Why is teaching the most controversial profession in America? Historically, American public school teaching developed as an explicitly anti-intellectual, working class job. Yet at the same time that we paid public school teachers poorly, policed their political activity, and prevented them from influencing the curriculum, we asked them to eradicate poverty and inequality—a staggering expectation.
In her lively, character-driven history, Dana Goldstein guides us through American education’s many passages, including the feminization of teaching in the 1800s and the fateful growth of teachers unions, and shows that the battles fought over nearly two centuries echo the very dilemmas we confront today. The Teacher Wars features a host of famous names during their formative years as public school teachers, including Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Lyndon Johnson. It follows black teachers in the South after the Civil War, and explains how their tough love pedagogy paved the way for today’s “no excuses” charter schools. It tells the story of how technocratic attempts to measure teachers using student test scores motivated the birth of the first teachers unions—in 1897, over a century before today’s “value-added” education reform movement took hold. And it traces the 20-year history of Teach for America and reveals that there have always been TFA-like organizations active in the American school reform landscape, from the Teacher Corps in the 1960s to Catharine Beecher’s program to recruit East Coast girls to teach in frontier schools during the 19th century.
In short, much of what we assume is new about the school reform debate is old. Yet if we are truly going to increase the prestige and effectiveness of American public school teaching, we must do what we have never done before: Conceive of teachers as intellectuals, and allow them to collaborate to exercise real professional discretion and leadership.
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