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Is Teaching America’s Most Embattled Profession?

Fifth grade teacher Millie Ramirez speaks with students about Superstorm Sandy on Nove. 5, 2012 in the East Village neighborhood of New York. John Moore / Getty Images file

Her book may be called The Teacher Wars, but journalist Dana Goldstein’s new social history of teaching in America refrains from piling onto fierce debates over tenure, standardized testing, and the achievement gap. Instead, she puts this “embattled profession” on the continuum of the nation's history.

Throughout this 175-year saga, we learn that many “new” ideas and movements aren’t really new at all—and that part of solving our present education woes lie in examining the past.

You call teaching “the most controversial profession in America.” Why?

There are a couple of reasons. First, our expectations for teachers are so high. We have this big national debate about inequality and to a lesser extent about poverty, and we see that very viscerally through the achievement gap—how poor children and middle-class children perform on tests. And we really expect teachers to close these gaps and not only to help kids do better in math and reading but to make them better workers who are more likely to earn more and have higher incomes as adults. So knowing that we have a relatively weak social safety net compared to other nations, we’re setting teachers up in a way to disappoint us.

The second is something that [American Federation of Teachers president] Randi Weingarten said to me, which is that “the public sees us as islands of privilege.” In a time in which only 7 percent of American workers are unionized, teaching is a unionized profession, and they have protections like tenure and generous pensions. The public looks at this and they feel some resentment.

And also, every American has been educated in some form, and 90 percent of children attend public school. Literally everyone has an opinion.

You place a lot of emphasis on teaching as a feminized profession. What kind of legacy does that have today?

There’s this stereotype of a teacher who’s maybe a middle-aged mom who likes to leave work early to pick up her kids and has the summers off. It plays into this idea that teachers don’t work very hard, which is really false if you know anyone who’s a dedicated teacher. Do you remember back when all these YouTube videos of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yelling at teachers went viral? It was him yelling at these middle-aged women who would stand up at a public event to challenge him about the fact that he had cut a billion dollars of school funding. And he would totally change the subject and start railing against them about tenure. This was clickbait. People loved watching this stuff.

"We’re setting teachers up in a way to disappoint us."

We know from polls that people like their teachers and their kids’ teachers, but they have a negative opinion of teachers as a whole. And [the Christie] phenomenon really brought that home for me. I think the fact that they’re women does have something to do with this. It has to do with the fact that the median pay for teachers is still stuck at around $52,000 per year, and it raises very slowly. For example in North Carolina, you have to work 15 years to get a $10,000-dollar raise. If you start teaching at 22, you’re going to be in your late forties before you make $40,000 a year. That’s why I argue that we need to be offering teachers more pay particularly in the first 15 years, because that’s when people are making the decision whether or not to go do something else.

What are some policies that may have gone differently if we’d learned historical lessons?

One thing I’ve thought a lot about is standardized testing. In the 1920s and 1930s, we saw a huge push to evaluate and judge teachers based on kids’ test scores, and then saw it happen again in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. So there were at least three other waves of attempts to do this before the current one. And each previous time, it failed. So you have to wonder whether the Obama administration, for example—which has put so many eggs in this basket of teacher evaluations—was aware of the past failure of this idea. It’s head-scratching, really. Especially because some of the people who were involved in the 80s are still alive, and you just can call them up and they’ll tell you what happened. It’s funny because old Republicans like Chester Finn will be like, “Yeah, this stuff doesn’t really work.”

I noticed from reading your book that the history of education doesn’t divide neatly into left and right.

One of the exciting things to me about education is that it isn’t a traditional Republican/Democratic divide, which is so boring. The simplest way to explain what it means to be “progressive” on education is that there’s two streams of thought: The first one is about progressive pedagogy. It’s about a broad, rich, activity-based curriculum, full of field trips, art, music, theater in the classroom. It’s the ideas of people like John Dewey with project-based learning.

The second stream, which is quite dominant right now, is administrative progressivism: The idea that education is a sprawling and inefficient system, and what we need is kind of a top-down rationalization from reformers. Reformers are going to come with a vision . I think the charter school movement in many ways comes from that place. And all those people will say, “I’m a Democrat!” and they totally are.

Did any of your opinions change over the course of your research?

I started the project with the assumption that teachers are somewhat unfairly maligned and attacked in our public discourse. And I didn’t necessarily change my mind about that, but I did start to think more deeply about whether some of the attacks on teachers are in fact fair. This really came home to me when I was researching how teachers historically treat children of different races. We see that they often treat them differently, whether it’s the rigor of the curriculum that’s presented to kids or the expectations teachers have of how well a specific student will do, or how a teacher will discipline two children of different races for the same infraction.

I came to understand that this whole reform discussion about having high expectations for all students is very powerful. The teacher who has high expectations is going to see higher performance, especially from students of color and poor students. And that requires teachers to come to terms with their own biases and be aware of the cultural stereotypes that affect every single one of us.

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