Ed Book Review: The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars was on many lists as the education book to read in 2014. Dana Goldstein spent more than three years exploring the 175 year history of the American education system, focusing on the major debates and controversies that have persisted around the teaching profession, including teacher tenure, evaluation systems, merit pay, and teacher preparation.

teacher-wars

“Teaching is a wildly contentious profession in America, one attacked and admired in equal measure. In The Teacher Wars, a rich, lively, and unprecedented history of public school teaching, Dana Goldstein reveals that teachers have been similarly embattled for nearly two centuries.

The Teacher Wars upends the conversation about American education by bringing the lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today. By asking ‘How did we get here?’ Dana Goldstein brilliantly illuminates the path forward.”

There is a good interview with Goldstein on the Education Writers Association podcast in which Goldstein is asked to point out the lineage of ideas between major education figures past and present. Here are the important education figures who “embodied” the same ideas and controversies in different eras. All of these figures feature prominently in the book. In addition, the podcast also features a great discussion of the role of feminism and sexism in the history of American public education, which is quite possibly the most unique exploration of the book.

Wendy Kopp and Catherine Beecher

Wendy Kopp is, of course, the founder of Teach For America, a charter school advocate and the modern day proponent for “missionary teachers”.

Catherine Beecher, is the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and daughter of a Calvinist preacher. Beecher wanted to recruit elite east coast woman, train them for five weeks and send them west to rural one room school houses. “Beecher was a lifelong opponent of women’s suffrage; she thought politics a dirty game that would corrupt women’s God-given virtue. But that virtue, she thought, made women the ideal educators. Beecher saw the home and the school as intertwined, two naturally feminine realms in which women could nurture the next generation.”

Michelle Rhee and William McAndrew

Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of D.C. public schools and William McAndrew was the superintendent of the Chicago public school system after the turn of the century. Both were/are big proponents of using student data to evaluate teachers, both fired a lot of teachers in order to improve education outcomes and because they feel/felt passionately that education is always about students. Thus, schools “are not set up to protect teachers.”

“Student test scores had increased incrementally under Rhee, but it turned out D.C. voters saw their public schools—which had been some of the first in the nation for African Americans—as more than just achievement factories: They were neighborhood meeting places, sources of treasured civil service jobs, and repositories of community history and racial pride.”

Mike Feinberg/David Levin (KIPP) and Anna Julia Cooper

Feinberg and Levin are the founders of the well-regarded KIPP network of “No Excuses” urban charter schools and Ms. Cooper, the daughter of a slave and the white man who owned her, was an extremely accomplished and respected teacher who taught for more than six decades in Carolina and D.C. schools. Ms. Cooper may very well have been the unwitting mother of “No Excuses” urban education for children of color. She employed a militaristic school culture to achieve her high expectations for her black students; nothing short of a college education.

“Klein had never before seen black children engaged in such feats of intellectualism, and he reported in his subsequent book that Cooper was one of the most skilled teachers he had ever met. He was also impressed with her strict disciplinary strategies. She required M Street’s 530 students to walk the hallways in military silence (a common practice at today’s “no excuses” charter schools). Each school day began with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.”

Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie and other industrialist education reformers were big on vocational education for southern black students. They partnered with Booker T. Washington, government, schools and educators on the ground to push this agenda.

The Gates Foundation is an education policy juggernaut, influencing national, state and local school policies simply by the enormous sums of money they grant. They also partner with governments, education bodies, non-profits, districts, schools and teachers on the ground to study and experiment with different pedagogies, teacher evaluation systems, and leadership structures.

“In 2009 economist Thomas Kane and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began a massive study on teacher effectiveness, known as the MET (Measures of Effective Teaching) project…..And the Gates Foundation MET study found that when teachers are observed by both principals and peers, observation scores are more likely to match value-added ratings than when principals alone do the observing. The MET project’s concluding report had a peculiar circular logic, in which all teacher evaluation methods were judged according to how strongly they correlated with value-added scores. Given the Gates Foundation’s longtime orientation toward measurable student achievement gains, that is no surprise. Yet another interpretation of the study’s results is that classroom observations and value-added scores actually measure different elements of successful teaching, and thus should be used side by side even—perhaps especially—when they do turn up different results.”

 

 

In the Epilogue, subtitled “Lessons from history for improving teaching today”, Ms. Goldstein draws a few conclusions about the history of American education policy issues and in turn outlines a few suggestions on how to improve both the profession for adults and the education for children based on those lessons from history. In general, I am on board with all of her suggestions. The devil is in the details, of course. That being said, many of theses suggestions are well worn topics within the education community, and from my experience most teachers would see them as reasonable and welcome changes.

Below I have included the headings of her improvement outline, my favorite quotes from those sections and a few of my own thoughts in italics.

 

Teacher Pay Matters:

“The worst part is that teachers’ income stagnate in comparison to their college-educated peers just as people begin to think about starting a family or buying a home. This is undoubtedly one reason why some ambitious people leave or never enter the profession, and why teaching is less culturally respected than it should be.”

It’s hard to argue that salary level does not equal professional prestige in America. Many teachers have the same level of education as doctors and lawyers, yet there are few teachers who reach the same pay grade as the starting salaries for those professions. As Goldstein rigorously points out in the book, the unequal pay for equal education has it’s historic roots in sexist attitudes towards the perceived ‘female’ profession of teaching. However, teacher salary certainly plays a role in the current debates on the value of public education and a good teacher.

 

Create Communities of Practice:

“In New York City and Chicago, a coalition of charter networks launched the Relay Graduate School of Education, which teaches “no excuses” techniques to first-year teachers seeking an alternative certification.”

“Yet it should remain intellectually diverse, since different communities have different expectations of schools, ranging from strict discipline to Montessori. Communities of practice should be able to demonstrate to states that they are rigorous and evidence based. Once they are, they could earn the freedom to choose their own curricula, assessments, and teacher evaluation practices.”

My Personal Learning Network is growing and becoming robust. I am part of a Project-based Learning community on Google+ and count differentiation experts like Rick Wormeli as regular Twitter contacts. I have taken one Professional Development MOOC via the Relay Graduate School of Education, and have plans to take another later this spring. I believe that this idea of communities of practice, who specialize, support and develop people, ideas and techniques is a powerful one.

 

Keep Teaching Interesting:

“In Singapore, after three years on the job a teacher selects one of three leadership paths to pursue, in curriculum writing, school administration, or instructional mentoring.”

This is critical. For me, teaching and learning is not all about the students, however controversial that is to say in this day and age. As long as adults are involved in the work of educating children, the work is about both children and adults, students and teachers. We can’t expect to engage children in schools if the teachers are not engaged themselves.

 

Deal with the Legacy of the Normal School:

“We should not forget Martin Haberman’s research showing that long-serving “star” teachers are often from low-income backgrounds, have graduated from non-elite colleges, or are people of faith. Others, like Alex Caputo-Pearl, have somewhat radical politics. What makes these nontraditional teachers special is that they are mission-driven to help struggling students succeed, and they are enthusiastic about holding all children to high intellectual standards. Those are the attributes teacher preparation programs should seek.”

Like identifying and developing the next great NFL quarterback, I’m quite sure we don’t have those processes mastered for the next great teacher. This is certainly an area of education that is a mixture of inherent character, art and science. As a graduate of an alternative-route certification program, I have to believe that successful and sustainable teachers can come from many backgrounds and forms of training. For me, what is important to remember, is the above essential qualities that research has identified as the indicators of a “star” teacher.

 

Focus on the Principal as much as the Teacher:

“And we shouldn’t overburden principals with reams of teacher accountability paperwork. As banal as it sounds, paperwork is the major reason that historical attempts to improve teacher evaluation failed. Teacher rating rubrics must get “put on a diet,” The New Teacher Project recommended in 2013. How about focusing on ten effective instructional behaviors each school year instead of sixty?”

After reading this, and following the blog back and forth on Ed Week between Michelle Rhee and Jack Schneider last year, so many of the long-standing, seemingly intractable debates around the teaching profession hinge on effectively, fairly and efficiently evaluating teachers. I believe that a lot of rancor and hand wringing about how to hire, fire and develop effective teachers, along with improving education outcomes for those students who need it most, would be mitigated if it was easy to identify, assess and evaluate good teaching. It seems like it should be simple, history has proven it is not.

 

Return Test to their Rightful Role as Diagnostic Tools:

“While we once used tests to draw conclusions mostly about the capacities of individual students, today we believe they tell us much less about the student than about his or her teacher.”

Amen. ‘Nuff said.

 

Teachers Benefit from Watching each other work:

“Ideally, school districts that serve at-risk children would limit their supply of first-year teachers when adequate veterans are available. Another idea would be to change the structure of teachers’ workdays so all effective veterans spend some time watching novice teachers work and coaching them. Beginner teachers, in turn, should have time to observe veterans’ classrooms and to work with colleagues to plan effective, engaging lessons.”

If you could separate the Measurements of Effective Teaching framework (MET) from the Gates Foundation and their lightning rod ed policy status, I think most ed policy wonks, administrators and teachers would have to admit that it includes a comprehensive set of elements to develop and support effective teachers, and evaluate them. The Teach-Now clinical student-teaching process is a facsimile of the MET professional development structure; watching exemplary teachers in action, focused methods of emphasis, recording our own classes, self-reflection, analysis by peer community, evaluation by an expert mentor teacher, discussion of strengths and weaknesses, and identification of specific techniques to focus on next time.

Recruit more Men and People of Color:

“Men are more likely than women to value higher pay, and teachers of color are more likely than white teachers to have student debt to pay off.”

I am a man, I am interested in being a teacher and educator for life. I am also interested in supporting my family and pursuing professional interests. I can’t speak for people of color, but it seems like all people are interested in professions that allow them to pay off their student loan debt, support a family and improve professionally.

 

End Outdated Union Protections:

“Yet LIFO makes little sense as research tells us more about what effective teaching looks like. A sensible layoff policy would use seniority as a tiebreaker between teachers with similar levels of performance on the job.”

LIFO stands for Last in, First out, the policy that favors teachers with more years in the profession, over more effective teachers, at least when making staffing decisions. It has a negative connotation in that it emphasizes the supposed job security experienced, yet ineffective teachers have. I’m not against the idea of only using it as a tiebreaker, but I am trying to break into the profession, so….

 

Let a Thousand Policy Flowers Bloom:

“Just a decade ago the movement to desegregate schools was considered hopelessly outdated; today a growing number of charter school leaders acknowledge the research showing that integration promotes academic achievement and social-emotional growth for all kids.”

This speaks to a return to a more decentralized system, one that is more diverse because it is less influenced by the national government’s Race to the Top grant programs or similar reform-minded monies available through the Gates Foundation. Desegregation of schools as a tool to close the achievement gap is not on anyone’s radar in the U.S. public school district I last worked in. The issue of racially segregated schools that reflect the national achievement gaps between white students and students of color was talked about a lot, but no one ever suggested reinstating the old busing policies that were in place when I attended those same schools. Is there a way to combine community schools and desegregated schools within some districts?

 

Be Real about the Limitations of our System:

“The United States Constitution never mentions education, leaving it as a responsibility of states, cities, and towns. Today only 13 percent of the financial support for local schools comes from Washington, with the rest about evenly divided between municipal property taxes and state funding.”

“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.”

Having realistic expectations for our school system is a huge, enormous, elephant-in-the-room-sized issue in all this controversy around education reform, past and present. First of all, it needs to be expressly made clear by local, state and federal government education agencies that now an official part of their mission is to fight poverty. Ideally, there would be a big public debate on the issue, both in the public sphere and in Congress, which would result in this being codified into law somehow. Otherwise, it’s an assumption that varies with the governing party or politician, and lacks any clear long-term direction or funding, and will always come with some serious confusion and debate. The implications of such a public debate would be profound. For example, if we really want our teachers to be educators, mentors, community pillars, psychologists, event planners, project managers, triage specialists and anti-poverty missionaries, then we’ve got to value their work as such and provide them with the commensurate pay and support.

In the mean time, teachers tend to be the scapegoat for not living up to the outsized expectations in an environment of scarcity. There have been moments in the last decade, especially following the release and furor over the “Waiting for Superman” documentary, in which teachers could rightly feel similarly to returning Vietnam War vets in the 60’s and 70’s. Teachers found themselves looking around and saying, “I did my duty, I served my country, I did my best to survive and complete my mission, and in turn my country blames me for a political problem?!”

If only teachers had more time to wine like this, but the truth is they don’t. Most teachers are too busy worrying about their students, planning the next lesson, calling a parent, wondering when they will get their next bathroom break, or generally going balls out to end poverty!

To be clear, no one is asking the general public for a free pass for teachers. High expectations and accountability are to be expected in public service. Just remember who is really to blame for an unclear mission and chronically underfunded schools; the politicians!

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