Exciting News About My Book

I am absolutely delighted to announce that today I signed a contract with Doubleday, a division of Random House, to publish my book. The working title is The Teaching Wars: A Political History of America's Most Controversial Profession, and it should be on shelves sometime in 2014. (Yes, this is a long process!)

Since the birth of the public school system, there has always been a contention in American politics that something is wrong with the teacher corps, and that it must be reformed and reconstituted. During the 1830s, Common School reformers like Horace Mann believed too many transient, uncommitted young men were teachers; by the turn of the century, urban good government types were alarmed that 80 percent of teachers were women, whom they considered undereducated and unambitious. The Red Scares of the 1930s and 1950s led to nativists pushing thousands of teachers out of the classroom in retaliation for their involvement in left politics; by the late 1960s, Black Power community control activists were critiquing teachers and their unions from the left, arguing that the people who worked inside public schools were disrespectful of disadvantaged students' cultures, neighborhoods, and families.

My book will track the politics of public school teaching all the way up to the present day, and show how teachers have been at the absolute center of every social movement that rocked the United States, from feminism to organized labor to Civil Rights to the Great Society. Teachers' closeness to these controversial movements has made the profession itself controversial, and this controversy means public school teaching is often maligned in the public discourse. When this discouraging conversation about teaching is paired with the sometimes chaotic atmosphere inside under-resourced, badly managed public schools, the result is that many potentially great educators are dissuaded from choosing teaching and sticking with it. And all this noise detracts attention from the real policy challenge, which is recognizing, rewarding, and scaling holistic teaching excellence, which already exists in at least one or two classrooms in almost every public school across the country, no matter how disadvantaged its student body.

There's way more I'm thinking about, drawn from history, social science, and contemporary reporting inside schools. But I'm going to resist the urge to say more right now, because I really need you to buy the book when it comes out — and I'm sure the ideas are going to evolve a lot as I write.

I'm very lucky that my editor at Doubleday will be Kris Puopolo, who has worked with a long list of writers I admire, including John Farrell, Megan Stack, Joby Warrick, David Hoffman, and Eugene Robinson.

And while I'm expressing thanks, my agent, Howard Yoon, is a ridiculously talented editor, negotiator, and mentor. The book was born in Sam Freedman's deservedly famous non-fiction book writing class. And this project would not exist without the Schwartz Fellowship at the New America Foundation, the Puffin Fellowship at the Nation Institute, and the Spencer Fellowship at Columbia University.

This means I'll be blogging a bit less over the next 18 months, as I spend most of my time working on the book and doing occasional magazine features. But as always, I love hearing ideas and reading recomendations from readers, so please keep in touch via the comments section.

Have a great weekend.

6 thoughts on “Exciting News About My Book

  1. Jderoner

    This is a great premise for a book. I love historical analysis that explains how we’ve gotten to a particular point on a hot button issue; teacher effectiveness is undoubtedly one of the biggest ones in education right now.

    I find fascinating the use of economic (both macro and micro) forces as a lens for such explanations. I had several courses in college that filtered history through this lens and it’s amazing what can be plausibly connected together (think Freakonomics-like studies). The shift in teacher evaluation right now (in my humble opinion) is heavily linked to the budget crisis of public entities as a result of recent recessions – and once again teachers are taking the fall.

    tl;dr: I’m anxiously awaiting your book :)

  2. Bruce William Smith

    The critical contrast is between your paragraph in “The Test Generation”, which I love quoting — “Experts raise a number of powerful objections: that value-added measurements are often based on poorly designed, unsophisticated standardized tests; that the ratings are particularly volatile (a teacher who scores very well or very poorly using value-added has only a one-third chance of getting a similar score the following year, and it takes about 10 years of data to reduce the value-added error rate to 12 percent for any individual teacher); and that the technique gives the impression that the teacher is the only factor in student achievement, ignoring parental involvement, after-school tutoring, and other “inputs” that research shows account for up to 80 percent of a student’s achievement outcomes” — and this in Steven Brill’s “Class Warfare”, which I’ve just finished: “Moreover, the differences, teacher by teacher, remained relatively stable, meaning a teacher shown to be effective one year was typically shown to be effective the next year, too, while those who performed badly one year kept performing badly. This was the lack of volatility that so surprised Kane” (153).

    If you’re right, all of the Gates Foundation’s current initiative relating to teaching effectiveness and personnel systems is wrong, as are most of the recent legal changes in the states; but if Kane is right, then this focus on teacher effectiveness makes sense as an effort to combat intergenerational poverty. I hope you will address this conflict as soon as possible, since Mr. Brill’s claim is at least superficially better documented.

  3. Dana Goldstein

    Bruce, while there is lots of great reporting in Brill’s book, he vastly oversimplifies the research on teacher effects. In this blog post I provide links to a number of papers. Even the value-added enthusiasts Brill cites, like Hanushek, Kane, and Staiger, agree that the impact of teacher quality on a child’s academic achievement tops out at about 20 percent.

    link to danagoldstein.net

    On the question of volatility in value-added scores, we know they are quite volatile in the middle of the pack, less so at the top and bottom of the curve. This GothamSchools post summarizes the research.

    link to gothamschools.org


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