Thursday, September 11, 2014

"The Teacher Wars"--a review

It's definitely a book worth reading that can simultaneously enrage, engage and entertain you. The Teacher Wars tells the story of why America's teachers are so roundly despised and used as a punching bag by the political elites and power systems. Completely fascinating and non-partisan as far as I can tell, this history should be read by anyone who ever had anything to say about the quality of teachers these days, which is a group that includes, roughly, everyone. I myself was hooked by page 9, which I read, as it happens, during the twenty minutes I allow myself for lunch, at my desk, while getting ready to do some last-minute grading so I could make a meeting with a colleague so as to plan our joint lessons for the next week:
"...(Places like Shanghai) have made big strides in student achievement without drastically adjusting the demographics of who becomes a teacher. They do it by reshaping teachers' working days so they spend less time alone in front of kids and more time planning lessons and observing other teachers at work, sharing best practices in pedagogy and classroom management."
Yeah, I could get behind something like that. Can't imagine why it resonated with me so deeply.

In a nutshell, education journalist Dana Goldstein explains how the public school teacher ethos morphed and mutated over the past two centuries, got mixed up in the labor movement and a bunch of other clashes between warring factions, was put right in the middle of a bull's eye for America's power systems to start shooting at, and is now sort of the scapegoat (not always incorrectly) for many of society's ills.

If that's too brief a nutshell, here's a slightly less-condensed summary: early in the 19th century, reformers like Catharine Beecher "feminized" teaching (then more a male profession) by hijacking the missionary zeal nascent in urban women: "Go west and make a difference! Teach pioneer children and be one with God!" After the Civil War, black educators got caught up in a battle over whether black children should be educated vocationally, in order to work and excel in a world that afforded them fewer opportunities, or educated classically and by elites, in order not to neglect their potential. In many ways, this debate continues today, and not just concerning minorities. Then the teachers' unions split with the extreme left during the McCarthy era and joined with the working class unions engaged in their own war against the corporate elite.

Unfortunately, when the Reaganites took power, the working class saw their benefits and power decline, even as the teachers' unions kept theirs, and a schism emerged (again--one still with us today), creating understandable resentment with the working class (today, maybe 7 percent of the nation's workers are unionized). On the heels of Reagan came the "teacher accountability movement," ostensibly a product of progressivism but increasingly tied to corporate interests via the language and premises of free market enthusiasts. (Goldstein doesn't put it like that--that's more my own reading of the history. But I'll stand by it.) Now, with many of the experiments of the blame-teachers-first crowd having come up empty-handed as their reforms didn't turn out to be silver bullets after all, America is in a position to rethink what's to be done about the state of our schools.

Yet Goldstein argues that certain other movements have born useful fruit: she runs through some data concerning Teach for America and speaks highly of their "transformative" approach (though she does not believe, accurately, it can be replicated on a larger scale). She also reports that value-added measurements (attempting to link test score gains to individual teachers), while nonsensical in high-stakes conditions, works well as a tool to help educators develop and improve their instruction. Fair enough.

It's a fascinating story, even to those who know the basics already (I flatter myself to be one of them). Her reporting is objective and fact-based yet still leading her to inescapable conclusions about how teachers have been demonized, why this has happened and what's to be done about it all. At the end of the book, she trots out some not unreasonable suggestions: knock standardized tests back to tools of diagnosis; beef up our oversight of administration (Goldstein outlined these ideas in a recent Chicago Tribune piece); give teachers more active roles in the formation of school curriculum and training; free up time for collaboration. She also argues we need to ditch the last-in-first-out power that tenured teachers wield, though, she is careful to point out, not without employing a system of remediation and assistance using reliable measurements, so as to protect them from the whims of administration and school boards.

Sounds good. And yet, running through these suggestions, one can't help but notice we're talking about quite a price tag. One, I suspect, taxpayers would be happy to pay (as I write this, the nation is gearing up for another military adventure in Iraq, and I don't hear the budget hawks screaming yet), particularly if we were to differentiate between the kind of spending we've been doing and the kind of spending we should be doing.

Yet such fiscal transformation is unlikely today, and perhaps for many years to come. Neither is it likely that the social spending necessary for an empowered middle and lower class will come about any time soon. Goldstein freely acknowledges this, and ends with the whole let's-focus-on-what-we-can-focus-on spiel that TFA, unions and the like rely on when confronted with the task of changing the system without being able to actually change the system:
"In the absence of these "bridging instruments" between policy and practice, I fear American politics will continue to reflect profound disappointment in teachers, and teachers themselves will continue to feel embattled. But there is hope. If we accept the limitations of our decentralized political system, we can move toward a future in which sustainable and transformative education reforms are seeded from the ground up, not imposed from the top down. They will be built more upon the expertise of the best teachers than on our fears of the worst teachers. This is how we will achieve an end to the teacher wars."
It's lines like these, in all their reasonableness and logic, that get me reaching for my emergency whiskey bottle. Yes, if teachers are the ones "seeding" this kind of change, I'd be all for it. But the Wendy Kopps and Michelle Rhees, the Bill Gateses and Eva Moskowitzes and now, apparently, M. Night Shyamalans of the world are just too well-funded. No matter their intentions, the damage they're doing to the greater narrative is too lasting to ensure that the notion of public education is linked to notions of community and macrosocioeconomic factors.

Well, at least we've got a solid history to point to in order to justify such a perspective. Though I hope I'm wrong, I think we're going to need it for the foreseeable future.

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