Can We Find A Truce in the Teacher Wars?

Blog Post
Oct. 9, 2014

Americans Want a Bar Exam for Teachers.” “More parents join suit to overturn tenure laws.”Teachers’ Unions Under Fire.” Nearly every day, news headlines highlight concerns about the quality of teachers in our nation’s public schools, and the battles between the proponents and opponents of policy ideas that promise to allay those concerns. In her recently released book, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” author and New America Fellow Dana Goldstein explains how many of the teacher quality debates behind today’s headlines have actually been recurring throughout the last two centuries. To find an end to these battles, we may need to begin learning – and applying – the lessons from our past.

Goldstein’s book provides insightful, thought-provoking examples of how historical efforts to improve teacher quality (and the obstacles that have prevented real improvements) have largely repeated themselves up until today, with few victories to speak of. But in the book’s final chapters, she offers ideas for overcoming the pitfalls of the past and ending the “teacher wars.” Many of the ideas Goldstein proposes, such as focusing on improving principals as much as teachers, offer a balanced approach to addressing issues that affect the quality of teaching in American schools. However, with her primary solution—to empower teachers to develop and replicate best practices from the ground up, instead of trying to impose top-down reforms (e.g., at a federal or state level)—she appears to succumb to pressure to commit to one side of the teacher debate herself.

By doing so, she shows just how difficult brokering an end to the teacher wars will be, as it’s a struggle--even for well-intentioned, smart people like Goldstein--to get out of the deep “either/or” historical ruts around approaches to improving teacher quality. Goldstein is right to point out that in the United States’ decentralized education system, the federal department of education has “zero oversight at the level of implementation, where so many well-intentioned…policies are simply ignored or twisted beyond recognition.” But where does “top-down” end and “bottom up” begin? Many of Goldstein’s historical examples of evaluation systems gone awry were those enacted by local administrators. And how realistic is it to believe that every innovative practice and policy that could improve teaching will bubble up organically from educators themselves? Although many schools and districts employ talented educators with the knowledge, ability, and motivation to implement policies and practices to improve teaching, others don’t and flounder at this task. Particularly in smaller districts and schools, the expertise and capacity to design and implement meaningful improvements to teacher quality may not locally exist in a way that could sprout from the bottom up.

To find an end to these battles, we may need to begin learning – and applying – the lessons from our past.

Goldstein’s vision of teachers leading significant reforms to the profession is an important one– she makes the strong point that implementation of any reform will be unsuccessful unless the educators responsible for enacting it have fully embraced it. Her vision is also increasingly in vogue, as even the “topmost” education official in the U.S., Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has pushed for more incorporation of teacher voice and leadership in education policy and practice decisions, such as with the “Teach to Lead” program announced earlier this year. But, the examples in Goldstein’s book also show us that we can’t improve teacher quality by simply getting out of teachers’ ways. After all, that hands-off strategy is what we employed for much of history in the space between top-down reforms, with little progress to show for it. Instead, perhaps the truce – and middle ground – in the teacher wars can be found by encouraging outside, top-down pressure coupled with support to improve teacher quality, in conjunction with increased teacher input into how best to do so.

Want to hear the author's perspective? Listen to Dana Goldstein on our war with teachers.