guernica: That can’t be a good thing, if you’re afraid to talk to the other adults in your school.
Dana Goldstein: And I think that is definitely throughout history the hallmark of a failing school. When I was writing in chapter seven about the teachers’ strike in New York City in 1968, the middle school where events triggered that strike was a place where teachers were known to hide in their classrooms.
Guernica: I want to ask about the reaction to your book. I Googled your name the other day and the first auto-suggestion was “Dana Goldstein age.”
Dana Goldstein: Really? That’s depressing.
Dana Goldstein: Well let’s see, I’m thirty, to answer the question that Google suggested. I feel that people have asked me my age a lot since the book came out and I don’t actually think that thirty is particularly young for a first book to come out. And I sometimes wonder if a male author would have been asked this question so frequently.
Guernica: I also read a tweet of yours where you wrote you had never been “mansplained” to more in the weeks that you’ve been promoting your book. Has this surprised you?
Dana Goldstein: I wrote a work of history, I looked at over 500 sources —I spent three-and-a-half years on the project. I think the most gratifying and wonderful thing about the reaction is that people are learning things from the history that feel relevant to today. People from across the political spectrum who have all sorts of different ideas about what the right path forward is for education have found something valuable in the book. Alexander Nazaryan, who reviewed the book for the New York Times arts section, is critical of teachers’ unions. And he really read the book with that lens and he threw out in his review a real critique of the unions. Randi Weingarten likes the book. I feel like I tried to be a pretty straight shooter, and I’m happy that that means that all sides are taking the time to engage with it.
Guernica: You’ve recently joined the staff at The Marshall Project, a digital start-up devoted to criminal justice. After covering the education beat for so many years, are you looking forward to switching your focus?
Dana Goldstein: There’s going to be a lot of overlap between education and what I do at The Marshall Project, including one big feature piece that I’m working on now, which deals with school to prison pipeline issues. And just in general, when we look at our school system, there is so much overlap with our criminal justice system in terms of our low-income youth, and I’m hoping to look at both urban and rural areas in this job as well. I think working for The Marshall Project will allow me to take some of the educational background and apply it in new ways.
Dana Goldstein has been reporting on public education since 2007. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession and a staff writer at The Marshall Project. In addition to education, Dana writes about social science, inequality, criminal justice, women’s issues, cities, and public health. Her work appears in publications like The Atlantic and Slate.
Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Slate, and the L.A. Review of Books, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter: @larazarum