Book-Blogging: The Teacher Wars, by Dana Goldstein

teacher-wars-cover picLearning about the past is useful for a lot of reasons, but it’s perhaps best for tamping down hubris – for bringing some needed skepticism to the “Great New Idea” to solve the seemingly-intractable problem of the day. Many Great New Ideas aren’t great or new, and a failure to appreciate the past imperils the future.

American education reformers are perpetually in thrall to this or that Great New Idea, as Dana Goldstein shows in her fantastic new book, The Teacher Wars. From the birth of the modern education system in the 19th century to today’s fights over tenure and value-added pay-for-performance, individuals and organizations have always brought forth teacher-centered reforms meant to improve the quality of American education – and have generally failed to create the change they seek.

As Goldstein puts it, “The history of American education reform shows not only recurring attacks on veteran educators, but also a number of failed ideas about teaching that keep popping up again and again, like a Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.”

And in American education, no Great New Idea has failed as many times as rating teacher effectiveness:

“For over a century, school reformers have hoped that tweaking teacher rating systems would lead to more teachers being declared unfit and getting fired, resulting in an influx of better people into the profession. But under almost every evaluation system reformers have tried—rating teachers as good, fair, or poor; A, B, C, or D; Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory; or Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, or Ineffective—principals overburdened by paperwork and high teacher turnover ended up declaring that over 95 percent of their employees were just fine, indeed.”

The current reformers – technocrats like Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and President Obama – want to use the test scores of students to evaluate teacher effectiveness, employing “value-added measurement” to do so*.

At first pass this sounds reasonable, but Goldstein lays out a few problems with doing so. Perhaps most importantly, American society has always expected way more from teachers than they can reasonably accomplish:

“Effective teachers can narrow, but not close, achievement and employment gaps that reflect broader income, wealth, and racial inequalities in American society. This reality was demonstrated by the most celebrated value-added study ever conducted. Economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff tried to figure out if teachers who were good at raising test scores were also good at improving their students’ long-term life outcomes—in other words, if value-added was a good proxy for some of the other goals, aside from raising test scores, that we want teachers to fulfill… One finding was that the current achievement gap is driven much more by out-of-school factors than by in-school factors; differences in teacher quality account for perhaps 7 percent of the gap.”

That critique isn’t limited to value-added measurement, of course, but it’s worth making clear: we spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy worrying about teacher effectiveness when the vast majority of the achievement gap is wholly out of their control. Any reform movement that doesn’t address a variety of socioeconomic factors is bound to fail to have a meaningfully large effect.

More to the point, it’s not clear that reforms centered on value-added measurement will even improve student outcomes:

“Research from the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University found that where teachers had been eligible for bonuses according to value-added ratings, whether $3,000 per teacher in New York City or $15,000 per teacher in Nashville, student outcomes did not seem to improve.”

Another reform championed by many progressives is to end, or at least severely restrict, teacher tenure.  While I’m still sympathetic to this idea, Goldstein’s book convinced me that it is largely a distraction – something that takes up too much space on the reformist agenda and that emits more heat than light. Teacher tenure has outlived its original use (more or less to protect teachers from prejudice and the whims of patronage), but it’s not obvious that ending it would actually improve the academic outcomes of children.

(To be clear: I still think there’s a case for ending teacher tenure – especially the contracts that give tenure after an unusually short amount of time teaching – but it seems to me that the most salient benefit of doing so is that it would simply move the conversation away from tenure and to issues of greater importance)

Whatever the teacher-centric reform du jour, changes based on the assumption that there is a large cohort of bad teachers simply haven’t led to the types of large-scale improvements that reformers seek. There is no question that bad teachers exist – and they should be identified and potentially removed – but there are far more good and teachable teachers that can be made better. Or, put another way: any reform that doesn’t focus on turning good teachers into great teachers is wholly missing the point and – in contrast to the high-minded Helen Lovejoy-like rhetoric and appeals to “think of the children!” – shows that some reformers are more comfortable appealing to equity and fairness in the adult job landscape.

One piece of today’s education reform that Goldstein leaves out of the book is the role that technology and innovation is playing now, and may play in the future, for teachers and students alike. This makes sense, of course – the book is a history book focused on human teachers, and, well, the teaching profession has been a bit slow on the uptake – but it’ll likely be a new front in the “teacher war” that’s worth exploring and understanding now. Some efforts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District’s attempt to bring iPads to all the students in its district, have failed pretty spectacularly. But others won’t.

Goldstein ends the book by offering a number of ideas to improve the education system, including paying teachers more – and sooner; allowing more opportunities for teachers to grow and develop new skills and responsibilities while still being able to teach; focusing on principals, too; using tests and value-added measurement as tools but not the tools; and getting rid of archaic and unnecessary last-in first-out (LIFO) teacher layoff policies. All are common-sense reforms that, though politically difficult, put the focus on promoting an environment that will produce better teachers and, hopefully, better student outcomes.

The Teacher Wars is a great book that I highly recommend. Goldstein synthesizes a wealth of knowledge about the American education system** into a fair, balanced, and nuanced look at today’s education system and its reformers, and shows how history is, as ever, repeating itself. She neither deifies nor vilifies teachers and reformers – judging by most coverage and rhetoric, not an easy thing to do – and instead offers concrete, data-based recommendations for moving the conversation to more productive ends.


*To lay out my bias, I would also consider myself a technocrat, though a skeptical one

**Goldstein’s trenchant and useful analyses of the history of teacher unions, Teach for America, urban teacher residencies, and the charter school movement are left out of this review because of length, but are excellent, too

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