The Teacher Wars

I’ve just read a fascinating review of Dana Goldstein’s new book, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” As we continue to wrestle with issues related to Common Core standards, high-stakes testing, and teacher tenure, this looks like a book we should all add to our reading lists.

Did you know that at the end of the 19th century, 90% of American schoolteachers were men? And that, over the past hundred years or so, that ratio has flipped, with about 75% of teachers now female? One of the major factors in this shift was the argument, advanced by numerous “reformers” at the turn of the 20th century, that “the job was better suited to gentle, pious, unmarried women, who could be paid a pittance since they had no family to support.”

Thus teaching evolved in America from a profession that any man might be proud to pursue, into a poorly-paid, presumably temporary job for proper ladies awaiting marriage proposals. This “de-professionalization” of public school teaching had devastating consequences that still plague us. Many teacher preparation programs were conceived with “gentle, pious” schoolmarms in mind, and did not establish challenging curricula or standards. Women teachers generally worked under the supervision of male principals and school boards, and were not encouraged to exercise any initiative or innovation. Teachers were often treated with condescension if not outright contempt. The outdated view of public school educators as female drones who will never hold a “real” job remains stubbornly embedded in the American psyche.

So it’s hardly surprising that few of the best and brightest young Americans see teaching as an exciting, challenging, and respected career option. Why should they? Teachers are routinely vilified as lazy, incompetent hacks who owe their positions to the political machinations of powerful unions. The median salary for an American teacher is $54,000 – compared to $70,000 for a dental hygienist. That’s right, folks: The people to whom we entrust the education of our children earn $16,000 a year LESS than the assistants in our dentists’ offices.

There’s a bizarre paradox in the attitude of many Americans toward public school teachers. On the one hand we’re shocked, SHOCKED that they aren’t doing a better job of preparing our kids for educated citizenship, lucrative careers, and fulfilling lives. Surely most of us recognize that the education of each succeeding generation of Americans is the only way our economy, our culture, and our Republic can survive.  And yet we insist on trying to do it “on the cheap” — paying teachers a pittance, treating them like drudges instead of professionals, and all too often denying them the financial and human resources they need to do this crucial job well.

It’s now fashionable to demand teacher “accountability”  (often without a clear definition of that concept), and to call for revoking teacher tenure so that we can more easily fire poor teachers.   But what good is it to fire bad teachers if we have no comprehensive plan for replacing them with better ones?  Goldstein’s prescription for improving our schools is a challenging one, but its logic should be obvious to all of us:

“…we have to help teachers do their job the way higher-achieving nations do: by providing better pre-service instruction, offering newcomers better support from well-trained mentors and opening up the “black box” classroom so teachers can observe one another without fear and share ideas. Stressing accountability, with no ideas for improving teaching […], is ‘like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight.’”


UPDATE Sept. 11, 2014

In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, Motoko Rich asks the intriguing question:  “Why don’t more men go into teaching?”


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3 Comments on "The Teacher Wars"

  • MahoningVal says

    I suppose my evidence is totally anecdotal, but between the teachers I know as friends, the ones who are family members, and the ones I got to know during my 3 kids’ 12 years in public school, through umpteen parent-teacher conferences and being a school volunteer, I can say that every one of them was or is a dedicated, caring, hardworking professional.

    It’s a shame that public school teachers are so vilified these days. Teacher burnout is very high. It’s not an easy job, and you have to be willing to put in many extra hours at your own expense. It’s also a shame that teachers are always the first ones that get blamed when kids don’t learn.

    You can have the best, brightest, and highest paid teachers in the world, but, if a child comes to school hungry, sick, dirty, malnourished, a victim of abuse, doesn’t speak English, from a family that moves around every year, or the product of a home where there’s no caring, capeable adult around as a stable presence, they’re not going to be ready to learn. These issues need to be addressed as well. Trouble is, with state and local budgets slashed to the barest of bare bones, and an archaic method of property tax assessment used to finance our public schools, how do we make sure every child comes to school ready, willing, and able to learn? The charter school “experiment”, which hijacks our tax dollars into a system that is unproven, many times unaccounted-for, in many ways no better than the public schools they claim to improve, isn’t the answer, either.

  • Quidnunc says

    Thank you, MahoningVal, for reminding us that teacher preparation and performance are hardly the only challenges facing American public schools. Schools today are expected to educate children in the face of huge socio-economic problems in many communities. Children have to be ready to learn, parents have to be supportive and responsible, and states like Ohio have to step up to reform their unfair and unconstitutional school funding systems!

  • teach28 says

    As a 28 year Ohio teacher, currently teaching, I’ve seen many changes in public school/teacher morale, the academic school day schedule, the kind of student sent into our public schools and many changes to the family dynamic. Families send us their best and we work with that raw product. We are not a business though many ignorant/wealthy “education school reformers” who have never taught in a classroom believe we should be run as such. When the raw product comes with all its strengths, weaknesses and flaws, we don’t get to toss it back because it’s not perfect. We are in the field of developing, shaping and positively influencing children…priceless human resources. We are educating children now more than ever, that come from broken homes, socioeconomically disadvantaged homes, dysfunctional homes, homes where relatives and/or Foster parents are raising our students and in some cases students dealing with homelessness. Regardless of these many challenges, they must pass the test(s)….or else.

    Public educators (certified and support staff together) wear many hats during our day to deal with the many non-academic needs of our students (which if lacking don’t support academic success or the tests) and we still must meet the deadlines of the day including curriculum pacing guides, prepping for the excessive high stakes tests, and the hours of instruction lost to THE TEST(S). Student data mining, teacher evaluations based on student test data, and excessive paperwork related to committees, evaluations, interventions, test prep, meetings, etc. rob us of time to teach and to help our students develop creativity, problem solving, and deeper learning in areas of interest.
    The creativity in our jobs has been reduced to meeting a high stakes cut score and/or scores that must be higher each and every year…damn the consequences! On behalf of our students, our days begin early and end late, often at the expense of time with our families, our health, and our own creative/volunteer interests. I have currently logged 63 unpaid hours beyond my teaching day over the last two weeks since school began. How many professions do you know where the employee steals supplies from home to provide the materials that the employees often need at work, adding up to hundreds of dollars per year with no reimbursements?

    The gun to our head that is high stakes testing, Ohio’s Teacher Evaluation System (50% of our evaluations based on student test scores), and simultaneous initiatives piled on by legislators, have caused a huge morale nose dive in the teaching profession. While I am proud to be a public educator, I do not encourage anyone at this point to go into my profession while it’s under attack nationally, undermined by rushed Ohio legislation, betrayed by greedy testing companies (Pearson), punished by so called ed “reformers”(Michelle Rhee), and disrespected by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who values little about protecting public education from the toxic drain of tax dollars from unregulated charter schools, while lining the pockets of his wealthiest donors.

    While weary and frustrated, I will not give up on my students for they are the only good part of my school day, along with my certified and support staff teaching partners.

    My memory is not short. My self-respect remains strong. I will advocate for my students at the local and state level.
    I am not drinking the ed reform/charter school Kool-Aid. Come November, I Will Remember!

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