The Fight for America’s Classrooms

By Andrew Benedict-NelsonNovember 15, 2014

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

IN 2008, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, released a remarkable work of American history. This Republic of Suffering assigned new historical significance to the more than 600,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War. Faust touched on nearly every aspect of their lives — demographic and military, cultural and spiritual — but this reader was most impressed by her revision to the story of the American body politic.

In Faust’s telling, the effort to identify and bury Union soldiers was the first major social intervention by the federal government into the everyday lives of families and communities. Moving back the birthdate of the modern American state by half a century, Faust’s inquiry reveals new things about the character of our Republic — its intimate links to violence, its crusading moral convictions, and, perhaps most importantly, its relationship to the extirpation of slavery and the Lost Cause of the South. The Civil War dead were remembered as part of the body of the nation, and the alternate outcomes for bodies black and white, Northern and Southern, informed their descendants’ later trust of what government could and could not be expected to do.

The one thing I longed for while reading This Republic of Suffering was a guide to how this new understanding of American history might inform struggles for justice today — though Faust could be forgiven for feeling that to weigh in on the present might unbalance her take on the past. In contrast, Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, gives us a reassessment of experiences remembered in the nation’s body that is balanced toward the future.

The Teacher Wars is not an autopsy of gray and blue corpses but a lively case history of the nation’s teaching corps. Though not a transformative scholarly work like Faust’s, this chronicle of schoolroom battles similarly exhumes the origins of assumptions many of us do not even know we hold. Like the battered blackboard on the book’s cover, the American public school is revealed to be a body riven with scars — some from heroic struggles, some from neglected deformities, some from mistreatment. Goldstein rehabilitates this body of knowledge for the 21st-century educational scene, frequently salving the wounds with context but occasionally cauterizing them with caustic wit. Her treatment is a book that ought to be read by all American teachers, and read twice by anyone who presumes to advise them.

There are plenty of those folks today; Goldstein shows they have always been with us. The politics surrounding American public school teachers, she writes, is driven by a “hype-disillusionment cycle” punctuated by occasional moral panic. The first of these cycles resulted in one of the more visible features of today’s teaching corps: its predominantly feminine profile.

It’s easy to assume that the shift from mainly male to mainly female teachers in the 19th century was a victory for women — many of us learned in school that teaching was one of the first jobs available to women outside the home. But as Goldstein explains, the female teaching corps was not exactly a feminist project; in fact, many early advocates for suffrage were quite skeptical of the roles schools assigned to women. Instead, the idealized-yet-expendable young female teacher played an essential role in the universal education schemes of reformers like Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher. Together, these crusaders made the case that public education was a moral necessity in the young nation, protecting the next generation from sin and the Republic from the kind of violence seen in the French Revolution.

Nineteenth century reformers built institutions to transform this vision into a reality, sending “missionary teachers” to the Western frontier and developing “normal schools” where women could study with the aim of getting a job as a teacher (though nothing else). Goldstein writes that despite normalizing public education in America, “during an era of deep bias against women’s intellectual and professional capabilities, the feminization of teaching […] carried an enormous cost: Teaching became understood less as a career than as a philanthropic vocation or romantic calling.”

Today’s teachers, male and female, will identify with this double standard, asked as they are to take responsibility for a community’s children while simultaneously being treated as if they aren’t pursuing a real career. Yet the stereotype of the 19th-century moralizing “motherteacher” who works for the preservation of a Protestant society seems thoroughly foreign to us. Teachers in today’s multicultural America are more likely to espouse a professional ideal of caring for each child as an individual, equipping him or her with the necessary tools to succeed socially and economically. As Goldstein demonstrates in my favorite chapter of the book, this ideal of the American teacher has its roots in the African-American experience.

Everyone who stayed awake in their high school American history class will be familiar with the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois over the strategy blacks needed to pursue after the abolition of slavery. Goldstein reminds us that Washington and Du Bois started out as teachers, and the clash between their worldviews played out in the development of the first generation of black educators and classrooms. In articulating their ideals of the black teacher, she writes, “both Du Bois and Washington expressed ideas that either became common practice or remain at the heart of education debates.”

Goldstein doesn’t simply rehearse the Washington-Du Bois debate, but tells the story of how teachers actually put these ideas into practice. This occurred not just in expected places like the Tuskegee Institute, but also in lesser-known settings like M Street High School in Washington, DC (one of the few places where black and white schools were funded equally), and Port Royal, South Carolina (an early experimental community where slaves were given the land of their former enslavers; a white observer of the freedmen said that education of their children was a point on which “they showed more earnestness than on any other”).

Teachers of any race who pick up this book will find new role models in educators like M Street’s formidable principal Anna Julia Cooper, or Charlotte Forten, who left a relatively comfortable life among Philadelphia’s black upper class to teach at Port Royal. They will come to appreciate that the key political question of their profession — what kind of teaching best helps students use education to escape poverty? — is embedded in the African-American intellectual tradition, despite an educational system that perpetually estranges them from it. Goldstein writes:

In the African American community, even greater barriers to employment outside education worked to keep more of the most talented black women — and men — in the classroom. There they developed a set of high ideals about the political and social power of educators, which anticipated later hopes that all teachers, regardless of their own race, would understand themselves as agents for racial justice.

In This Republic of Suffering, Faust showed how in the rhetoric of reformers like Clara Barton the dead Union soldier became the symbol of the need for a more just relationship between the citizen and the state. The historian’s case was all the more coherent for her ability to pluck details from deep inside 19th-century culture, from novelists and journalists, fashion catalogs and Sunday sermons. But if Faust knew just the right moment to drop in a quote from Walt Whitman, Goldstein has a particular knack for connecting characters from history to today’s educational debates. Thus Catharine Beecher was “America’s first media darling school reformer” and the call to send teachers to the frontier was “a sort of prototype of Teach for America.”

This rhetorical mode unites The Teacher Wars as Goldstein progresses to the present. The 19th-century experience forms a kind of secret history we can use to interpret the stories of the 20th. As we read about 19th-century union battles in New York and Chicago and racial strife in the North and South, we recognize that many of the same struggles occur repeatedly today; as we read about more recent conflicts, we remember how they played out last time.

Throughout this process of historical reckoning, Goldstein ensures that the most important muscle memories of the teaching corps are not forgotten. For example, she cycles through the various instances in which teachers’ unions fought to increase wages and the respectability of the profession, only to be accused of putting adults’ interests ahead of children. Goldstein celebrates labor’s victories while simultaneously presenting a coherent theory of its excesses: the power of unions depends on powerful central administrators, who sometimes stifle grassroots reform efforts.

Goldstein also addresses lessons learned from the failure of federal efforts to combat inequality. Programs designed to raise the standard of learning for all often misapprehend the virtues of the existing teaching corps. For example, both racial integration and No Child Left Behind’s restructuring requirements often left minority teachers in the lurch. Goldstein not only records this injustice but also explains its importance: students do better when exposed to teachers who understand their backgrounds and maintain high expectations of what they can do. For much of American history, the only practical way to accomplish this was to ensure that students had access to highly competent teachers of their own ethnic background — the very resource reforms of the teaching corps often denied them.

Every generation or so, outsiders imagine that the teaching corps can be radically improved by injecting or rejecting some element. Yet these changes never have the radical effect reformers expect. Goldstein reveals that these past changes teach us less about the contributions of the best and the brightest teachers than the successes of the median, and how to improve upon them. This notion of a teaching corps capable of continuous learning is the hopeful message for the future I took away from The Teacher Wars.

For example, after absorbing the lessons of Goldstein’s history, it’s hard to buy in to the assumptions of today’s best-known effort to reform the teaching corps: Teach for America, the social initiative that recruits elite college graduates to spend two years at the front of a classroom. By the time TFA appears on the scene, we have already learned that excellent students do not always become excellent teachers, and any educator’s first year is almost always spent learning the ropes.

Yet instead of using her understanding of the teaching corps to pen another boilerplate invective against TFA, Goldstein acknowledges the experience of these educators, examining what 25 years of TFA can teach the rest of us. “The debate TFA opened up about teacher preparation and quality teaching, while often rancorous, has been deeper and more evidence based than any the nation has had since the inception of common schooling in the nineteenth century,” she writes. Whatever its failings, TFA has evolved in ways that even teachers who doubt its effectiveness can learn from. For example, its “Teaching as Leadership” philosophy helps teachers inoculate themselves against the lowered expectations that can often result from their initial encounters with severely disadvantaged students.

But TFA teachers aren’t the only ones who are learning. Goldstein calls the last chapter of her book “Let Me Use What I Know,” taking up the plea of an instructional coach at a Denver school. From old-fashioned unions to new urban teaching residences, there is a new interest in forming communities where teachers can share their best practices and develop common solutions to difficult situations. These efforts can also help teachers circumvent the lack of administrative resources often thought to be necessary to implement sweeping reforms. Asking teachers to help each other is thus a practical and idealistic strategy. Goldstein writes:

The next step in American education reform may be to focus less on top-down efforts to ferret out the worst teachers or turn them into automatons, and more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best. Today reformers across the country are experimenting with empowering teachers to coach their peers, to remake teacher education, to design creative curriculum materials, and to lead school turnaround efforts. These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities. As history has taught us, that is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground.

It’s no great secret that today’s teachers are demoralized; Goldstein notes that between 2008 and 2012, the number of teachers who said they were “very satisfied” with their job dropped from 62 to 39 percent. The book’s epilogue includes a number of policy recommendations for addressing this situation while also helping teachers become more effective.

Yet the narrative effectiveness of books like This Republic of Suffering and The Teacher Wars reminds us that policy changes aren’t the only tools we have. The reformers who demanded that the government take responsibility for the identification and burial of soldiers gave bereaved families greater agency in the mourning process and in their citizenship. Their suffering had earned them a right to determine what responsibility would mean in the American Republic.

The indignities suffered by teachers are different, but Goldstein reminds us that teachers too have developed their own sense of responsibility and leadership in the classroom, despite governing institutions that steamroll them, from segregation and ideological litmus tests to dressing-downs by Republican governors. By centering her narrative on this special response to suffering, Goldstein reminds us that when teachers have been free to make sense of their own experiences, they make great strides on behalf of students — and can do it again, if we let them.


Andrew Benedict-Nelson is a director at Insight Labs, a philanthropic think tank.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Benedict-Nelson is an author and consultant based in Gardner, Kansas. His work has addressed the social determinants of health, how to improve patient experiences, and the professional development of nurses. He is currently working on a book that will help readers develop more effective strategies for social change.


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