THE BLOG
09/24/2014 09:04 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Dana Goldstein Explains How Teachers Became America's Most Embattled Profession

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As promised, Dana Goldstein's thoroughly researched The Teacher Wars is more analytic than opinionated. Goldstein's objective narrative of assaults on the teaching profession lets the historical record take the place of commentary.

However, Goldstein's subtitle, "A History of America's Most Embattled Profession," recalls Babe Ruth's alleged prediction of where he would hit a homerun. She must have known the risks of such an unambiguous foreshadowing of her thesis. Had she failed to deliver an impeccably accurate and thoughtful historical analysis, deep-pocketed reformers would have assailed her as they have teachers. But, Goldstein hits the home run that her title predicted.

I was a professional historian, specializing in grassroots socialism during the Progressive era, before switching careers and becoming an inner-city teacher. So, I was looking forward to a refresher course on education history. I had no idea, however, that The Teacher Wars would teach me so much about my adopted profession, or how Goldstein's narrative would illuminate so many other social and economic dynamics.

The similarities between today's data-driven reformers and the "scientific management" of the early 20th century have always been obvious. Today's version of "Taylorism" often seems like a parody of the time and motion studies that sought to speed up the Model T assembly line. Contemporary reformers' top-down attempts to control teachers often seem like an unfunny version of Cheaper by the Dozen or, perhaps, an effort to treat teachers like Lucy in I Love Lucy's classic episode where the chocolate candy conveyor belt accelerates out of control. But, Goldstein recalls numerous other social movements that anticipated today's effort to micromanage the teaching profession.

Before reading Goldstein, for instance, I'd mostly missed the parallels between the absolute certainty of today's reformer warriors and 19th-century American Calvinists. The contemporary "teacher quality" movement bears a striking resemblance to the mid-1800s search for the "'motherteacher' ideal." It also embodies the complete certainty of so many reformers in the righteousness of their cause and the moral bankruptcy of those who believe differently.

Goldstein also makes two cogent points about the commonplace, moralizing attacks on male teachers during the 19th century. First, there was an economic motive for disparaging male teachers, and replacing them with less expensive female teachers. Second, teachers like Washington's Irving's fictional Ichabod Crane "may have been less cruel or stupid than frustrated."

Goldstein continues the second theme for the rest of her book. When describing controversy after controversy, she explains the role of a lack of resources in undermining educators' constructive efforts. Teachers and the education profession, not a lack of capacity for accomplishing their goals, were repeatedly blamed for inevitable failures.

Along with Elizabeth Green's Building a Better Teacher, Goldstein's The Teacher Wars offers a corrective against the reformers' repeated claims that progressive education reforms produced a history of failure. To take just one example, she describes the success of Washington, D.C.'s all-black M Street school and its dedicated principal, Anna Cooper. Cooper's home visits and "'sympathetic methods,'" for checking into students' domestic lives, anticipated the discovery that "wraparound" services and socio-emotional interventions are the key to overcoming the legacies of poverty and oppression. Similarly, the 1960s Cardoza project and National Teacher Corps strategies of visiting homes pointed the way toward real school reform. Sadly, their experience was rejected by Teach for America because TFA assumed it had to break with the past in general and, specifically, with the Great Society.

Even though I used be an academic labor historian, I was still surprised by the number of cases Goldstein cites where management used outright falsehoods to punish teachers and fight unions. Even though my field included the study of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and other repressive nightmares, Goldstein provides a new appreciation of how the thought police have repeatedly abused teachers and why ideological litmus tests persist to this day. (Today, of course, support of high stakes testing is a common litmus test.)

Even though I was a blue collar worker and saw the indignities heaped upon us as we unloaded trucks, dug ditches, and/or wrestled iron in the oil fields, Goldstein reminds me even more about the recurring ways that power corrupts and how unchecked management abuses teachers and other employees. Even though I was a proud member of the American Federation of Teachers, and participated in many union efforts to improve education, as well as battle for civil rights, my pride swelled after reading Goldstein's stories of our accomplishments.

And, Goldstein deepens our understanding of why the reformers' anti-teacher public relations campaigns have been so effective. For nearly forty years, the wages, benefits, and working conditions of most Americans dropped as unions successfully defended the interests of teachers. As AFT President Randi Weingarten notes, teachers have been "islands of privilege" in comparison to most American workers over the last generation because unions have fought off assaults on their pocketbooks and benefits. Sadly, but predictably, less fortunate workers are tempted to say that it is time for employees who have suffered the least, recently, to give back their pound of flesh.

Goldstein's history of top-down efforts to control teachers is a reminder of the truism that history repeats itself, ultimately as a farce. To liberate our profession, however, teachers must fight the larger battle, so that history doesn't repeat itself as a tragedy. The way that teachers have been treated is wrong. But, nobody should be abused as we have been. Even if few -- or no -- professionals are embattled as we are, the sad truth is that many workers endure worse. So, as we seek to professionalize, teachers must keep our eyes on the bigger prize -- a society where the repeated search for scapegoats is not needed.