The Teacher Wars

by Dana Goldstein

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: May 01, 2024
The Teacher Wars
The Teacher Wars

Explore the complex history and debates around teacher qualifications, evaluation, and the role of unions in education. Discover practical insights to enhance your understanding of education policy.

What are the big ideas?

Debate Over Teacher Qualifications and Capacity for Reform

The discussion on teacher qualifications emphasizes the tension between having higher academic standards and the practical needs of filling numerous teaching positions. The book argues for empowering the majority of teachers, rather than focusing solely on the extremes of qualification.

Historical Context of Teacher Wars

The book places the ongoing disputes over teacher competence and policy within a broader historical narrative, showing that such conflicts have long been a part of American educational history.

Misconceptions Around Teacher Tenure

The book challenges the prevailing view that teacher tenure is synonymous with job security, tracing its origins to protections against arbitrary dismissal based on non-professional factors.

Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Education

Acknowledging the influence of socioeconomic factors on educational outcomes, the book critiques policies that place excessive responsibility on teachers to resolve broader social inequalities.

Value and Limitations of Teacher Evaluation Systems

Exploring the rise of metrics like value-added measurement, the book reviews the benefits and potential pitfalls of current teacher evaluation methods, advocating for more comprehensive approaches.

From Teacher Unionism to Community Control

The book details the evolution of teacher unions and their varying impacts on education policy, from early union struggles to contemporary debates on community control and administrative reforms.

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Debate Over Teacher Qualifications and Capacity for Reform

The discussion highlights a critical debate in education reform - the balance between raising academic standards for teachers and ensuring there are enough qualified teachers to fill classrooms. On one hand, the book argues that high test scores or elite university degrees should not be the sole criteria for teacher preparation programs. Examples show that teachers from less prestigious schools can outperform those from top-tier institutions. What matters most is a deep commitment to helping struggling students succeed and upholding high intellectual standards for all children.

At the same time, the book acknowledges the practical challenge of staffing schools, especially those serving low-income communities. Rather than solely focusing on weeding out "ineffective" teachers, the emphasis should be on empowering the majority of teachers to continuously improve their skills. This means providing more opportunities for veteran teachers to mentor novices, and restructuring teacher education to be more practical and classroom-focused. The goal is to make teaching an attractive, rewarding career path for talented individuals, not just an elite few.

The key insight is that education reform must balance lofty ideals with the realities of the teaching profession. Raising the bar for teacher qualifications is important, but it cannot come at the expense of having enough dedicated, skilled educators in every classroom. The focus should be on elevating the entire teaching workforce, not just identifying and removing the outliers.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about the debate over teacher qualifications and capacity for reform:

  • The context discusses how teacher education programs often focus more on theories of child development rather than practical classroom skills, and how many programs are overproducing teachers in certain subjects while underproducing teachers for high-need areas. This highlights the tension between academic standards and practical needs.

  • The passage notes that "the ideology of teacher 'autonomy' in the classroom had diverted traditional teacher education programs from the hands-on skills teachers must build to help students learn." This suggests a need to empower teachers with practical skills rather than just emphasizing academic credentials.

  • The discussion of Teach for America and urban teacher residency programs shows alternative pathways into teaching that prioritize practical training and a commitment to serving high-need communities, rather than just focusing on academic qualifications.

  • The passage states that "while the ingenuity and fortitude of exemplary teachers throughout history are inspiring, many of their stories...shed light on the political irrationality of focusing obsessively on rating teachers, while paying far less attention to the design of the larger public education and social welfare systems in which they work." This suggests the need to empower the "big middle" of teachers rather than just focusing on the extremes.

Historical Context of Teacher Wars

The book situates the current "teacher wars" within a long history of debates and conflicts over American public education. For centuries, there have been recurring attacks on teachers, often targeting specific groups like women, minorities, or urban educators. These teacher wars have involved a wide range of actors - politicians, philanthropists, intellectuals, activists, and even teachers themselves.

The book traces how teaching has evolved from a predominantly male profession in the 1800s to one increasingly dominated by women, who were seen as more "pure" and "moral" educators. It examines how teacher quality and competence have been repeatedly called into question, with teachers variously depicted as "sadistic, lash-wielding drunks" or ineffective "bad teachers" draining public resources.

These historical patterns reveal how education reform efforts have often scapegoated teachers, focusing on firing "bad" educators rather than addressing broader systemic issues like poverty, inequality, and lack of social supports. The book suggests moving beyond this cycle of attack and blame, and instead building reforms "more upon the expertise of the best teachers than on our fears of the worst teachers."

Here are key examples from the context that support the historical context of "teacher wars" in the United States:

  • In the 19th century, common school reformers depicted male teachers as "sadistic, lash-wielding drunks" and advocated replacing them with "kinder, purer (and cheaper) women" to teach in the classroom.

  • During the Progressive Era, it was working-class female teachers who were attacked for lacking the "masculine 'starch'" needed to manage large classrooms of former child laborers.

  • In the civil rights era, the firing of tens of thousands of black teachers occurred after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, as federal administrations "looked the other way."

  • In the 1960s-70s, inner-city white teachers were vilified for failing to embrace "parental control of schools and Afrocentric pedagogical theories" during the Black Power movement.

  • The concept of the "ineffective tenured teacher" as a "feared character" who "sucks tax dollars" has emerged as a modern "moral panic" exemplifying anxiety over public spending on poor people of color.

  • Recurring "failed ideas" like merit pay for teachers based on student test scores have been attempted multiple times since the 1920s, but never succeeded in broadly motivating teachers or improving student outcomes.

The context illustrates how debates over teacher quality, competence, and policy have been a longstanding and recurring feature of American education reform efforts, reflecting broader social and political tensions.

Misconceptions Around Teacher Tenure

The book challenges the common misconception that teacher tenure is simply a guarantee of job security. In reality, tenure originated as a way to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal based on non-professional factors like gender, religion, or political ideology.

Prior to collective bargaining, administrators granted tenure to prevent teaching jobs from being used as political patronage. Both "good government" reformers and early teachers unions supported tenure, as it allowed teachers to challenge unfair dismissals. Even in states where collective bargaining is banned, tenure has long existed to safeguard teachers' rights.

The data shows that teachers are actually more likely to be fired than many other professionals. In 2007, 2.1% of public school teachers were terminated, compared to just 0.02% of federal workers. While some argue teachers should be fired more often, the public discourse often lacks a realistic sense of the scale of the "bad teacher" problem.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about misconceptions around teacher tenure:

  • Tenure predates collective bargaining for teachers by over half a century. Administrators granted teachers tenure as early as 1909, before unions were legally empowered to demand this right. During the Progressive Era, both "good government" school reformers and then-nascent teachers unions supported tenure, which prevented teaching jobs from being used as political patronage and allowed teachers to challenge dismissals or demotions based on non-professional factors like gender, marital status, religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or political ideology.

  • Tenure has long existed even in southern states where teachers are legally barred from collective bargaining, challenging the notion that tenure is solely a product of union demands.

  • In 2007, the last year for which national data is available, 2.1% of American public school teachers were fired for cause, a figure that includes tenured teachers. This suggests teachers are more, not less, likely than many other workers to be terminated, contradicting the perception that tenure provides excessive job security.

  • The book notes that in 2012, companies with over 1,000 employees, the closest private counterpart to large urban school systems, lost only about 2% of their workforce from firings, resignations, and layoffs combined. This further challenges the idea that teachers have unusually high job security compared to other professions.

Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Education

The book recognizes that socioeconomic factors play a significant role in shaping educational outcomes. Factors like family income, neighborhood resources, and access to quality healthcare can profoundly impact a student's ability to learn and succeed in school.

However, the book argues that education reform efforts have often placed an outsized burden on teachers to solve these deep-seated social inequalities. Policies that focus narrowly on teacher evaluation, merit pay, and alternative certification pathways fail to address the broader systemic challenges that disadvantaged students face.

Instead, the book suggests that reformers should take a more holistic approach. This means investing in programs and initiatives that tackle poverty, segregation, and lack of access to essential services. Only by addressing these underlying socioeconomic disparities can we create the conditions for all students to thrive academically, regardless of their background.

The key insight is that education reform cannot be divorced from broader social and economic reform. Improving schools alone is not enough; we must also confront the entrenched inequities that shape students' lives outside the classroom. This requires a more comprehensive, collaborative approach to education policy.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about the impact of socioeconomic factors on education:

  • The context notes that reading ability is "closely tied to the books and vocabulary children are exposed to at home", indicating that home environment and socioeconomic status play a key role in educational outcomes.

  • It states that "a child who ends third grade below level in reading will likely never catch up to his peers, and has a disproportionate chance of dropping out of high school", highlighting how early socioeconomic disadvantages can have long-lasting impacts on a student's educational trajectory.

  • The context discusses how low-income children are likely to spend their school days "drilling in low-level skills" and "watching teachers deal with poorly behaved students", rather than engaging in more rigorous, conceptual learning. This suggests that poverty and related factors shape the educational experiences of disadvantaged students.

  • The passage notes that high-poverty, minority-majority schools are "more likely to experience administrative turnover and inept management, which erode teacher job satisfaction over the long term." This indicates how systemic inequities in under-resourced schools can negatively impact both teachers and students.

  • The context cites research showing that low-income children assigned to integrated, less-poor schools experienced greater academic gains compared to their peers in high-poverty schools. This demonstrates the benefits of addressing socioeconomic segregation in education.

In summary, the examples highlight how factors like poverty, home environment, and school resources and demographics can profoundly shape educational outcomes, beyond just the influence of individual teachers. The book critiques policies that overly focus on teachers without addressing these broader socioeconomic inequities.

Value and Limitations of Teacher Evaluation Systems

Value-added measurement has transformed how we evaluate teacher performance and student achievement. This data-driven approach tracks individual student growth over time, providing a more nuanced picture than the "snapshot" assessments used previously. By controlling for factors like family income and English proficiency, value-added models can isolate the impact of individual teachers on test score gains.

However, value-added metrics have significant limitations. They are prone to misclassifying teachers as "excellent" or "ineffective" due to statistical noise, especially when based on a single year's data. Value-added also struggles to accurately assess teachers who work in teams or in subjects without standardized tests. Overly relying on these scores can incentivize teachers to "teach to the test" rather than promote deeper learning.

A more comprehensive teacher evaluation system should combine value-added data with other measures, such as classroom observations by trained evaluators. Observing teachers in action can identify effective instructional strategies that can then be shared with others. Evaluation should focus not just on test scores, but on promoting intellectual growth, conceptual understanding, and student engagement - the hallmarks of great teaching.

Ultimately, teacher quality is the single most important in-school factor for student success. But evaluating it requires a balanced, multi-faceted approach that considers the full complexity of the classroom experience. By doing so, schools can identify and support their most effective teachers while helping all educators continuously improve.

Here are key examples from the context that illustrate the benefits and limitations of current teacher evaluation methods:

  • The value-added measurement technique was able to identify significant differences in teacher effectiveness, even within the same school. This suggests that "there was more value-added variation between teachers within a school than across all the schools in a district" - a hopeful finding that even "failing" schools employ some excellent educators.

  • However, value-added measurement has significant limitations - it has an error rate of 35% when using just one year's data, and even with three years of data, one in four teachers will be misclassified as excellent or ineffective. It is also difficult to accurately measure teachers who work in teams or teach subjects without standardized tests.

  • The MET study found that when teachers are observed by both principals and peers, the observation scores are more likely to match value-added ratings than when principals alone do the observations. This suggests that using multiple evaluation methods, like observations and value-added, can provide a more comprehensive assessment.

  • In Newark, a new teacher evaluation process based partially on value-added has led to 20% of teachers being rated "ineffective" or "partially effective", resulting in peer assistance and loss of raises. This illustrates how value-added can identify underperforming teachers, but also the high-stakes consequences that can come with such ratings.

  • In Saint Louis, a system of peer mentorship and review, combined with the option to waive tenure, has allowed the district to terminate 7% of teachers, showing how comprehensive evaluation methods can enable districts to address ineffective teaching.

  • The context highlights how simply judging teachers by test scores "doesn't tell you what you should do differently." In contrast, classroom observations can identify effective teaching strategies that can then be shared with other teachers, illustrating the value of more holistic evaluation approaches.

From Teacher Unionism to Community Control

The book traces the shifting dynamics between teacher unions and community control in education policy. Initially, teacher unions emerged as advocates for teachers' rights and working conditions. However, as unions gained collective bargaining power, they became more closely aligned with school district administrations - the very entities that community activists sought to challenge.

The rise of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s led to a push for community control of urban schools, with the goal of empowering minority communities and improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students. This pitted community activists against teacher unions, who were perceived as protecting the interests of predominantly white teachers over the needs of students of color.

Over time, the debate evolved from a simple union-versus-community dynamic to a more nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between teacher quality, student achievement, and systemic inequities. While some reformers continued to vilify unions, others recognized the potential for teacher-led, community-driven initiatives to improve education. This shift reflects the ongoing struggle to balance the interests of teachers, parents, and students in pursuit of educational equity and excellence.

Here are key examples from the context that support the insight on the evolution of teacher unions and their impacts on education policy:

  • The Teachers Union was seen as allied with the central school administration, rather than counteracting it as the earlier Teachers Union had done. This allowed the UFT to quickly raise teacher salaries, which generated resentment among some black and Puerto Rican parents.

  • During the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy, the UFT was accused of prioritizing the needs of teachers over students. Union leader Al Shanker famously stated "I don't represent children. I represent the teachers," which was used to criticize the teachers union movement.

  • The community control movement in the late 1960s, led by figures like Stokely Carmichael, called for black-led schools staffed by black teachers, in contrast to the predominantly white UFT. This represented a shift from earlier efforts at school integration.

  • Anna Julia Cooper, a pioneering black educator, fought for higher teacher pay and resisted efforts to track poor black students into vocational programs, in contrast to the advice of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois to adopt a "missionary spirit" despite low salaries.

  • The cancellation of the More Effective Schools program in New York, which had provided extra resources to high-need schools, was seen as the UFT favoring some schools over others, rather than focusing on equitable outcomes for all students.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "The Teacher Wars" that resonated with readers.

Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, W. E. B. DuBois, 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.

Teaching is often idealized, but in reality, it's a challenging profession affected by various limitations. Famous individuals who have taught understand that despite their best efforts, factors like inadequate training, poor resources, and disadvantaged students can hinder a teacher's ability to make a meaningful impact. These real-world concerns must be acknowledged and addressed to improve the teaching profession. By recognizing these challenges, we can work towards creating a more supportive environment for teachers to succeed.

What’s more, veteran teachers who work long-term in high-poverty schools with low test scores are actually more effective at raising student achievement than is the rotating cast of inexperienced teachers who try these jobs out but flee after one to three years.

Seasoned teachers who dedicate themselves to challenging schools with low academic performance are more successful in improving student outcomes. These experienced educators develop a deeper understanding of their students' needs and are better equipped to address the unique challenges they face. In contrast, new teachers who try their hand at these difficult assignments often leave after a short time, disrupting the learning environment and hindering progress.

In short, teachers are more, not less, likely than many other workers to get fired.

In reality, teachers are more prone to being terminated from their jobs compared to other professionals. This contradicts the common perception that teachers have excessive job security. The data suggests that teachers are actually at a higher risk of being fired than many other workers. This challenges the notion that teachers are overprotected and unable to be held accountable.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "The Teacher Wars"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why is it argued that academic standards alone should not determine teacher qualification for preparation programs?
2. What is the significance of providing more opportunities for veteran teachers to mentor novices in the context of education reform?
3. How does restructuring teacher education to be more practical and classroom-focused contribute to educational reform?
4. Why is it important to make teaching an attractive career path for talented individuals?
5. Why should the focus be on elevating the entire teaching workforce rather than only removing ineffective teachers?
6. How has the public perception of teachers changed from the 1800s to more recent times?
7. What role have teacher scapegoating played in education reform efforts?
8. What historical actions demonstrate the recurring nature of attacks on certain groups of teachers?
9. What is the original purpose of granting tenure to teachers?
10. How does the firing rate of public school teachers compare to that of federal workers as of 2007?
11. Why do misconceptions about teacher tenure persist despite evidence suggesting teachers are often terminated?
12. What was the role of 'good government' reformers in the support for teacher tenure during the Progressive Era?
13. What role do socioeconomic factors such as family income and neighborhood resources play in a student's educational success?
14. How do education reform efforts that focus on teacher evaluation and merit pay fail to address systemic educational inequities?
15. Why is investing in social and economic reforms considered essential for improving educational outcomes?
16. What is the primary advantage of value-added measurement in evaluating teacher performance?
17. What are the key limitations of relying solely on value-added metrics for teacher evaluation?
18. Why is it beneficial to combine value-added data with classroom observation in teacher evaluations?
19. What role did teacher unions originally play in the context of education policy?
20. How did teacher unions' alignment with school district administrations impact community perceptions?
21. What was the primary goal of the community control movement in education during the late 1960s?
22. How did the relationship between teacher unions and community activists evolve over time?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "The Teacher Wars". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can educational institutions modify their teacher qualification criteria to balance between theoretical knowledge and the practical skills needed in everyday classrooms?
2. What initiatives could local communities or governments adopt to make teaching a more attractive and sustainable career choice in areas struggling with teacher shortages?
3. How can you use an understanding of the historical conflicts in teaching to advocate for more effective and equitable education policies in your community?
4. How might you help promote the contribution of experienced and effective teachers in reshaping education policies and practices?
5. How can you advocate for a more nuanced understanding of teacher tenure in your community or local school district?
6. What steps can you take to support fair evaluation and accountability measures for teachers in your area, ensuring they align with the protection rights intended by tenure?
7. How can you use the information about the higher rates of teacher terminations in comparison to other professions to inform your discussions or initiatives about educational policies?
8. How can you support policies or programs in your community that aim to reduce educational disparities linked to socioeconomic factors?
9. How can you incorporate multiple methods of teacher evaluation in your school system to ensure a more accurate and holistic assessment of teacher performance?
10. How can you influence educational policy to ensure it caters to the needs of diverse communities rather than just the interests of specific groups?

Chapter Notes


  • Public School Teaching as the Most Controversial Profession: The chapter begins by highlighting how public school teaching has become the most controversial profession in America, with politicians, policymakers, and the media intensely scrutinizing and criticizing teachers.

  • Concerns about Teacher Quality: The chapter acknowledges that there are valid concerns about the academic qualifications and instructional practices of many American teachers, with studies finding that a significant proportion of teachers have below-average academic backgrounds and engage in "boring and rote instructional activities."

  • Policy Response: Weakening Tenure and Relying on Test Scores: The predominant policy response to these concerns has been to weaken teacher tenure protections and use student test scores as a primary measure to identify and fire "bad teachers."

  • Teacher Dissatisfaction and Demoralization: This policy approach has led to growing teacher dissatisfaction and demoralization, with many teachers feeling that their autonomy and professionalism are being undermined, as evidenced by viral videos and blog posts of teachers publicly quitting their jobs.

  • Historical Perspective on Teacher Wars: The chapter suggests that the current "war on teachers" is not a new phenomenon, but rather part of a long-standing pattern of politicians, reformers, and the public attacking and idealizing teachers throughout American history.

  • Misunderstandings about Tenure: The chapter challenges the common perception that teacher tenure provides excessive job security, noting that tenure predates collective bargaining and was originally intended to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals based on factors like gender, race, or political ideology.

  • Unrealistic Expectations for Teacher Quality: The chapter argues that the goal of having all teachers come from highly selective colleges is "frankly, absurd," given the sheer scale of the teaching profession and the need to fill tens of thousands of teaching positions each year.

  • Importance of Supporting Ordinary Teachers: The author believes that education reform should focus less on rating and firing teachers and more on making teaching an attractive, challenging profession that can attract intelligent, creative, and ambitious people, while supporting the "big middle" of ordinary teachers in improving their skills.

  • The Role of Socioeconomic Factors: The chapter acknowledges that schools and teachers alone cannot solve the crisis of inequality and long-term unemployment, and that the author's own experience in a socioeconomically integrated public school system was atypical, as most American schools are highly segregated by socioeconomic status.

  • Learning from History: The author argues that education reformers today should learn from the mistakes of the past, which have often involved recurring attacks on veteran educators and the implementation of failed ideas about teaching, such as merit pay and overly simplistic teacher evaluation systems.

Chapter One: “Missionary Teachers”: The Common Schools Movement and the Feminization of American Teaching

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Catharine Beecher and the Feminization of Teaching: Catharine Beecher, the daughter of a famous preacher, became a leading advocate for women as teachers in the common schools movement. She believed that women were well-suited for teaching due to their natural nurturing abilities and moral virtue, and that teaching could provide middle-class women with a respectable profession outside of marriage.

  • Horace Mann and the Common Schools Movement: Horace Mann, a Massachusetts politician, was a key figure in the common schools movement, which aimed to establish state-funded, compulsory public education. Mann saw schools as a way to instill moral values and character in students, rather than focusing primarily on academic subjects.

  • Prussian Influence and Normal Schools: Mann was influenced by the Prussian education system, which prioritized teacher training in "normal schools." Mann opened the first normal school in Massachusetts, which trained female teachers to work in the state's public schools.

  • Feminization of Teaching and Deskilling: The common schools movement led to a rapid feminization of the teaching profession, as women were seen as more cost-effective and morally suitable teachers than men. This contributed to a deskilling of teaching, as the curriculum focused more on moral education than academic rigor.

  • Tensions and Critiques: The common schools movement faced some criticism, including concerns about the intellectual capabilities of female teachers and the appropriate balance between moral and academic education. Orestes Brownson, a Catholic journalist, argued that the movement's emphasis on moral education came at the expense of addressing broader social and economic issues.

  • Legacy and Unresolved Issues: The common schools movement and the feminization of teaching left a lasting impact on American education, but also left unresolved issues, such as the appropriate role of parents, the needs of diverse student populations, and the balance between moral and academic education.

Chapter Two: “Repressed Indignation”: The Feminist Challenge to American Education

  • Susan B. Anthony's Early Teaching Career: As a young teacher, Susan B. Anthony faced gender-based pay discrimination, with male teachers earning significantly more than their female counterparts. This experience of inequality fueled her later activism in the women's rights movement.

  • The Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments: The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, produced the Declaration of Sentiments, which borrowed from the Declaration of Independence to argue for women's suffrage and equal rights. This document was a pivotal moment in the early women's rights movement.

  • Anthony's Confrontational Activism: Unlike the more conservative Catharine Beecher, Anthony took a confrontational approach to her activism, publicly challenging the male-dominated teaching profession and advocating for women's access to higher education and professional opportunities.

  • The Feminization of Teaching: By the late 19th century, teaching had become a predominantly female profession, with women making up the majority of teachers, especially in the northern states. This "feminization" of teaching was viewed with concern by some male education reformers, who believed that a balance of male and female teachers was necessary for a well-rounded education.

  • Belva Lockwood's Pioneering Career: Belva Lockwood's journey from rural schoolteacher to the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar and presidential candidate illustrates the complex relationship between feminism and the teaching profession. While teaching provided a path to awareness and activism for many women, it also limited their opportunities in other fields.

  • The Importance of Teacher Professionalization: Figures like Charles William Eliot argued that raising teacher salaries, providing tenure protections, and improving training would help attract and retain talented teachers, particularly men, and improve the quality of American public education. This push for teacher professionalization was an important counterpoint to the view of teachers as undereducated, low-paid "mother substitutes."

  • The Racial Dynamics of Teaching: In the African American community, teaching provided opportunities for talented women and men, who developed a strong sense of the political and social power of educators as agents for racial justice.

Chapter Three: “No Shirking, No Skulking”: Black Teachers and Racial Uplift After the Civil War

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Port Royal Experiment: After the Union army captured the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina during the Civil War, the U.S. government and northern philanthropists launched the "Port Royal Experiment" to educate the freed slaves living there. This involved recruiting northern teachers, including Charlotte Forten, to establish schools and teach the former slaves.

  • Ideology of Black Teachers: Black teachers like Forten and Anna Julia Cooper saw their role as not just imparting academic knowledge, but also instilling racial pride and self-esteem in their students. They believed it was the responsibility of more privileged African Americans to uplift their disadvantaged peers.

  • Challenges Faced by Black Teachers: Black teachers faced threats of violence, underfunding, and political opposition as they worked to expand education for freed slaves and their children during Reconstruction. Schools were often overcrowded, under-resourced, and lacked basic necessities.

  • Debate between Du Bois and Washington: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated the appropriate education model for African Americans, with Du Bois advocating for a classical liberal arts education and Washington favoring more vocational training. This reflected differing views on how best to uplift the race.

  • Anna Julia Cooper: Cooper was a pioneering black female educator who fought for higher teacher pay and resisted efforts to track poor black students into purely vocational courses. She saw teaching as a means of racial uplift and community service.

  • Decline of Reconstruction-Era Gains: After Reconstruction, the federal government withdrew support for black education, leading to entrenched racial segregation, underfunding of black schools, and lower academic expectations for black students. This undermined the progress made in the immediate post-Civil War period.

Chapter Four: “School Ma’ams as Lobbyists”: The Birth of Teachers Unions and the Battle Between Progressive Pedagogy and School Efficiency

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Birth of Teachers Unions: The chapter describes the founding of the Chicago Teachers Federation in 1897, which was the precursor to the modern American Federation of Teachers. The Federation was a militant organization modeled after male labor unions, with the goal of advocating for higher teacher pay and autonomy in the classroom.

  • Lobbying for Tax Reform: The Federation, led by Margaret Haley, discovered that the Chicago school system was losing millions in revenue due to tax evasion by local corporations. The Federation's successful lawsuit to compel the state to collect these back taxes was a major early victory for the union.

  • Allying with Organized Labor: In a controversial move, the Federation affiliated with the Chicago Federation of Labor in 1902, seeking to leverage the political power of the male labor movement. This partnership was seen as a threat by the Chicago establishment.

  • Resistance to Efficiency Reforms: The chapter describes the clash between the Federation and school reformers like Superintendent Edwin Cooley, who sought to implement "scientific management" techniques like teacher evaluations and merit-based pay. The Federation opposed these reforms, arguing they undermined teacher autonomy.

  • Ella Flagg Young and Progressive Pedagogy: Ella Flagg Young, Chicago's first female school superintendent, was an advocate of progressive education ideas pioneered by John Dewey. She clashed with the Federation at times, but also respected their intellectual leadership.

  • Backlash Against Unions: In the 1920s, the Federation faced a major setback when the new superintendent William McAndrew, a proponent of scientific management, sought to dismantle teacher councils and implement ability tracking. The Federation allied with the corrupt former mayor "Big Bill" Thompson to remove McAndrew, a move that undermined the union's moral authority.

  • Pragmatism and Idealism in Teacher Unionism: The chapter suggests that while the early Chicago Teachers Federation achieved important victories, it also at times engaged in pragmatic, even cynical, political maneuvering that undermined its idealistic goals of improving education for all children.

Chapter Five: “An Orgy of Investigation”: Witch Hunts and Social Movement Unionism During the Wars

  • Witch Hunts and Patriotic Moral Panic in Schools: During World War I and the Cold War, there was a widespread moral panic about teachers with "dissident" political views, such as pacifism, socialism, or communism. This led to thousands of teachers being investigated, fired, or put on trial for their political beliefs, even if they did not indoctrinate students.

  • The Rise of Social Movement Unionism: The New York City Teachers Union (TU) embraced a "social movement unionism" that went beyond traditional bread-and-butter issues. They advocated for racial equality, a more progressive curriculum, and addressing social conditions in poor neighborhoods, in addition to higher pay and smaller class sizes.

  • Conflict Between Moderate and Communist Teachers: The TU was split between a moderate, social democratic faction and a communist faction. The communists were more vocal in their criticism of the U.S. government and support for the Soviet Union, which led to the TU's expulsion from the American Federation of Teachers and the rise of the more moderate United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

  • Impact of Purges on Dedicated Educators: The teachers who were targeted and purged during the witch hunts tended to be some of the most dedicated and effective educators, particularly in serving disadvantaged students. Their removal was a loss for the communities they served.

  • Lasting Impact of Witch Hunts: The witch hunts sent a powerful message that certain types of educators, particularly those with left-wing or unconventional views, were not welcome in the classroom. This had a chilling effect on the teaching profession, even though the number of teachers directly affected was relatively small.

  • Transition from TU to UFT: The UFT, which replaced the TU, embraced a more moderate, pragmatic approach to unionism, focusing on bread-and-butter issues like pay and working conditions, rather than the TU's broader social justice agenda. This shift reflected a broader move away from the radical politics of the interwar and early Cold War periods.

Chapter Six: “The Only Valid Passport from Poverty”: The Great Expectations of Great Society Teachers

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Brown v. Board of Education decision and its impact on black teachers: The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declared school segregation unconstitutional, but this led to the dismissal and demotion of many competent black teachers, as white school boards used tactics like reassigning them to subjects they were not qualified for, requiring controversial standardized tests, and prioritizing the hiring of white teachers over black teachers.

  • Concerns about the loss of black teaching jobs and role models: Even before the Brown decision, there were concerns in the black community that school integration could lead to the decimation of the black middle class, which depended on jobs in segregated schools. Black leaders like Anna Julia Cooper and Zora Neale Hurston warned that the loss of black teachers and administrators would be detrimental to black students.

  • The impact of desegregation on black schools and teachers: As schools were desegregated, black schools were disproportionately closed, and black teachers were disproportionately dismissed or demoted, regardless of their qualifications or success in the classroom. Many white parents and administrators assumed black teachers were less qualified than white teachers.

  • The role of the federal government in school integration: The federal government, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, played a key role in advancing school integration, but did not hold school districts accountable for more than token faculty integration. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare even suggested that one black teacher would suffice in a majority-white school.

  • The impact of the Moynihan and Coleman reports on teacher expectations: The Moynihan report and the Coleman report, which attributed much of the academic achievement gap between black and white students to family and neighborhood factors, may have led some teachers to conclude there was little they could do in the classroom to help black students succeed.

  • The strategies of effective black teachers: Researchers have identified strategies used by successful black teachers throughout history, such as strict discipline as a demonstration of love, close ties with students' parents, and the introduction of black historical figures to build racial pride.

  • The creation of the National Teacher Corps: The National Teacher Corps, established in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act, was modeled on the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching and aimed to recruit elite young college students to teach in high-poverty schools, bypassing traditional teacher certification requirements.

  • Tensions between Teacher Corps interns and veteran teachers: There were often tensions between the young, mostly white Teacher Corps interns and the veteran, mostly black teachers in the schools where they were placed, due to differences in resources, curriculum, and teaching approaches.

  • The mixed success of the Teacher Corps: While the Teacher Corps brought in more minority teachers and instilled high expectations for students, it also faced resistance from the educational establishment and struggled to have a lasting impact on the profession.

  • The limits of the Great Society education agenda: The Johnson administration's aggressive push for school integration often came at the expense of veteran black teachers, and de facto segregation endured in most northern cities, leading to disappointment and anger among parents and activists committed to educational equality.

Chapter Seven: “We Both Got Militant”: Union Teachers Versus Black Power During the Era of Community Control

  • Al Shanker's Background: Al Shanker, the leader of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), came from a working-class Jewish family and was influenced by the labor politics and socialist ideologies of his upbringing. He initially pursued a career in academia but became a teacher and union organizer instead.

  • Rise of Teacher Unions: In the 1960s and 1970s, teacher unions, particularly the UFT, gained significant political influence and bargaining power, leading to increased salaries, benefits, and job protections for teachers. This coincided with a decline in public confidence in teachers and their unions.

  • Community Control Movement: The community control movement, led by Black Power activists and supported by the Ford Foundation, sought to give parents and local communities more control over their children's education, including the ability to hire and fire teachers. This movement clashed with the UFT's focus on job security and due process for teachers.

  • Racial Tensions and Rhetoric: The debate over community control was marked by racial tensions and inflammatory rhetoric, with the UFT portraying the movement as a threat to teacher professionalism and the community control advocates accusing the UFT of racism and defending the interests of white teachers over the needs of minority students.

  • Ineffective Teaching and Accountability: The community control movement argued that many teachers, particularly in segregated and low-income schools, were ineffective and held low expectations for their students. This led to demands for greater accountability and the ability to remove underperforming teachers, which the UFT resisted.

  • Lasting Impact: The clash between the UFT and the community control movement had a lasting impact on debates around school reform, with the critique of teacher unions and their perceived defense of the status quo becoming a central part of the "standards and accountability" movement that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chapter Eight: “Very Disillusioned”: How Teacher Accountability Displaced Desegregation and Local Control

  • The Rise of Teacher Accountability: The chapter discusses the emergence of a new era of Washington-driven school reform, led by the Reagan administration, that focused on teacher accountability and standards-based reforms, as opposed to the previous era's emphasis on school desegregation and local control.

  • A Nation at Risk and the Critique of Teachers: The chapter examines the influential 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," which harshly criticized the quality of American teachers and secured a toehold for the national standards and accountability movement. This reform agenda, which included ideas like standardized testing, teacher evaluation, and merit pay, was influenced by the school efficiency progressivism of the early 20th century.

  • The Failure of Merit Pay: The chapter delves into the failed attempts to implement merit pay and career ladder plans for teachers in the 1980s. These plans were often underfunded, unpopular with teachers, and overly bureaucratic, leading to their demise by the end of the decade.

  • The Displacement of Desegregation: The chapter examines how the Reagan administration actively worked to undermine school desegregation efforts, even as it promoted the teacher accountability agenda. This led to the resegregation of many school districts and the loss of high-quality teachers in predominantly minority schools.

  • The Rise of the Education Trust and No Child Left Behind: The chapter discusses the influential role of the Education Trust, a progressive advocacy group that used test scores to argue for education reform, and how its ideas influenced the development of the No Child Left Behind Act under the Bush administration. The chapter also examines the unintended consequences of NCLB, such as the narrowing of the curriculum and the perverse incentives it created for schools and teachers.

Chapter Nine: “Big, Measurable Goals”: A Data-Driven Vision for Millennial Teaching

  • Teach for America (TFA): TFA was founded by Wendy Kopp as an alternative teacher preparation program that aimed to place high-achieving college graduates in high-need public schools, initially for a two-year commitment. TFA was conceived as a "break" from "fast-paced lives to serve the nation," with the idea that even if corps members did not stay in teaching long-term, they would become advocates for public education.

  • Early Criticism and Challenges: TFA faced early criticism for its truncated training program, with some recruits feeling unprepared to manage classrooms and teach effectively. However, TFA's approach was also seen as an improvement over many traditional teacher preparation programs, which were often too theoretical and lacked a focus on practical pedagogy.

  • Growth and Influence: Over the next decade, TFA became one of the most coveted post-graduation placements, attracting significant philanthropic support and media attention. TFA alumni went on to play influential roles in education reform, including founding charter school networks like KIPP.

  • Debate over Teacher Preparation and Quality: The debate sparked by TFA's approach to teacher preparation and quality teaching has been deeper and more evidence-based than any the nation has had since the inception of common schooling in the 19th century, in part due to the many TFA alumni who have written about their experiences.

  • Value-Added Measurement and Teacher Evaluation: The chapter explores the rise of value-added measurement, which uses student test score data to evaluate teacher effectiveness. This approach was embraced by the Obama administration's Race to the Top program and led to significant changes in teacher evaluation and tenure policies across the country.

  • Challenges and Unintended Consequences: The chapter discusses the limitations and potential unintended consequences of value-added measurement, including the risk of teaching to the test, the clustering of inexperienced teachers in high-poverty schools, and the potential for cheating and manipulation of test scores.

  • Holistic Approaches to Teacher Evaluation: The chapter suggests that a more holistic approach to teacher evaluation, considering factors beyond just test scores, may be necessary to truly improve teaching and learning.

  • Tensions between Unions and Reformers: The chapter explores the tensions between teachers unions, which have sought to protect job security and working conditions, and education reformers who have pushed for greater accountability and the weakening of tenure protections.

  • Emerging Trends: The chapter notes the rise of charter school unionization efforts, as some teachers seek to address concerns about working conditions and job security, even in schools associated with the "no excuses" reform movement.

  • Ongoing Challenges and the Need for Systemic Improvement: The chapter concludes by acknowledging the ongoing challenges in improving the teaching profession, and the need to focus on developing the skills and practices of the "big middle" of teachers, rather than relying solely on mass firings or union-busting.

Chapter Ten: “Let Me Use What I Know”: Reforming Education by Empowering Teachers

  • Classroom Observation and Teacher Evaluation: Classroom observation is a crucial but challenging aspect of teacher evaluation, as it can be subjective and has historically failed to differentiate between teachers effectively. However, new observation frameworks like the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) and Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching are being adopted to provide more detailed and meaningful feedback to teachers.

  • Peer Review and Teacher Support: Peer review systems, where experienced teachers evaluate and provide support to struggling teachers, can be an effective way to improve teacher performance and retain effective teachers. These systems empower teachers and provide more targeted support than traditional top-down evaluation methods.

  • Urban Teacher Residencies: Urban teacher residency programs, which provide aspiring teachers with a full year of hands-on training and mentorship in high-need schools, are producing more diverse and effective teachers than traditional teacher preparation programs. These programs have higher teacher retention rates, which is crucial for improving student outcomes in underserved schools.

  • Teacher-Led Reforms: When teachers are empowered to drive curriculum and instructional reforms, as seen in the case of Crenshaw High School, they can develop innovative, research-based approaches that are tailored to the specific needs of their students and communities. However, these teacher-led reforms may face resistance from top-down, standardized reform efforts.

  • Importance of Teacher Expertise and Collaboration: Effective teaching is a complex skill that requires specialized training and ongoing support. Programs that leverage the expertise of experienced teachers, such as teacher residencies and peer review systems, can help develop and retain high-quality teachers. Collaboration and the sharing of best practices among teachers are also crucial for improving instruction.

Epilogue: Lessons from History for Improving Teaching Today

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Teacher Pay Matters: The author argues that higher teacher pay is associated with better student outcomes, but teacher salaries in the U.S. lag behind other professions, which hurts the prestige of teaching and makes it harder to attract top talent. The author suggests restructuring teacher pay to reward performance and extra responsibilities, not just seniority.

  • Developing "Communities of Practice": The author proposes the idea of "plural professionalism" for teachers, where teacher preparation programs and K-12 schools would work together to develop specific pedagogical approaches (e.g. project-based learning, "no excuses" methods) and share best practices within those communities. This would give teaching more intellectual heft and a shared ethical alignment.

  • Keeping Teaching Interesting: To prevent teacher burnout and retain high-performing teachers, the author suggests offering more varied career paths, such as opportunities to lead instructional coaching or curriculum development, in addition to classroom teaching.

  • Reforming Teacher Preparation: The author argues that many traditional teacher preparation programs, especially at former "normal schools", have low admission standards and produce an oversupply of prospective teachers. The author suggests raising standards for these programs or shutting them down, while also recognizing that some non-elite teacher candidates can be highly effective.

  • Focusing on Principals: The author emphasizes the importance of having strong, respected principals who can articulate a clear mission for their schools. Effective teachers should be encouraged to transition into principal roles, and principals should not be overburdened with excessive paperwork.

  • Rethinking the Role of Tests: The author argues that tests should be used primarily as diagnostic tools to inform instruction, not as high-stakes measures to evaluate and fire teachers. Value-added metrics can be useful for identifying teachers at the high and low ends of the performance spectrum, but should not be the sole basis for personnel decisions.

  • Promoting Teacher Collaboration: The author suggests restructuring teachers' work days to allow more time for veteran teachers to observe and coach novice teachers, and for all teachers to collaborate on lesson planning and instructional strategies.

  • Diversifying the Teaching Force: The author notes the lack of racial and gender diversity in the teaching profession, and suggests that making teaching more intellectually rigorous and financially rewarding could help attract a more diverse pool of candidates.

  • Reforming Tenure and Layoff Policies: The author argues that tenure should not mean lifetime job protection for underperforming teachers. Instead, there should be a fair, swift process for dismissing consistently ineffective teachers. Seniority should not be the sole factor in layoff decisions.

  • Embracing a Diverse Reform Agenda: The author emphasizes that teacher evaluation and tenure reform are just two elements of a broader agenda for improving education, which should also include efforts to promote school integration, expand access to early childhood education, and make education more relevant to the real world.

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  • Catharine Beecher and the Feminization of Teaching: Catharine Beecher was a pioneering school reformer who helped transform teaching into an acceptable profession for middle-class women in the early 19th century. She recruited well-bred young women from the East Coast to become teachers in the West, challenging the male-dominated teaching profession.

  • Horace Mann and the Gendered Ideology of Female Educators: Horace Mann, the first state secretary of education in Massachusetts, idealized female educators as "celestial" public servants motivated by Christian faith and moral purity, rather than as academic professionals. He employed female teachers to save taxpayer money due to their lower wages.

  • Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Equal Pay: As a teacher at the Canajoharie Academy, Susan B. Anthony proudly wrote home about her plaid dress, wondering if her sisters who did not earn their own wages felt "sad" about not being able to afford nice clothes. She soon began organizing female teachers to demand equal pay.

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Disdain for Teaching: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a wealthy woman who educated her own children at home, disdained the teaching profession as "a pool of intellectual stagnation," hoping that young women would soon be able to pursue more prestigious careers in law, medicine, and the clergy.

  • Charlotte Forten and the Tradition of Privileged African American Educators: Charlotte Forten, an affluent black woman from Philadelphia, volunteered to teach in a one-room schoolhouse for emancipated slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands, helping to inaugurate a tradition of privileged, highly educated African Americans serving their race through teaching.

  • The Port Royal Experiment and the Fate of Emancipated Slaves: The Union initially offered the emancipated slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands communal ownership of their former owners' land as part of the Port Royal Experiment. However, President Andrew Johnson ended the project in 1866, allowing former slave owners to reclaim their property, and many of Charlotte Forten's students became sharecroppers.

  • W.E.B. Du Bois and the Debate over Black Education: W.E.B. Du Bois, the pioneering theorist and historian of African American education, believed that black teachers should be part of the college-going "talented tenth" and be "broad-minded, cultured men and women" to "scatter civilization" among their people. His critique of Booker T. Washington's vocational tracking for black children cost him an appointment to lead the colored public school system in Washington, D.C.

  • Margaret Haley and the Rise of Teacher Unionism: Margaret Haley, the leader of the nation's first teachers-only union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, understood that an alliance with male, blue-collar organized labor could help female teachers advocate for equal pay, the vote, and increased school funding.

  • Ella Flagg Young and the Empowerment of Teachers: Ella Flagg Young, the first woman to lead an urban education system as the superintendent of the Chicago public schools, argued that "in order that teachers may delight in awakening the spirits of children, they must themselves be awake" - meaning intellectually engaged and empowered by their work.

  • The New York City Teachers Union and the Radical Education Agenda: The New York City Teachers Union, a gadfly band of young teachers, many of them communists, fought aggressively for academic freedom and for schools to embrace a broad antiracist, antipoverty agenda - a platform that anticipated many later-twentieth-century goals of education reform.

  • Lyndon B. Johnson and the War on Poverty in Education: As president, Lyndon B. Johnson portrayed teachers as revolutionary foot soldiers in the War on Poverty, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided federal funding to "bridge the gap between helplessness and hope" for millions of "educationally deprived children."

  • Al Shanker and the Rise of Teacher Unions: Al Shanker, as president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, led a series of daring strikes that raised teacher pay and empowered teachers in the education policy debate. However, he was infamous for defending teachers even when students' interests were at odds.

  • The Ocean Hill–Brownsville Controversy and the Limits of Community Control: Rhody McCoy, the administrator of the community control experiment in Ocean Hill–Brownsville, Brooklyn, attempted to remove nineteen tenured teachers and administrators,


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