Cover image of a book about bad teachers

Perhaps it seems to you that there has never been so much controversy surrounding the work of teachers as there is today. After all, from “prayer in the schools” to the Common Core to the continuing battles over homeschooling and charter schools, it might appear that we’re experiencing the perfect storm over education. Not so.

As Dana Goldstein reveals in The Teacher Wars, her illuminating history of K-12 schooling in America, public debate has swirled around the nation’s schools almost throughout the two centuries of our existence as an independent country. What emerges clearly from the pages of this easily digestible book is that American schools have suffered through one wave of reform after another, each one the “perfect” response to all that ailed the nation’s children, and each one succeeded in turn by another wave that sought to reverse the unintended consequences of the previous one.

Yes, there has been a great deal of school “reform” over the centuries, but little of it has done much good. One of my broadest conclusions from Goldstein’s book is that the unending change itself has been one of the biggest challenges faced by both students and teachers over the years. More often than not, they would all have been better off if the reformers has simple left well enough alone.

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein (2014) 341 pages ★★★★★

However, a handful of institutional changes have been substantially positive on balance: the gradual adoption of free, universal primary and secondary education in the 19th century; the unionization of the teaching profession in the 20th; and the desegregation of the schools. Teachers, students, and society alike significantly benefited from these three developments. Universal education helped level the playing field for generations of disadvantaged children who might not otherwise have stood a chance to rise above their parents’ limited circumstances.

Unionization helped raise salaries beyond the poverty level experienced by most (women) teachers in the 19th century. And desegregation benefited millions of children, Black and white alike, by placing good teachers of diverse backgrounds in schools where they could reach more and more children. (Yes, the data cited by Goldstein shows that desegregation produced higher student scores on standardized tests for both Black and white children. Unfortunately, desegregation was largely a reality in the South, where it was mandated by Federal law, and has not been fully pursued in the Northern cities where so many millions of children still attend what are essentially segregated schools to this day.)

The biggest problem in US education today

One other theme emerges from The Teacher Wars: that one of the biggest problems in US education today — perhaps the very biggest problem — is the poor quality of teacher education and the concomitant lack of qualified supervision and on-the-job training. The roots of this problem lie in the “normal schools” championed by Horace Mann in the 19th century. The best of these teacher colleges lifted the teaching trade into a profession, but few of the normal schools that spread across the country were so successful. In the 20th century, normal schools morphed into university-based teacher-credentialing programs that are notoriously ineffective.

Of course, it’s a toss-up whether teacher training is as big a problem in American education as inadequate pay. Doubling the salaries teachers receive would go a long way toward solving the problems in American schools — not overnight, of course, but over the long run. There’s no reason US schools can’t be as effective as those in Finland and South Korea.

Oh, and by the way, “bad teachers” are NOT the problem in the US. Sure, they exist, and it’s important that efficient means be developed to identify them, give them a chance to improve themselves, and, if they fail to do so, transition them to some other form of work. However, most teachers can be very good teachers if they receive the support they need — the training, the supervision, the tools, the respect — to act like the professionals they aspire to be. In the final analysis, then, this is not a book about bad teachers.

For further reading

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