How Did Being a Public School Teacher Become So Controversial?

Editor’s note: The history of teaching in America is one that is bedeviled with blame. For at least two centuries, we, the public, have engaged in continuing battles over the quality of those individuals who dedicate their lives to educating our children, with little knowledge of the historical context out of which our attempts at education “reform” grow. In her new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, education journalist Dana Goldstein presents a first-of-its-kind history of public school teaching, “bringing the lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today.” The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the book.
 


I began this book in early 2011 with a simple observation: Public school teaching had become the most controversial profession in America. Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, and even the Democratic governor of deep blue Massachusetts, sought to diminish or eliminate teachers’ rights to collectively bargain. Teacher tenure was the subject of heated debate in statehouses from Denver to Tallahassee, and President Obama swore in his State of the Union address to “stop making excuses” for bad teachers. One rising-star Republican, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, even became a conservative folk hero after appearing in a series of YouTube videos in which he excoriated individual public school teachers—all of them middle-aged women—who rose at public events to challenge him on his $1 billion in education budget cuts, even as he cut $1.6 billion in corporate taxes.

No other profession operates under this level of political scrutiny, not even those, like policing or social work, that are also tasked with public welfare and are paid for with public funds. In 2010 Newsweek published a cover story called “The Key to Saving American Education.” The image was of a blackboard, with a single phrase chalked over and over again in a child’s loopy handwriting: We must fire bad teachers. We must fire bad teachers. We must fire bad teachers. Wide-release movies like Waiting for “Superman” and Won’t Back Down, funded by philanthropists who made their fortunes in the private sector, portray teacher tenure and its defender, teachers unions, as practically the sole causes of underperforming schools. Everywhere I traveled as a reporter, from the 2008 Democratic National Convention to the 2010 meeting of former president Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative, powerful people seemed to feel indignant about the incompetence and job security of public school teachers, despite polls showing that the American public considers teachers highly respected professionals, nearly on par with medical doctors.

Anxiety about bad teaching is understandable. Teachers do work that is both personal and political. They care for and educate our children, for whom we feel a fierce and loyal love. And they prepare our nation’s citizens and workers, whose wisdom and level of skill will shape our collective future. Given that teachers shoulder such an awesome responsibility, it makes sense that American politics is acutely attuned to their shortcomings. So I want to begin by acknowledging: It is true that the majority of American teachers have academically mediocre backgrounds. Most have below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities.* It is also true that one large review of practices within typical American elementary school classrooms found many children—and the majority of poor children—“sitting around, watching the teacher deal with behavioral problems, and engaging in boring and rote instructional activities such as completing worksheets and spelling tests.” Another study of over a thousand urban public school classrooms found only a third of teachers conducting lessons that developed “intellectual depth” beyond rote learning.

In the Obama era, the predominant policy response to these very real problems has been a narrow one: to weaken teachers’ tenure protections and then use “measures of student learning”—a euphemism for children’s scores on an ever-expanding battery of hastily designed tests—to identify and fire bad teachers. One Colorado teacher told me (hyperbolically) that the disproportionate focus on punishing awful teachers made her feel “I’ve chosen a profession that, in the public eye, is worse than prostitution.” A spate of online videos and blog posts, in which angry teachers publicly quit their jobs, has gone viral. “I can no longer cooperate with a testing regime that I believe is suffocating creativity and innovation in the classroom,” wrote Ron Maggiano, a Virginia high school social studies teacher and winner of two national teaching awards. In Illinois, Ellie Rubinstein tendered her resignation via YouTube, explaining, “Everything I loved about teaching is extinct. Curriculum is mandated. Minutes spent teaching subjects are audited. Schedules are dictated by administrators. The classroom teacher is no longer trusted or in control of what, when, or how she teaches.” Olivia Blanchard chose to leave her Teach for America placement in Atlanta, where hundreds of thousands of dollars in merit pay bonuses had been paid to administrators and teachers who cheated by erasing and correcting students’ answers on standardized tests before submitting them to be graded. After a round of indictments, those teachers who remained in the district were left demoralized and paranoid. When Blanchard clicked Send on her resignation e-mail, she was “flooded with relief,” she recounted in The Atlantic.

Blanchard, Maggiano, and Rubinstein represent a larger trend. Polls show teachers feel more passionate and mission-driven about their careers than other American professionals. But a MetLife survey of teachers found that between 2008 and 2012, the proportion who reported being “very satisfied” with their current job plummeted from 62 to 39 percent, the lowest level in a quarter century.

I had assumed this war over teaching was new, sparked by the anxieties of the Great Recession. After all, one-fifth of all American children were growing up poor—twice the child poverty rate of England or South Korea. Young adults were suffering from a 17 percent unemployment rate, compared to less than 8 percent in Germany and Switzerland. Over half of recent college graduates were jobless or underemployed for their level of education. A threadbare social safety net, run-amok bankers, lackadaisical regulators, the globalization of manufacturing, and a culture of consumerism, credit card debt, and short-term thinking might have gotten us into this economic mess. But we’d be damned if better teachers couldn’t help get us out. “Great teachers are performing miracles every single day,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2009. “An effective teacher? They walk on water.” The rhetoric could provoke whiplash. Even as we were obsessed with the very worst teachers, we were worshipping an ideal, superhuman few.

This confusing dichotomy led me to wonder: Why are American teachers both resented and idealized, when teachers in other nations are much more universally respected? In South Korea, teachers are referred to as “nation builders.” In Finland, both men and women name teaching as among the top three most desirable professions for a spouse. Meanwhile, that old American saw—“Those who can’t do, teach”—continues to reverberate, reflecting elite condescension toward career educators.

I suspected that the key to understanding the American view of teachers lay in our history, and perhaps had something to do with the tension between our sky-high hopes for public education as the vehicle of meritocracy and our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included. For two hundred years, the American public has asked teachers to close troubling social gaps—between Catholics and Protestants; new immigrants and the American mainstream; blacks and whites; poor and rich. Yet every new era of education reform has been characterized by a political and media war on the existing teachers upon whom we rely to do this difficult work, often in the absence of the social supports for families that make teaching and learning most effective for kids, like stable jobs and affordable housing, child care, and health care. The nineteenth-century common school reformers depicted male teachers—90 percent of the classroom workforce in 1800—as sadistic, lash-wielding drunks who ought to be replaced by kinder, purer (and cheaper) women. During the Progressive Era, it was working-class female teachers who were attacked, for lacking the masculine “starch” supposedly necessary to preside over sixty-student classrooms of former child laborers. In the South during the civil rights era, Brown v. Board of Education prompted the racially motivated firings of tens of thousands of black teachers, as the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations looked the other way. Then, at the height of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, it was inner-city white teachers who were vilified, for failing to embrace parental control of schools and Afrocentric pedagogical theories.

Teachers have been embattled by politicians, philanthropists, intellectuals, business leaders, social scientists, activists on both the Right and Left, parents, and even one another. (As we shall see, some of the critiques were fair, others less so.) Americans have debated who should teach public school; what should get taught; and how teachers should be educated, trained, hired, paid, evaluated, and fired. Though we’ve been arguing about these questions for two centuries, very little consensus has developed.

Amid these teacher wars, many extraordinary men and women worked in public school classrooms and offered powerful, grassroots ideas for how to improve American education. Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Lyndon B. Johnson are just a few of the famous Americans who taught. They resisted the fantasy of educators as saints or saviors, and understood teaching as a job in which the potential for children’s intellectual transcendence and social mobility, though always present, is limited by real-world concerns such as poor training, low pay, inadequate supplies, inept administration, and impoverished students and families. These teachers’ stories, and those of less well-known teachers, propel this history forward and help us understand why American teaching has evolved into such a peculiar profession, one attacked and admired in equal proportion.

To continue reading, purchase your copy of the book here.

* Recent data shows teachers’ academic qualifications improving, but it is unclear whether this is a lasting development or a short-term trend due to weak private sector hiring during the recession.

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