Not for Teacher

The fight documented in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars may be a lost cause

The tag line to Dana Goldstein’s new book The Teacher Wars is “A history of America’s most embattled profession.” That Goldstein, an education journalist now at the fledgling Marshall Project, can make that claim without ruining her credibility before the first page speaks to the unique role educators play in American society. They’re (mostly) unionized government employees, but they spend their time working alone. We ask that they produce standardized results and demonstrate individualized care at the same time. We say their work is invaluable and pay them as if they were semiskilled. They come under frequent attack from all corners of the political map. Whether that necessarily makes teachers more embattled than psychologists or babysitters or coal miners or housewives I’m not sure, but they are certainly curious.

The biggest reason teachers are so embattled is that their unions still exist. While other segments of American organized labor have declined in size dramatically over the past few decades, educators have managed to hold on, at least until recently. As a result, the debate around the teaching profession is incredibly polarized: Union members and their allies are fighting an existential battle for their jobs, while their opponents are constantly devising new schemes to chip away at what the unions have left. Both sides have made support for teachers a question of character, with little room for good faith in between: Either you believe teachers’ unions are important and must be protected, or you think they’re a moribund obstacle to “reform.” I confess that when I began Goldstein’s book, I feared it would be a pro-union pity plea, but her writerly commitments are to the historical record, and she gives readers a solid and critically detached account.

At the beginning of the teacher wars in the 1830s, progress was built on a foundation of pseudoscience, malarky, and personal psychology. Horace Mann, the architect of American public education, was also an avid phrenologist. Goldstein is careful to point out that skull-­measuring—though racist and fully fraudulent—was considered innovative and liberal compared with early 19th century Protestantism. At least phrenologists believed people could learn.

Mann pushed forward a unified and compulsory Massachusetts state school system based on a similar Prussian model. From the start, Mann imagined teaching as women’s work, and not just any women: “Mann depicted these cost-effective female educators as angelic public servants monitored by Christian faith: wholly unselfish, self-abnegating, and morally pure.” Women weren’t just cheaper to hire; they were also assumed to be naturally nurturing and pious enough to teach godly behavior. “Teaching,” Goldstein writes, “was promoted as the female equivalent of the ministry: a profession whose prestige would be rooted not in worldly rewards, such as money or political influence, but in the pursuit of satisfaction that came from serving others.” In other words, you can pay teachers in work.

One of the tensions that runs through The Teacher Wars, as well as the teaching profession in general, is that between the angelic volunteer and the hardened union negotiator. By original design, American teachers aren’t supposed to be in it for the money. The U.S. education system was built around a historically specific moment in the development of women’s relation to the workplace: Teaching was high-prestige and intellectually demanding, compared with other career options available to women in the 1830s. Our heavenly ideal teacher still resembles Mann’s vision:

How divinely does she come, her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!

Compare this to the introduction of Miss Jennifer Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda,

Their teacher was called Miss Honey, and she could not have been more than 23 or 24. She had a lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure.

Goldstein points out that Mann’s description of the perfect teacher sounds a lot like his eulogies for his wife Charlotte, “whom he mourned acutely for nearly a decade after her death at the age of 23, just two years after their wedding.” As a saintly and fragile young woman, the ideal teacher is the pre-emptive answer to a question society prefers not to ask out loud: How can we trust someone with so much yet pay them so little? Now that women hold half of American professional jobs, another question comes to mind: Why would anyone talented want to be a teacher?

One reason is economic security. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Chicago Teachers’ Federation founded a national association—the American Federation of Teachers—and state unions began to win tenure protections, another idea borrowed from the Prussian system. Devised as an effort to depoliticize teaching appointments, tenure was understandably popular among instructors. Since then, teachers have jealously guarded it, holding on to it and their unions and protecting them with solidarity and strikes.

Since teachers are supposed to be self-sacrificing, they’re often pilloried for failing to act in the interests of the children when they dare act in their own self-interest as workers. Teachers may commit to doing their jobs well, but just because the job was created to attract angels doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get paid. Goldstein shows that there have almost always been men and women in the American teaching corps who were dedicated to the union first and the kids second. In 1968, the United Federation of Teachers went on strike in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville section of Brooklyn after community-controlled schools attempted to purge some white teachers.  Goldstein quotes the legendary UFT president Al Shanker when he's asked if the strike was going to hurt the education of already disadvantaged students: “I don’t represent children. I represent the teachers.”

Student interests don’t play much of a role in The Teacher Wars, but Goldstein doesn’t shy away from distinguishing between parents’ interests and teachers’ interests, especially when it comes to black parents. Race is central to the story of American teaching, as it is to the story of America at all levels, and Goldstein doesn’t shy away from that either. The Teacher Wars, for a book that’s not explicitly focused on race, does an admirable job tracing the line from the W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington fight over liberal arts and technical education for black children all the way through the late-1960s battle over community control and white teachers. It’s a vision of the black freedom movement that doesn’t place voting rights or even desegregation at the center; Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, but Goldstein reminds us that school integration peaked in 1980. Instead, she centers black people’s attempts to secure an education for themselves and their children in a country hostile to their pursuit. The Teacher Wars is a strong rebuke to anyone who imagines that the civil rights movement ends where the Panthers begin, and an even stronger rebuke to readers who imagine that black parents have historically been or currently are disengaged from their children’s education.

Liberals like to believe that teachers, union members, and black communities form a group with common interests that they call a constituency. Goldstein spends a fair amount of space on the Ocean Hill–Brownsville strike and community control, a moment in the history of American education that proves these groups aren’t always so harmonious. In the ’60s, as part of their long battle to break the teachers’ unions, corporate charitable foundations teamed up with New York City mayor John Lindsay to decentralize the eastern Brooklyn district and turn it over to local management. Parents and community members in the district had a separate goal: Desegregation was not succeeding in the ways they had hoped, and kids bussed into white schools had to deal with racist white classmates and racist white teachers. This is, unsurprisingly, not a good environment in which to learn.

The individualist and white supremacist school system was not in sync with ‘60s black-liberation attitudes, and neither was the UFT, which had replaced the more radical Teachers Union (TU) after it was wrecked by anti-communist purges. Goldstein advances the idea that the often earnestly anti-racist TU teachers were more appreciated in black communities than their liberal replacements. Still, by the later part of the decade, some activists were not convinced that white teachers belonged in classrooms with black children at all. “We cannot have white people working in the black community—on psychological grounds,” Stokely Carmichael, the newly chosen head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said in 1966. “Black people must be in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves.” White liberals found these sentiments racist.

In 1967, with a $44,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Mayor Lindsay handed over the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district to superintendent Rhody McCoy, over the strong objection of the UFT. The UFT’s fears were well-founded: McCoy and other community-control advocates thought the unions were protecting mediocre white teachers who weren’t ideologically prepared to nurture black children. The district flexed its new authority and fired 13 teachers. The UFT went on strike. It was resolved a couple of months later with the imposition of state control and the teachers’ reinstatement.

In her book, Goldstein is careful to stick to the facts and avoid taking a side, but she leaves little doubt that there were indeed some incompetent and racist teachers hiding behind the UFT and damaging the minds of black children. Though the Ford Foundation may have thought of the community-control movement as a pawn in its anti-union plot, the movement’s critique went deeper, to the heart of an education system that was built for white children alone.

When most Americans think about teachers, we don’t imagine mediocre or average minds ingrained with pedestrian prejudices. We don’t much imagine teachers who are irrationally afraid of black kids, even though we know many if not all white Americans are irrationally afraid of black kids. We know many American adults believe all sorts of crazy things, and we caution children not to trust strangers. At the same time, we turn them over to a structure of civil servants that was originally designed to teach them to obey the King of Prussia. Is it possible that the American public education system is a really bad idea? And can I even say that without becoming a tool in an anti-worker corporate agenda?

The Teacher Wars does a good job raising some very good questions that it can’t possibly answer. But then, these are questions no one seems able to answer. In a country that promotes and protects white mediocrity, would black parents put their children at the mercy of white strangers if they had any other choice? Is there any way for white teachers not to pass on their ingrained racism to impressionable black kids? Can we have an American public education system that doesn’t reinforce the inequities on which this country was built?

In a famous passage from his autobiography, Malcolm X remembers when he first truly learned that white society didn’t have an appropriate place for him. A teacher at his barely integrated middle school asks about his career plans. When Malcolm says he wants to be a lawyer, the teacher answers:

Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer — that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person—you’d get all kinds of work.”

This is an example of what President George W. Bush called (in a beautiful phrase credited to speechwriter Michael Gerson) “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But eliminating it is not just a matter of ensuring that teachers’ express confidence in their black and Latino students. In his 2011 book Punished, sociologist Victor M. Rios studied the lives of 40 black and Latino boys growing up in Oakland, California. School plays a major role in their lives, but not the constructive one that reformers believe. “When asked, ‘What was your first experience with the police?’ all the boys commented that their first encounters with police took place in or near school,” he writes. Rios finds that schools are part of the dangerous youth-control complex: “For the boys, the school represented just another space where they were criminalized for their style and culture. The school … was indistinguishable from the police officer stationed at McDonald’s, the adults in the community who called the police on them, or the community-center staff who ousted them.” Most of the young men told Rios they felt that their teachers were afraid of them.

If you were to build a 21st century public education system from scratch, the teacher’s role would undoubtedly be quite different. You don’t have the same cheap women’s labor, but you do have a number of labor-saving technologies. When it comes to imparting basic knowledge—the kind of skills measured on standardized tests—well-­tailored computer programs could do it at least as well as the average human instructor. In the 19th century, every classroom needed its own lecturer, but wouldn’t kids today rather have Neil deGrasse Tyson backed by million-dollar graphics than a local 25-year-old with a degree in political science?

Against all evidence, experience, and common sense, we cling to and generalize our idea of the perfect teacher. Among nonpornographic depictions of teachers—I admit that most movies about teachers are probably porn—fantastic teachers are vastly overrepresented. It’s part of the national bargain with schoolteachers: We won’t pay you as well as a dental hygienist, but as an individual, people will assume you’re doing a good, important, and generous job. Whether it’s Matilda’s Miss Honey or Ryan Gosling teaching ghetto dialectics in Half Nelson, we have to imagine that all teachers share a common passionate commitment because the alternative is unbearable: We force all children to spend most of their waking time being evaluated and instructed by some underpaid randos because otherwise we’d have no idea what to do with them. Ask any babysitter how much they charge per hour to watch 30 nine-year-olds. It’s an absurd thing to require of a person, and America was able to pull it off because the women they were asking didn’t have a lot of other options.

The teacher wars will continue for now, but I’m not sure the unions can hold on. The National Education Association’s membership has been dropping significantly over the past five years, and the new corporate reformers are advancing mission-directed charter schools as the newest way to undermine organized teachers. The union’s enemies plan to break its back state by state and they’ve got history—though not the angels—on their side. When most 11-year-olds can access most of the information in the world with a quick search, the instructor’s job has to change. The system has survived near 200 years now; it’s time to imagine what comes after the teachers finally lose the war.