Libby Nelson: We spend a lot of time talking about who should be a teacher, or why good teachers are important, in a way we don’t about other professions — even professions that play critical roles, such as doctors. Why are teachers so central?
Dana Goldstein: The first reason has to do with the role that we expect teachers to play in our inequality debate. We’re having this huge national conversation about socioeconomic inequality and, to somewhat of a lesser extent, about poverty, especially childhood poverty. And really we see teachers held up as people who can help us solve this problem.
Because we have a relatively weak social safety net, we’re asking them to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids. We are, in a way, setting ourselves up to be somewhat disappointed. That’s not to say that teachers don’t make an impact. We know from the latest economic research that teachers do have a big impact on kids. But as big as the impact is, it is a secondary impact. The home, the parenting, the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the family are still the primary impact.
So that’s one reason why teaching is controversial and embattled.
The second reason has to do with the fact that teaching is a unionized profession. It really comes down to what [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten says to me, that America looks at teachers as “islands of privilege.” Only 7 percent of [private sector] workers are in unions. So the fact that teachers have this strong body representing their interests, they have generous pensions they can look forward to, that they enjoy strong due process — these are things that make teachers unlike most workers. And it’s totally natural that Americans look at that and say, what’s going on? Why do teachers have so much more protection than the rest of us?