Teachers in the Crosshairs

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Marian Swerdlow

The Teacher Wars:
A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
By Dana Goldstein
Doubleday, 2014, 349 pages, $26.95 paperback.

JOURNALIST DANA GOLD­STEIN’S Teacher Wars is an account of the history of teaching in the United States. Its early chapters are about how women came to dominate the teaching profession in this country. It moves on to tell how Black pioneers struggled to educate the freed people after the Civil War. It recounts the origins of teacher unionism in Chicago around the Progressive Era.

A subsequent chapter discusses political repression against radical teachers, mainly during World War I and the post-World War II McCarthyite “red scare.” The Great Society and the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike against Black community control occupy later chapters. The book winds up with discussions of the contemporary “Education Reform” developments.

Throughout U.S. history, our class, gender and racial conflicts — obviously and inevitably — have been reflected in conflicts of ideas: ideological conflicts. Because so much of the activity of school teachers is the transmission of ideology, this occupation has been an equally inevitable terrain of struggle.

Furthermore, since upward mobility is central to this nation’s self-legitimizing ideology, this has given a key role to education as its mechanism. As racial barriers prove intractable, class barriers become hardened and the possibility of mobility narrows, it is in the interests of those who benefit from these barriers to deflect attention away from themselves to teachers.

The least powerful tier of educational institutions, teachers become a focus of the resulting dissonance. Goldstein describes some of the results of these dynamics. Rather than understanding each of these conflicts as deeply rooted in the conditions of their own times, Goldstein often reads into them features of today’s conflicts.

Misleading Parallels

In her chapter on the Communist Party-led Teachers Union in New York City of the 1930s to 1950s — material covered in more depth by Clarence Taylor in Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union (2011) — Goldstein states that the TU’s “broad anti-racist, anti-poverty agenda . . . anticipated many latterday 20th century goals of education reform.”

Without specifics or qualification, this is misleading. The TU’s similarities to later “education reformers,” even those closest to it in aims, are far outstripped by their differences.

The TU aimed to eradicate racism from all school books, not only for Black students but for all students, and to teach the importance of African Americans in U.S. and world history. TU fought for the hiring of more Black teachers, not only for Black students but for all could see, at a young and impressionable age, Blacks in positions of leadership and authority.

The forces most closely identified with the term “education reform” during the last 50 years don’t even claim to want to do any more than provide what they call equal opportunity, equality of means without equality of results.

Goldstein provides some important insights. She notes that the pacificists during World War I, and the radicals and Communists during the Red Scare who lost teaching positions because of political witch hunts, “tended — exactly because of their social justice views — to be some of the most dedicated educators . . . most passionate about reaching disadvantaged students.”

Sadly, she ends this chapter by again emphasizing a questionable continuity: “From racial integration to culturally relevant curriculum to the need for higher academic expectations for poor students of color, many of the radical teachers’ ideals would become mainstream school reform priorities over the coming decades.”

This obscures more than it illuminates. Racial integration unfortunately never gained enough acceptance, for long enough, to be considered “mainstream;” a culturally-relevant curriculum, even less so. Only higher academic expectations for poor students of color, because it became enshrined in “No Child Left Behind,” could be considered to have gone mainstream — but in a purely formal way that the radical teachers of the TU would have scoffed at.

Problematic Account

Goldstein takes on one of the most fraught and controversial battles in the history of U.S. public schools. In 1968, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Albert Shanker led a strike to destroy community control in the form of a pilot project in an almost entirely Black Brooklyn school district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, where many powers of the highly centralized Board of Education were delegated to a local body intimately associated with the community.

Goldstein poses two questions: “How did union teachers and inner city parent activists, who agreed on issues like smaller class size, school integration and more school funding, end up on different sides of the school reform debate in the late 1960s? And why did the rise of teacher power coincide with the decline of the public’s confidence in teachers and their unions?”

Each of these issues exemplifies one of the problems that permeate this book.

The first posits a single ongoing “school reform debate.” It is simplistic to describe the schism that opened up between the UFT and the champions of community control as a “school reform debate.”

This was not mainly about curriculum or methods, assessment or a system of teacher evaluation. It centered on politics and power: who gets to control society’s institutions? School was one of those institutions.

The second question explains a phenomenon Goldstein has not shown to exist: she provides no evidence of a decline in public confidence in teachers or their unions. Since teachers’ unions barely existed before the 1960s, it would be difficult to document confidence in them before that time.

After World War II, there was a debate among African Americans whether to put their effort behind integration, or demanding equal resources for their segregated schools. The case for demanding integration took precedence. But more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), there remained so much white resistance to integration that increasing numbers of Blacks and Black leaders felt that they should have sought resources, and control over those resources, in the first place.

This was part of the call for “Black Power,” that Black people should control their community institutions, in their own interests.

Community Control

Goldstein sees the collapse of even the desultory efforts to desegregate public schools as contributing to the rise of the community control movement. But she views this very narrowly: “Worsening segregation led activists and researchers to shift their focus to teacher quality.”

The focus shifted, but to control of schools, not to teacher quality. Goldstein admits that community control supporters shared only limited agreement on what exemplified “quality teaching.” Many Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents wanted a “traditional approach,” others prized “flexibility,” while the community board administrator set up Montessori-style elementary classrooms.

What they valued in common was chiefly dedication, teachers “who would visit children at home, stay after school to offer extra help, and even live in the ghetto communities in which they worked,” support for community control, and holding the kids to high standards.

Such concrete and achievable standards have little in common with the vague, diffuse components of “teacher quality” put forward by today’s “education reformers.”

Powerful institutions such as the Ford Foundation supported and funded the Ocean Hill-Brownsville initiative. Goldstein recognizes that this was mainly because it looked like it could be a less controversial, less politically costly way to pacify a Black community increasingly organized and effectively demanding its rights, while allowing de facto school segregation to persist.

Goldstein describes the 1960s “push for community control” as “an antecedent to so many of today’s school reform battles,” exemplifying the latter with Bill Gates and his foundation’s intervention in public schools after 2000. She concludes that “today’s ‘no excuse’ school reform moment has inherited the mantle of community control by aligning low-income parents with elite school reformers and philanthropists.”

But again, the differences Goldstein ignores are more important than the similarities she highlights. Despite the common presence of wealthy donors and distrust of central bureaucracy, the community control movement of the 1960s was a grassroots movement — part of one of the deepest, most powerful social movements of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement in its broadest sense.

It expressed the just aspirations of African Americans to control their own destiny. They demanded that the community’s representatives be able to let go of teachers whom they themselves found to be prejudiced, unenthusiastic about teaching Black students, or not supportive of Black efforts toward self-determination.

This is radically different from today’s reformers, who want managers and bosses to be able to fire teachers whose students do not “perform” on very questionable standardized tests according to “weird mathematics” metrics, or who do not practice classroom methods that are imposed from above and have been historically suspect (Ravitch 2000).

Ironically, although the UFT resorted in 1968 to a disruptive strike, damaging its relations with African Americans to enforce due process against a Black community school board, it has done far less to protect teachers from today’s reformers.

False Questions, False Answers

The limits of Goldstein’s historical and political perspectives lead her to misrepresent the leagacy of the community control movement. She poses the question, “But what could be done about teachers who were just plain bad at their jobs?”

“Bad at their jobs,” however, meant something very different to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community board than it means to Bill Gates. Goldstein claims this problem arose because “after the 1960s, teachers’ contracts sharply limited administrators’ ability to rid schools of ineffective teachers.” Yet a few pages earlier, Goldstein had stated that “long before collective bargaining, it had been difficult to oust an experienced teacher,” mainly because state laws mandating tenure long preceded teacher unionization.

In closing her chapter on community control, Goldstein states that the school reform movement launched by reactionary President Ronald Reagan with his administration’s report on the nation’s schools, A Nation at Risk, “adopted and sanitized the radical Left critique of teachers and unions that had developed in the inner city neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Newark.”

This is again misleading. “Adopted” denotes a conscious appropriation. It would be very interesting if Goldstein actually documented such a connection between the individuals, organizations or the writings that have shared a critical view of teachers and teacher unions in such different contexts. But this is not at all the direction her writing takes.

Goldstein also sees the contemporary fixation on “teacher accountability” in the anticapitalist Communists of the TU and the Black Nationalists of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Yet as recently as 2000, when Diane Ravitch published her magisterial history of U.S. ideologies of education, Left Back; A Century of Battles Over School Reform, the idea that teachers should be held accountable for the failures of U.S. public education is notable for its absence.

Instead, Ravitch emphasized criticisms of curriculum, methods and the training of teachers.
Only 15 years ago, today’s war on teachers was not foreseen. What has happened since then is as much an attack against all public employees and their unions as against teachers as educators.

With private sector unions virtually annihilated, the public sector became the next logical target. Although Goldstein fails to recognize it, this is in large part the context of the “teacher accountability” thrust.

The Blame Game

Goldstein describes the rise of testing and the development of the technology to crunch data in a way that purports to link individual teachers to the performance of their (very small groups of) students.

In her keenest insight, Goldstein links this new “blame the teacher” game with the abandonment of desegregation because of its unpopularity among whites: “Early leaders in the teacher accountability movement were often simultaneously engaged in efforts to defeat and delegitimize desegregation.”

Integration was the original attempt to close the achievement gap. Those who opposed desegregation fabricated an alternative: a witch-hunt against an imaginary infestation of “ineffective teachers.” But, concludes Goldstein, “there is a wealth of . . . evidence that integration can boost student achievement.”

Much of Goldstein’s discussion of the rise of “teacher accountability” was covered with greater coherence and sophistication by Diane Ravitch in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010).

Like others, Goldstein surveys the evidence that merit pay does not work, and that high stakes testing leads to cheating. Even “tough reformers” she notes, estimate the proportion of “ineffective teachers” to be so small that they cannot account for anything like the magnitude of the shortcomings of U.S. education.

Yet in the end, she concludes, “research and experience demonstrate that it makes good sense to tie teacher tenure and job security more closely to performance and less to seniority.” Goldstein buys into the logic of teacher accountability, that the class and race “achievement gap” can be fixed by “fixing” teachers:

“What remains is to turn the existing average teachers into expert practitioners… If we don’t start improving instruction in the classroom, those numbers [standardized test results] simply will not change.”

A False “Progressive” Model

In New York State, since 2010, the “expert practitioner” has been officially defined by a complicated rubric called the “Danielson model.”

In a nutshell, the ideal Danielson teacher is a “facilitator” who has undefinable talents that allow him or her to so arrange the classroom and instructional materials that the students teach the class. This is supposed to hold true regardless of the level of the class or the background of the students.

Ravitch (2000) links this “teacher-as-facilitator” model to a bowdlerized version of Progressive education. In the original private Progressive laboratory schools, the student followed his or her own curiosity and chose what to learn. The teacher would skillfully satisfy and stimulate this curiosity to achieve an educated child. These students came from highly educated, well-to-do families who provided learning opportunities from birth, around the clock.

When this model was introduced into the public schools in the 1930s, with predominantly children from poor, uneducated families, it changed. Letting the kids run the classroom was a way to keep the kids happy, make them less disruptive, keep them from playing hooky, dropping out and creating law enforcement problems.

A rigorous academic curriculum was considered by education leaders both too challenging and unnecessary for these students; they were headed, at best, for vocational training. It was part of tracking: Children of immigrants and workers, and Blacks, were placed in lower tracks, while better-off children continued to get the academic track of rigorous, rote learning, boring but leading to the professions.

When the “teacher facilitator model” becomes a rating model, it penalizes the teachers working in more challenged situations. The higher achieving the students, the more easily they can teach each other a mandated curriculum. Thus the teachers who are given the better prepared students — the “gifted” classes in elementary schools, A.P. classes in high schools, or entire schools in wealthy suburbs — will be rated more highly on the complex “Danielson” rubric.

Although it is easy to conclude that “great teachers” lead to high-achieving students, it is much more likely that the causal relationship is inverse. This goes for much of the research Goldstein summarizes: She fails to make the distinction between correlation and causality.

For example, she cites a finding that “rigorous interactive classrooms promote high student achievement.” But what if it is much easier to promote a rigorous and interactive classroom if the students are already high-achieving due to factors beyond the teacher’s control?

Ironically, in New York State this “facilitator” model, which was never intended to enable disadvantaged kids to master academic subjects, has been imposed at almost the same moment as a move to make all kids show extensive and detailed knowledge of academic subjects by passing the “State Regents Examinations” in order to snag even a high school diploma.

Until the turn of the milennium, kids could take simpler tests, called “Regents Competency” exams, and get a “local high school diploma.” The new policy has also coincided with closing many high schools because not enough kids were graduating, often because they could not pass these harder exams. Finally, it has been simultaneous with rating high school teachers by how well their own students do on these curriculum-based assessments.

In short, teachers are told precisely how to teach, which is that the students are supposed to be the teachers. Yet somehow, despite the fact that teachers neither choose the methods nor do the teaching, they are rated on the results.

Union Protections Outdated?

Despite all the evidence she presents that evaluations of teacher performance are extremely problematic, in her “Epilogue,” Goldstein comes out in support of “reward [for] performance . . . across the board.”

She acknowledges that research overwhelmingly shows that when standardized tests “are used to fire,” they lose their validity, because “educators are incented [sic] to raise test scores at any cost.” Yet she somehow thinks that if tests are used to “target teachers for a more intensive set of classroom observations or other investigations into their practice,” this won’t create the same incentive?

But of course it would. Teachers would be very eager to avoid such anxiety-provoking, instruction-disrupting, potentially threatening scrutiny.

Many of her proposals are positive, no-brainers: recruit more men and people of color to teaching, focus on the principal, integrate schools and classes. But she also advises “end outdated union protections.”

One of these “outdated protections” is layoffs by inverse seniority, an important protection for experienced teachers who are typically both the most expensive and the most likely to challenge authority, often on behalf of their students.

Goldstein advocates instead that teachers be laid off from the lowest rated to the highest, with seniority merely a tiebreaker. Considering how suspect the ratings systems are, this seems like opening the door to at best an arbitrary system and worse, outright favoritism.

“Tenure cannot mean, in practice, that it is prohibitively expensive . . . to fire a bad teacher . . . If a teacher is judged by fair measures, and if she [sic] receives clear feedback and adequate training . . . her supervisor should have the right to fire her. If a teacher protests . . . a peer review board or neutral arbitrator should hold a hearing and make a ruling within a matter of weeks . . . .”

The first problem in this formulation is that it starts with two very big “ifs.” There is no guarantee the measures will be fair, or the feedback clear.

In most teachers’ experience, supervisors can be very biased. They favor teachers who “kiss up” and do part of the supervisors’ jobs for them, or even buy them gifts or chauffeur their relatives. They value loyalty above competence.

The teacher who doesn’t “get with the program,” who files grievances, who speaks up at department meetings, is the one who gets targeted. It is rarely about objective assessments of instruction. That’s why there cannot be “clear feedback.” Other teachers doing the same thing aren’t suffering any repercussions.

This is why due process protections are important. One reason why few tenured teachers lose their jobs is that those the supervisors would like to toss are rarely the ones against whom a documented case can be made.

Goldstein’s final point is probably her best: “We do not provide families with the full range of social supports children need to thrive academically, including living wage employment, stable, affordable child care, housing, higher education and vocational training, decent nutrition and health care.”

This deserves more emphasis than Goldstein gives it. Until, at the very least, we do these things, “teacher accountability” is mainly scapegoating, a distraction from the need for real change.

Teachers will burn out. Parents will despair. Far too many students will drop out of high school or college. All will be fighting an uphill, against-the-odds battle that few of them can win.

November-December 2015, ATC 179