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Breaking the endless education reform cycle

In "The Teacher Wars," Dana Goldstein says many of the battles teachers fight today are nothing new
In her new book, journalist Dana Goldstein advocates for bottom-up education reform.
In her new book, journalist Dana Goldstein advocates for bottom-up education reform.

If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about the history of education in this country, it is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Teachers have been alternately seen as saviors of society and “bad guys” who do little more than drain precious tax resources while our children fall further behind their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

In The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Doubleday, 2014), journalist Dana Goldstein says many of the same battles teachers fight today have been fought again and again since the advent of public education in the early days of our nation.

Coming from a family of public school educators, Goldstein advocates for bottom-up reform. At the root of many problems in education is that teachers are burdened with shifting, unrealistic expectations passed down from the top.

“It’s not that superintendents and principals can’t figure out how to do it themselves, but that it’s often impossible to make changes with the current resources and the training that is available,” Goldstein says.

"The Teacher Wars" spans the history of education in this country. When did teachers become the bad guys?

There are two ways to answer that. The first would be to say that there have always been some teachers who have been thought of as bad guys. Back in the 19th century there was a campaign to paint men as the bad teachers and females as the good teachers. That was around 1830.

By 1900 there was complete turnaround and reformers became concerned that there were far too many females in the profession. They decided they needed to attract more men, so the attacks were then on women teachers, particularly the working-class, less educated females. Back then many teachers didn’t even have a high school degree, so they were under attack.

In the 60s and 70s there were many racially motivated attacks on teachers coming from all sides. We saw black teachers being fired after Brown vs. the Board of Education in the south. Tens of thousands of black teachers lost their jobs. In the north we saw other battles in which white teachers were the ones who were vilified.

When it comes to the battles we’re going through right now, many people would point to “A Nation At Risk.” That was the first shot, so to speak. Many of the people I interviewed for this book—veteran education policy folks—consider that as a turning point in their own careers.

I was surprised to see there was controversy over ratings as far back as 1919. You cited a New York Times article about principals opposed to teacher ratings.

Yes. The current push that we see in the Obama years to change the way teachers are evaluated—along with more vigorous evaluations of principals and school districts—has a parallel to the 1920s.

One thing that happens again and again throughout the history of education in America is that it’s administrators and principals who are saying that many reforms are not implementable. The reforms are not practical or pragmatic to work in many schools.

What surprised you the most during your research?

It was interesting to see that there was a movement in the 1920s among social scientists to evaluate teachers with something called the pupil change method. This was basically the same as what we know today as a value added measurement. The reason it surprised me was that the economists and other researchers who use value measurement today and have advocated for it so successfully at the policy level, really paint it as an extremely new idea.

So it was fascinating to see that there were researchers back in the 1920s similarly using student’s standardized test scores to judge teachers.

You also note that programs like Teacher Corps and Teach for America are not new ideas.

One thing we see coming up again and again in our education history is the idea of recruiting “the best and the brightest” to be teachers even if they aren’t willing to commit to the job long term. Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister, launched something like this in the 19th century, when she brought East coast girls out West to launch one-room school houses on the frontier.

The national Teacher Corps project of the 1970s was a lot like today’s Teach for America, except for one big difference: It had this feisty, “lefty” flavor to it, so it required the recruits to live inside the neighborhoods where they were working. It also asked them to take on a lot of volunteer work outside the school.

You’d see these Teacher Corps members doing tenement organizing on the weekends and so on. Of course that’s an impossible set of expectations for someone with an exhausting teaching schedule during the day to also be expected to fight poverty on nights and weekends.

Tell me about one of the teachers you profiled, Lenore Furman.

Her story is so poignant because here she was, part of a really successful reform focused on early childhood literacy in traditional public schools in Newark. It was getting great results. Then Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came in with a $100 million donation to the Newark Public Schools—which was widely promoted on Oprah Winfrey’s show—and the story they told was about the across-the-board failure of the district.

As a result, the good work that was already happening on the ground through the efforts of Lenore Furman and others, was largely ignored. It never went to scale. We see this again and again—we are constantly trying to remake the wheel in education.

That’s why I end the book with an argument for bottom-up reform. Because when I’m in that classroom in Newark and I see how effective the childhood literacy initiative is, my question is why is this in only eight schools in the district? It should be in all of them. And the people who are working on that program say they can’t go to scale because they never get the resources to go to scale.

You raise the argument of giving better pay for teachers. Is that feasible in this rocky economy?

Teacher pay is one of the toughest things to change because of the politics involved. There’s no will to raise taxes to provide more funding, but I think there are ways to reorganize the funding that we already have in the system.

One thing I’d like to see is for teachers to have opportunities for raises and promotions earlier in their career. That way it’s something they can look forward to when they are in their 20s or 30s and faced with deciding whether to become a teacher or stay in the job.

In most white-collar professions you can get some pretty big salary jumps between the ages of 22 and 35, but teachers often have a very flat pay scale during that time. I do think that there are ways to do this politically now, but it requires educators coming to the table with policy makers and both sides being willing to make compromises to get it done.

You also have some criticisms about unions and how they operate.

Yes. Let me say first that throughout their history they are often unfairly vilified, but they are crucial partners for any reform effort. They shouldn’t be shoved out of the way, which happens often with all these anti-tenure suits that are going on now.

On the other hand, I don’t think the current union policy of LIFO—Last In, First Out—is one that makes sense. I’ve had some pushback on that point, but I reject the idea that you can’t tell the difference between a good and bad teacher in a fair manner.

One line of yours that stayed with me was, “Sometimes I worry that we are engaged in magical thinking about our education system.”

That goes back to something Arne Duncan said when I was interviewing him—it’s the idea that teachers are miracle workers and can walk on water. I think as long as we talk about education in that way, we aren’t going to bring change. Teachers, principals—all the people who work in the system—are ordinary human beings like the rest of us. If we want them to do a better job, we need to invest in teaching them how to do it.

One way to do that is to look at the teachers and principals who are already doing an excellent job and have them work as mentors for their colleagues. This is how every other profession shares expertise and builds knowledge.

I profiled a school in Memphis that organized itself around the idea of a teaching hospital. They have teachers coming in and learning from expert teachers, and there is almost a constant rotation, so the person who comes in as a trainee can one day become a mentor. This is the teacher residency model.

At the same time, I make the point that teaching is five times as big as the medical or legal professions in terms of the number people who do the job. To me that’s all the more reason to focus on helping them build their skills.

Tim Goral is senior editor.