On My Favorite Books, and the Similarities Between Journalism and Teaching

Thanks to Kaylen Ralph of The Riveter for asking me some really thought-provoking questions in our interview about The Teacher Wars.

You come from a family of pubic school educators. Did you ever consider becoming one yourself? How did you end up in journalism?

I’ve known since I was a very little girl that I wanted to be a writer, and since about third grade that I wanted to be a journalist. My parents subscribed to The New York Times and Newsweek, and my heroines were the female op-ed columnists of the 1990s, like Anna Quindlen. My path into the profession was fairly typical. I worked on my high school and college newspapers, did internships in daily journalism and magazines, and then moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation and worked at a small political magazine, The American Prospect. I learned so much at the Prospect, working alongside Ezra Klein, Ann Friedman, Adam Serwer, and a lot of other writers and editors I am still proud to call friends and colleagues. We were really idealistic about doing political journalism that was as much about policy and big ideas as it was about personalities.

Who are some education reporters you admire? I’m thinking of Athelia Knight’s Pulitzer-nominated series about life in McKinley High School from 1987. Who inspired you while you were training as a journalist?

When I first started reporting on education at the Prospect, in 2007, I read The Children in Room E4 by Susan Eaton. It’s a fabulous book that combines journalism, legal writing, and history to explain how school segregation impacts real kids in Hartford.

The Big Test is an intellectual and cultural history of the SAT by Nicholas Lemann, which also tackles the contemporary debate over how standardized test scores should be used in college admissions. Lemann is a journalist who writes fantastically compelling narrative history featuring real people. He was someone I thought about a lot as I wrote my own book. What he also does really well is situate education within American politics and culture. I tried to do that in The Teacher Wars. The school reform debate can become consumed in minutae, and it’s always a challenge to remember to zoom out. Schools are social institutions within larger economic and political systems.

Just as teachers aren’t paid enough, many would argue that journalists aren’t, either. Do you think there’s a connection between the two roles? Why are they both undervalued?

I am very lucky, as a journalist, to feel fairly compensated for my work at this point in my career. Though I do admit in the book that my first full-time job in journalism paid $21,000–less than an entry-level teacher earns! I was lucky to come from an upper middle-class family and to not have student loans. So I could afford to work for very little, at least for awhile.

The downward pressure on journalists’ pay is driven by technological change and the collapse of the advertising-driven profit model that has sustained the industry since the 19th century. So far, stagnant teacher pay has been driven by different forces, such as austerity policies in the public sector, and also by pay scales and ladders that require people to work for many decades before reaching a decent salary.

Some people believe, or even hope, that technology will exercise a similar pressure on teaching, by making online learning more viable, requiring fewer teachers, and then causing more competition and allowing for higher teacher pay. I’m skeptical because I think, ultimately, parents will demand real live teachers for their real live children. People used to think the television and the VHS would transform public education. They did not.

I feel optimistic about both journalism and teaching. In a way, they are both service professions aimed at creating a more knowledgeable public. The world keeps getting more complex and the technology for disseminating information keeps improving. This is good for both education and journalism. Both jobs require smart people–teachers and journalists–to analyze and translate all this information.

Taken at face value, the title of your book has connotations of internal strife amongst teachers…do you think this is a problem? Do teachers have a “we’re in this together” outlook outside of their union?

The title is certainly open to interpretation. My way of thinking about The Teacher Wars is that we’ve always been debating, arguing, and fighting about the role of teachers in American public life, dating back to the birth of our common schools system in about 1830. There is not one war with two sides. It’s a melee! And everyone is drafted in this battle, from teachers to parents to politicians to social scientists to students themselves.

Read the whole interview.

The Rural School-to-Prison Pipeline

I’m excited to share my first piece with The Marshall Project, called “No Country for Young Men.” It is a story about Junior Smith, a teenager in West Virginia who made a lot of mistakes, but who ultimately became ensnared in a tough, rural version of the school-to-prison pipeline. In Junior’s Appalachian county, strict policing of school-based and low-level juvenile offenses is entirely unmatched by any commitment to providing troubled kids with the social services they need to avoid crime and finish their educations (and which are cheaper than juvie, too).

The article was produced in partnership with Slate, which is also publishing the piece.

New Book Excerpt, Events, and Media

The Nation has published a meaty excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Teacher Wars, on Black Power, community control, and the New York City teacher strike of 1968. Check it out!

I’ve posted new events across the country, in New York, Durham, Washington, DC, Miami, Salt Lake City, Buffalo, and Denver. Stay tuned for more.

And I’m grateful for the continued media interest in the book. Check out new interviews in Salon, Colorlines, from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, on the Education Next Book Club podcast with Mike Petrilli, and in NEA Today, as well as a thoughtful book review by John Thompson at the Huffington Post.

“The Teacher Wars” Hits the Bestseller List, Plus More

I am astounded and thrilled to report that The Teacher Wars has debuted at #8 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Here are some new ways to learn about the book:

A lovely and perceptive short review from The New Yorker, calling the book “engaging…thorough and fair minded”

Nick Romeo of the San Francisco Chronicle writes that the book is “careful…nuanced”

Doug Henwood interviews me on his fascinating radio show, Left Business Observer

The National Memo published a short excerpt from Chapter 6 about LBJ, teaching, and poverty

An hourlong call-in segment about the book from San Francisco NPR affiliate KALW, with host Rose Aguilar

In a podcast, New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter and I discuss cultural attitudes toward teaching and gender

I’ll be posting a series of new public events across the country in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned!

“The Teacher Wars” in the News

It’s been a whirlwind launch week for my book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. Thank you for the many messages of support, the notes saying you bought the book, and–yes–the critiques, too! Here are some of the highlights:

My big interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air

From Claudia Wallis and Alexander Nazaryan, two enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times

At The Wall Street Journal, I turn in four ways for parents to spot great teachers

With Leonard Lopate of WNYC (I’m a longtime Leonard fan!), a 40-minute radio segment on the book

 My Vox multimedia longread (an adaptation from the book) on changes at the always-controversial Teach For America

At The New Republic, Rebecca Traister and I discuss the complex relationship between feminism and the teaching profession

Also at The New Republic, one of my favorite education writers, Rick Kahlenberg, reviews my book alongside the excellent Building a Better Teacherby Elizabeth Green

NPR’s Eric Westervelt asked about the history of teachers’ unions and tenure

At USA Today, Greg Toppo prompts me to reflect on one famous teacher from the past whose ideas are relevant today, and I choose Anna Julia Cooper

At Slate, I suggest we remember the important role of the principal, too

At Vox, crack education reporter Libby Nelson asks me super smart questions on why education reform consists of so many recycled ideas

At NBC, Nona Willis Aronowitz wants to know how writing the book challenged my own conceptions about teaching and education

At Slate’s The Gist podcast, the hilarious Mike Pesca (son of a teacher) turns in a probing interview with me on the book, and what the U.S. can learn from how other nations structure the teaching profession

Warren Olney of PRI’s To The Point featured a segment on the book with teachers’ union president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, economist Eric Hanushek, principal Carol Burris, and myself

How Did Writing My Book Change My Own Opinions?

Thanks to Nona Willis Aronowitz for a perceptive interview at NBC.com about The Teacher Wars:

Did any of your opinions change over the course of your research?

I started the project with the assumption that teachers are somewhat unfairly maligned and attacked in our public discourse. And I didn’t necessarily change my mind about that, but I did start to think more deeply about whether some of the attacks on teachers are in fact fair. This really came home to me when I was researching how teachers historically treat children of different races. We see that they often treat them differently, whether it’s the rigor of the curriculum that’s presented to kids or the expectations teachers have of how well a specific student will do, or how a teacher will discipline two children of different races for the same infraction.

I came to understand that this whole reform discussion about having high expectations for all students is very powerful. The teacher who has high expectations is going to see higher performance, especially from students of color and poor students. And that requires teachers to come to terms with their own biases and be aware of the cultural stereotypes that affect every single one of us.

Read the whole thing.

How Teachers Became Both Idealized and Resented

Check out my interview about The Teacher Wars with Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air:

“One of the things I noticed, especially after the recession hit in 2008 and coming into President Obama’s administration, was we were having a big national conversation about inequality,” Goldstein tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “And teaching was something that was discussed again and again as a potential fix — a fix for inequality, something that could help poor children achieve like middle-class children and close these socioeconomic gaps that we’re so concerned about as a nation.”

For the book, Goldstein researched 200 years of teaching in America.

“What surprised me … was that we’ve always had these high expectations,” she says. “This idea that teachers have a role to play in fighting poverty and inequality has been with us since the early 19th century.”

Listen and read the transcript here.

The Most Important Figure in School Reform We Never Talk About

It’s the principal.

Check out my new piece at Slate:

There is good reason for reformers and policymakers to pay much more attention to principals. When McKinsey surveyed top teachers on what it would take for them to move to a higher-poverty school, they responded that the biggest draw, even more important than a raise, would be a respected principal who created a positive school environment.

What makes a principal great? Historically, school leaders served as building and personnel managers while teachers made classroom-level decisions mostly on their own. Now principals are expected to do their old managerial jobs and oversee instruction, too—what and how students are learning. An effective principal begins her job by clearly articulating a school’s mission, whether it is project-based learning, “no excuses”-style strict discipline, or a curriculum oriented around the arts. That vision provides intellectual coherence for teachers. The next step in effective school leadership is familiarity with the research on how children learn each subject. Great principals know how to help teachers build specific pedagogical skills, from creating classroom assessments that push beyond multiple choice to showing students how to back thesis statements in essays with evidence.

When an excellent principal is hired at a high-poverty school, time for teacher training and collaboration increases, student test scores rise by 5 to 10 points annually, and ineffective teachers begin to leave—yes, even under today’s often overly restrictive tenure policies. When a good principal departs, the progress unwinds and student achievement drops. In short, principals have a unique power to multiply the effects of good teaching and help close achievement gaps.

And just a reminder: The Teacher Wars goes on sale today!

Why is Teaching the Most Controversial Profession in America?

Vox’s fabulous education reporter, Libby Nelson, was one of the first people to read The Teacher Wars, and was kind enough to publish this Q&A with me about the book.

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?

Much more here.

Check Out Alex Nazaryan’s Provocative “Teacher Wars” Review

Alexander Nazaryan, a journalist and former teacher, has written a sharp, intelligent, and kind review of my book for the Times Arts section, for which I am extremely grateful:

Ms. Goldstein’s book is meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced, serving up historical commentary instead of a searing philippic. A hate-read is nigh impossible. (Trust me, I tried.) … The book skips nimbly from history to on-the-ground reporting to policy prescription, never falling on its face. If I were still teaching, I’d leave my tattered copy by the sputtering Xerox machine. I’d also recommend it to the average citizen who wants to know why Robert can’t read, and Allison can’t add.

One of the adventures of writing a work of history was knowing that because the past is so rich and complex, people from across the political spectrum would find, within the book, evidence to bolster their own conclusions. Nazaryan focused in his essay on the shortcomings of teachers unions, which I do cover honestly in the book. Ultimately, however, I think my take on the unions is far more sympathetic than Nazaryan suggests. (It is especially important to realize that the unions were supporters, not opponents, of school desegregation.) I hope you will buy the book and draw your own conclusions!