The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

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I Wrote a Guest Post on Dad Gone Wild

I wrote something about my experience in an alternative teacher licensure program and sent it to TC Webber of Dad Gone Wild. He posted it and hopefully it will get the conversation going about teacher training. Here’s a permanent link. I’m super excited that Diane Ravitch retweeted me!

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Books on Teaching, part 2

Here are two books I’ve read recently that are written for teachers about improving their classroom practice. My favorite things about these books are their titles, and for once they actually live up to them.

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Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson

The title of this book comes from something I’ve seen and done many times–a teacher working really hard in front of a passive group of students–working so hard she’s actually doing stuff they should be doing, like answering her own questions, and voicing all sides of a discussion. A lot of this book’s info is stuff I learned in my MAT classes–begin with the end in mind, zone of proximal development–but it’s the kind of stuff that’s good to hear again in a new way. I liked that Jackson is so reasonable in her expectations of what teachers will be able to actually accomplish. For example, she acknowledges that you can’t teach every standard, so she gives you a principle to help you pick which ones to teach and which ones to skip. Her advice is grounded in the reality of a teacher’s classroom experience and she acknowledges at every turn how hard this job is.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Again, the title of this book was tailored to appeal to me. I’ve joked that the reason I became a teacher is because I like school, am good at it, and never wanted to leave it. Even 7 years in, it’s honestly a little baffling for me when students don’t feel the same. This book is organized around questions teachers might ask about classroom challenges that psychologists can answer. The title question is also one answered in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the brain isn’t made for deep, abstract thinking, but for doing minimal work with minimal effort. Willingham focuses a teacher’s attention on whether or not the specific actions they’re asking students to do will help them build skills and remember facts or not, pointing out that “dog and pony shows” are often counterproductive (no matter how much principals may like them). He also gives a few concrete strategies, like storytelling and building background knowledge.

I loved the way this book debunked several myths about the brain and education that create more work for teachers without enhancing student learning, especially the idea of multiple intelligences, and the idea that students need to learn to “think like scientists” and other experts.

Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal