Monday, September 1, 2014

American Schooling From Underneath

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

You’ve heard it said, the end is in the beginning. Veteran education journalist Dana Goldstein, who comes from a long line of schoolteachers, wondered at recent vitriol directed against American public schools and their teachers. The condemnation has been consistently bipartisan, and has treated teachers’ pay and benefits—already substandard for educated professionals—as excessive, as impediments to improvement. So she went back to the beginning.

Given today’s rhetorical bombast about academic decline, Goldstein’s first discovery may surprise you: Americans have never agreed about public schoolteachers. Not their role, their curriculum, their job, nothing. Goldstein traces public schooling, as we know the concept, to the 1820s, a collaboration between proto-feminist Catharine Beecher and Massachusetts legislator Horace Mann. Bizarrely enough, in Goldstein’s telling, public schools began as an apparent jobs program for unmarried women.

Beecher and Mann founded America’s first public school system for specifically moralistic purposes. Prior schools, funded by private tuition and taught by men, suffered questionable pedagogy; Goldstein reminds us of Washington Irving’s dictatorial schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Women were preferable as schoolteachers, Beecher and Mann insisted, because women had upright ethics, gentle natures, and abstemious tastes. Also, not coincidentally, women worked cheaply. Americans, evidently, have always resented paying schoolteachers well.

Throughout history, we’ve expected teachers to work miracles. Literally so: Goldstein quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying: “An effective teacher? They walk on water.” But we’ve always wanted them to accept starvation wages, driving ambitious, upwardly mobile applicants from the field. When educated women had little option besides teaching, this caused significant friction. Feminist icon Susan B. Anthony began her activist career campaigning for living wages for her fellow schoolteachers.

But as fraught as women’s standing remains, black teachers have suffered as badly or worse. Pioneers W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington feuded mightily over what education African Americans required, though their debate concealed marked commonalities. Less obviously, history has treated black teachers poorly. School integration, which whites celebrate for incorporating black students into educational opportunities, proved downright disastrous for black teachers. Their job numbers still haven’t recovered.

Teacher’s unions have, from their formation, always been controversial. Union pioneer Maggie Haley managed to alienate the remarkably demure Susan B. Anthony by playing politics, making unstinting demands, and confronting unfairness in harsh, unrelenting terms. Some early teachers’ unions had unapologetic Communist alliances, though Stalin’s purges cooled that enthusiasm. Teacher tenure, publicly excoriated by Republicans and Democrats alike today, was invented to stop teaching jobs being distributed as patronage plums.

Political interests habitually complain about teachers’ supposed bias, most often their “liberal” tendencies. There’s something to this. People who persevere in teaching despite poor wages and community hostility, generally also have strong opinions. They’re as diverse as anyone else, but because teachers encourage political engagement, that encourages superficial liberalism. Goldstein admits, teachers lean more left than right, but generally agree that being engaged matters more than particular partisan allegiances.

Politicians, activists, parents, and others have used public schools, and schoolteachers, as political footballs and instruments of social engineering. “Parent trigger” proposals for community control, beloved by conservatives today for their union-busting potential, were first invented by the Black Power movement. This caused such outcry from conflicting forces, including teachers’ unions who wanted job security, and politicians who wanted to keep blacks quiet, that schools became sites of violence.

Moving from history into the present, Goldstein demonstrates how certain debates, already wheezy in our grandparents’ time, keep getting replayed. Teach For America, originally pitched to get elite university graduates into schoolrooms, has adopted anti-union language to retain its relevance. And the “charter school” movement has distinct union-busting motivations. Many TFA alumni who continue teaching have become outspoken critics of their own program, as teachers’ economic opportunities continue narrowing.

Only in her epilogue does Goldstein take sides. Her opinions prove distinctly mixed, but even then, her thesis remains, that our beloved controversies persist because Americans expect teachers to spin gold from air. Our legacy of treating teaching as second-class employment impedes material improvement. And our literally miraculous expectations set impossible standards which teachers will inevitably fail. Briefly, we’ll get what we’re willing to pay for.

Besides physical birth and death, school may be the only experience virtually every American shares, regardless of race, wealth, or geography. Americans expect school to combat discrimination and open economic opportunities, while preserving and expanding our people’s accumulated knowledge. And for nearly two centuries, we’ve demanded this while offering theft-level wages and open disrespect. Goldstein proves everything old is new again. Then she asks: what now?

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