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The Teacher Wars

A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

By Dana Goldstein

(NY Times)

When it comes to books on public education, we crave a diet of meat as red as a teacher's cruel pen. In case you plan to write one, here;s a brief primer: 1) Pick a contentious and complex topic, like charter schools, teacher evaluations or standardized testing. 2) Reduce that issue to a Manichaean battle for the soul of the American student, presenting your side as inarguably salvific. 3) Fire off some frightening statistics about Finland or South Korea. 4) Ignore evidence that might dampen your zeal; just remember, above all, that nothing sells books like outrage.

But in The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, her first book, the journalist Dana Goldstein disregards this facile formula. Ms. Goldstein's book is meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced, serving up historical commentary instead of a searing philippic. A hate-read is nigh impossible. (Trust me, I tried.) While Ms. Goldstein is sympathetic to the unionized public-school teacher, she also thinks the profession is hamstrung by a defensive selfishness, harboring too fine a memory for ancient wounds.

The book skips nimbly from history to on-the-ground reporting to policy prescription, never falling on its face. If I were still teaching, I'd leave my tattered copy by the sputtering Xerox machine. I'd also recommend it to the average citizen who wants to know why Robert can't read, and Allison can't add.

Inevitably, some of Ms. Goldstein's book summarizes a familiar story in which a youthful nation grapples in the classroom with some of its most pressing questions: of race, class, religion, gender. But she always writes with a purpose, namely to remind readers that teaching was a fraught profession long before “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” flickered across the screen and everyone had an opinion about the Common Core.

Ms. Goldstein begins in the early 19th century, when American classrooms were presided over by 'coarse, hard, unfeeling men,' in the words of one early reformer, exemplified best by Washington Irving's inept, doomed Ichabod Crane. The solution was to feminize the teaching corps, handing it over to 'angelic public servants motivated by Christian faith,' who would make the schoolhouse 'America's new, more gentle church.' The notion that teaching is 'low-paid (or even volunteer) missionary work for women,' Ms. Goldstein persuasively argues, continues to haunt the classroom.

So does the question of how to close the racial achievement gap, another topic of current debate whose historical roots Ms. Goldstein capably excavates. Like many of today's charter school advocates, W. E. B. Du Bois sought, at the turn of the last century, a teaching corps of 'gifted persons' who would allow black children to 'cope with the white world on its own ground.' Some thought the notion of educational equality preposterous; some seem to think so still, in what George W. Bush identified as 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.'

The early 20th century also saw the rise of the teachers' union, a force that continues to inform, to a remarkably high degree, what transpires in the classroom. The unions' original strength rested on a foundation of anxiety. A pervasive belief that teachers were inculcating American children with communist ideals led to what the historian Howard K. Beale called an 'orgy of investigation,' Ms. Goldstein notes. In 1917, for example, The New York Times editorialized that 'The Board of Education should root out all the disloyal or doubtful teachers.' Union protections were thus a rational reaction to irrational fears.

And, yes, teachers have long had summers off. But they haven't had it easy, as Ms. Goldstein makes perfectly clear. In the 1930s, she writes, 41 percent of New York City classrooms had more than 40 students. Nor were teachers particularly well rewarded for their labors. Ms. Goldstein writes that in 1952-53, the average teacher in New York 'earned $66 per week, less than an experienced car washer.' It's hard to act like a professional if you aren't paid like one.

Ms. Goldstein argues that union leaders were so fixated on their own interests that they failed to address the integrationist imperative of 1954's Brown v. Board of Education decision. 'Listen, I don't represent children,' Albert Shanker of the city’s United Federation of Teachers infamously said in 1968. 'I represent the teachers.'

That revealing statement came during the crisis in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a black neighborhood in Brooklyn that had been given community control over schools the same year. The Black Panther Stokely Carmichael had said that minority children 'are more intelligent than all those honkies on those school boards.' Now, his convictions were put into practice, as the teachers, mostly Jewish, were expelled. This wasn't a battle for the best and brightest blacks, Du Bois’s “talented 10th,” but for the ailing children of the ghetto.

The rift between the unions and minorities has never healed, as evidenced by the popularity of nonunionized charter schools among black and Latino parents today. Ocean Hill-Brownsville also sowed the seeds of progressive doubt, so that, Ms. Goldstein writes, the unions became downright villains not only to antilabor conservatives, but, for the first time, to large segments of the American left as well. That hostility persists among Obama centrists more concerned with getting results than placating labor.

Ms. Goldstein doesn't lose her cool over standardized tests and charter schools, able to see both as earnest but imperfect sutures on the battered corpus of American public education. Instead of bashing No Child Left Behind as a sop to testing corporations, she credits the halting Bush-era reform with making the problem of the achievement gap visible on a national scale for the first time.

Ms. Goldstein ends with a list of policy recommendations, a rare coda for a history book but one that makes sense here: Abolish outdated union protections, decrease the role of tests, recruit more male and minority teachers.

'Watching a great teacher at work can feel like watching a magic show,' Ms. Goldstein writes after visiting an elementary school in Newark. Her book is, above all, a tribute to these magicians, a plea for more wizards in the classroom.

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