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Book Review: The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein, examines the history of the teaching profession in the United States and the role that education reform has played in challenging the expectations for classroom teachers.  
We asked NMSI Vice President of Content Michelle Stie and AP English content specialist Aubrey Ludwig for their reactions.
 

 Why does Goldstein begin the book by acknowledging that teaching is a highly politicized profession that struggles with recruitment and training?
 
Aubrey: Goldstein makes it clear that while teachers encounter much scrutiny once they enter the classroom, the U.S. does very little to recruit and train pre-service teachers in a meaningful way. She suggests that this is not a new problem but one that is historically representative of how the U.S. approaches teacher training.
 
Michelle: What struck me while reading The Teacher Wars is that old maxim “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The obstacles that made teaching unattractive in the 19th century—pay inequality, poor working conditions, ineffective teaching preparation—are some of the same problems we face today when recruiting new people to the profession.
 
Goldstein’s history of education and education reform begins with a joint examination of Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher. What is most significant about Goldstein’s portrayal?
 
Michelle: Beecher and Mann are some of the first “reformers” to suggest that a teacher’s role is to nurture her students’ moral and patriotic behavior. To Beecher and Mann, the purpose of teaching was not necessary to create moral citizens rather than to promote a rigorous, liberal arts education. Women were seen as ideal practitioners of this work, and, because they were frequently shut out from obtaining degrees from selective universities, they were cheap to hire.
 
Aubrey: Catherine Beecher was such an incredible advocate for female teachers and helped to drive the “feminization” of the teaching profession in the United States. The fact that her advocacy for female education had a dual focus on morality as well as higher order thinking is a significant dichotomy of educational purpose.
 
Michelle: My family includes a number of teachers, so for good or ill, I grew up with the idea that teaching is a calling. The attitude that teachers should be working for a higher, moral purpose, and not for a competitive salary, still lingers in education policy debates.
 
Goldstein chronicles President Johnson’s involvement in education beginning with his experience as a classroom teacher and following the social changes he hopes to enact via the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. What is most striking about Johnson’s impact on U.S. education?  
 
Aubrey: While Johnson’s short time as a classroom educator is of interest, Johnson’s educational legacy of work towards equality is much more important. His support of the National Teachers Corps, an advocacy group for recruiting talented students from elite colleges, is striking as it is a precursor to the Teach for America model.
 
Michelle: I appreciate Goldstein’s observation that President Johnson’s ideas about education stem from his experience as a teacher in a segregated school. Johnson’s policies began with the premise that education is a “valid passport from poverty,” and he made connections between his War on Poverty agenda and school effectiveness.
 
Goldstein examines modern day strategies including the idea that sometimes teacher autonomy can create “places impenetrable to outside observation or constructive critique.” What are some best practices for balancing teacher autonomy and offering useful teacher feedback?
 
Aubrey: Goldstein touches on the idea of the Japanese practice of Lesson Study and its value for review, collaboration, and revision of lessons among teaching colleagues. I believe that this type of teacher collaboration, especially in an interdisciplinary fashion and with strong teacher leaders, has the ability to change a teacher’s practice.
 
Michelle: Aubrey touches on an important concept: collaboration between novice and master teachers is key. In an era in which students’ achievement on high stakes testing has driven much of the policy development around teacher improvement, research shows that programs that stress collaboration in lesson planning and peer coaching  is some of the most effective means for improving classroom practice.
 
Of the suggestions Goldstein offers in the epilogue of The Teacher Wars, which reforms seem most important for today’s teacher?  
 
Aubrey: I agree with Goldstein’s argument that the responsibilities of a classroom teacher can seem stagnant five, ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road.  Diversifying teacher roles and creating teacher leaders is key to teacher retention and satisfaction. If work is stagnant and a true career path unclear, why would anyone, teacher or otherwise, want to stay?
 
Michelle: We shouldn’t discount the role and responsibility of the building administrator. Going into administration shouldn’t be the only way teachers can advance in the profession, but principals must be talented and successful classroom teachers themselves in order to be effective mentors and coaches for their staff.  I also think that most teachers will cheer Goldstein’s final argument to return high-stakes tests to their role as diagnostic tool for student development as opposed to a revealing indicator of a teacher’s own effectiveness.