The Wildly Contentious History of Public School Teaching

Published December 2, 2014

Review of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein, Doubleday, 368 pages, $17.04, September 2, 2014

The Teacher Wars is aptly titled, compressing 150 years of warring efforts to create and control a government public school system amid the women’s suffrage movement and the rise of trade unions and the Communist Party in the United States. Dana Goldstein, a journalist whose parents were dedicated teachers, has written the definitive history of the subject.

With so many characters, so much time to cover, and chronologies which switch back and forth, this is not always an easy book to read, but it is well worth the effort. Goldstein offers 273 notes on her 11 chapters, and a bibliography of 108 books. Her thoroughness is exemplary. I have never been a fan of the U.S. Department of Education, and I think the author has unintentionally made an excellent case for disbanding it.

She starts her book in 1815 and profiles early proponents of broad education in the 19th century, including Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann and black educators Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Early teachers were all men, even including the famous American authors Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau. By the 1870s, teacher colleges called Normal Schools were established, and the majority of teachers soon were female.

Toward the end of the 19th century, politics controlled public education, and little attention was paid to black public schools. Power to teachers, Goldstein tells us, began with the founding of the Chicago Teachers Federation in 1897, the “precursor to today’s American Federation of Teachers which aggressively advocated for higher teacher pay and for teacher’s freedom on lesson planning and student discipline.”

Persistent Problems

It is clear some of today’s student problems existed a century ago. In 1909, a survey asked 500 child laborers who had dropped out of school whether they would drop out if financial necessity were not a factor. And 412 answered yes, commonly characterizing school as a joyless place of ethnic bigotry, corporal punishment, and mindless memorization.

Today’s overemphasis on student testing to evaluate teachers has its roots in the 1920s, when educators began to adapt innovative business practices. IQ tests of questionable validity came into vogue in the 1930s to assign students to different academic tracks.

Few readers may recall the fears of a “red menace” that gripped the nation during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when clearly Communist-leaning teachers held a great deal of sway. This problem, however, actually covered more than four decades, from 1917 to 1960, “when several waves of patriotic moral panic convulsed the nation’s schools in what historian Howard K. Beale termed an ‘orgy of investigation’ that targeted tens of thousands of teachers.”

Goldstein does an excellent job of summarizing the Supreme Court decisions and congressional legislation that eventually led to the forced desegregation of the nation’s school system with tremendous support from President Lyndon Johnson, who it turns out had taught school in a dirt-poor town in Texas in 1928 shortly after dropping out of college. Later, during his presidency Johnson helped develop a National Teachers Corps, now privately emulated in the famous Teach for America project developed by Wendy Kopp while a student at Princeton.

Union Power

On the other side of the coin, Goldstein summarizes Al Shanker’s life story and ascent to the head of the United Federation of Teachers. The UFT led 1,000 strikes between 1960 and 1980. Goldstein recounts too many of these strikes and battles, however, weighing the book down with unnecessary detail.

In 1967 The New York Times opinion of Shanker as follows: the union chief, “gets the most he can for his teachers, even if it means sacrificing the needs of the school system.” This attitude still seems to prevail in the nation’s teachers’ unions. 

Goldstein shows her political colors when she describes Ronald Reagan’s run for the presidency, labeling him a “B list actor.” She notes Reagan promised to end President Carter’s new Department of Education, and this reviewer wishes he had been successful, especially in light of the newest battle: Common Core standards for K-12. The standards cost taxpayers $18 billion to develop, are inferior to the best state standards, and many states are beginning to reject them. Goldstein, however, speaks only positively of this program.

Goldstein’s opening rant in chapter 10, however, describes well the reaction to the current passion for standardized testing:

“To many American teachers, the last decade of value added school reform has felt like something imposed on them from outside and from above—by politicians with little expertise in teaching and learning, by corporate philanthropists who long to remake education in the mold of the business world, and by economists who see teaching as less an art than science…. Dissident teachers and their unions are winning support from parent activists who are protesting the increased number of standardized tests, the time spent on test prep, and the lack of instructional time for projects, field trips, art, and music. Testing is a part of any functional educational system, but in recent years it has often seemed like the horse of school improvement has been driven by the cart of collecting student data to be used in teacher evaluation.”

These protests show the state of U.S. education is as troubled as ever.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.

Image by The U.S. National Archives.