Prof. Diane Ravitch Blog - Book Review - Teacher Wars

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Prof. Diane Ravitch Blog - Book Review - Teacher Wars

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Diane Ravitch's blog
A site to discuss better education for all

Reading Liberally Editorial Note

Diane Ravitch is N.Y.U.’s Research Professor of Education and a historian of education. In addition, she is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.

We have focused on two of her books --

(1) Reign of Error, the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to American Public Schools (2013) – for our 6/17/2015 meeting.

(2) The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) – for our 9/12/2012 meeting.

In Death and Life, Prof. Ravitch accused the Gates Foundation, inter alia, of pushing for 10 years the breaking up of failing high schools into smaller high schools and, after admitting the failure of that approach, of then pushing teacher evaluations as the most important approach to failing high schools!!!

In Reign of Error, Prof. Ravitch blasted the Gates Foundation plus all recent presidents and Education Secretaries including Obama and Duncan. Her major theses are that 1) Schools are steadily improving, not failing, 2) They need more encouragement and funding, not discouragement, and 3) The achievement gap between economic classes in public education is due to a widening poverty gap, not to incompetent teachers.


Joanne Barkan Reviews Dana Goldstein’s “The Teacher Wars”
By dianeravitch
May 5, 2015

Joanne Barkan has written several excellent articles about the billionaires’ campaign to privatize public education. See “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools?” and “Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy.”

She recently reviewed Dana Goldstein’s “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” in Dissent, where she is a frequent contributor.

She saw good points, and some that were not so good.

Classroom Saints and Fiends - The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

By Joanne Barkan ... acher-wars

Joanne Barkan graduated from public schools on Chicago’s South Side. Her articles on the education reform movement and the role of private foundations in a democracy can be found at

“The crusade—now more than a decade old—to remake K–12 public education in the image of a business enterprise moves on two fronts. One is private management of public resources: convert as many “regular” public schools as possible into privately run charter schools while also setting up voucher systems that allow individual students to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The second front is transformation of the teaching profession into . . . what? Here the stated goals and actual policies of the market-model “ed reformers” are a tangle of contradictions.

Ed reformers, whose political identities run the full gamut, claim that putting a great teacher in every classroom will offset the disadvantages suffered by poor and minority children outside school and will close the academic achievement gap between these students and middle-class white students. Teaching, therefore, must become a highly respected, well paid profession that attracts the most talented graduates of the most prestigious colleges and universities.

Yet these same ed reformers have worked tirelessly and successfully to undermine the substance and reputation of the profession. They bear responsibility for focusing public school teaching on standardized test preparation and for using student test scores to determine how much teachers are paid (merit pay), who is fired, and which schools are shut down. They promote mini-length training programs to replace experienced teachers with lower-paid, nonunion neophytes; they help to pass state laws that weaken collective bargaining and cut pensions and benefits; they advocate abolishing tenure (due process) so that teachers can be fired at will; and they’ve conducted a nonstop media operation to depict public school teachers as greedy, poorly trained, and ineffective to the point of endangering the nation’s future.

The disrespect for teachers embedded in the ed reformers’ policies is matched only by their overt hostility toward teacher unions. Not surprisingly, job satisfaction among public school teachers has plummeted in recent years.

The ed reformers’ stance looks like a Madonna-whore complex: teachers are miracle-working saviors of poor and downtrodden children, or they are villains preventing these children from benefitting from a good education. According to Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, this kind of saint-fiend split has characterized Americans’ view of teachers since universal public education first took hold in some states in the 1830s. Again and again since then, reformers of different stripes have tried to improve teaching with some of the same fixes—merit pay based on test scores, fast-track training programs, ranking teachers—with the same lack of success….

No rational person would argue that public schools cannot or should not be improved, especially those attended by low-income and minority children. And even without the Polish model (Goldstein doesn’t say what this is), reasonable people understand that school improvement doesn’t require first eradicating economic insecurity. But Goldstein’s statement raises a key question that she never investigates in depth: how much better can schools with large majorities of low-income and minority children do if nothing about the children’s lives outside of school changes? Can these schools do well enough to improve the life chances of millions of children who begin school unprepared to learn? No, she implies: “Teachers and schools alone cannot solve our crisis. . . . ”

Goldstein constructs her engaging historical account around the stories of people who were involved in the events. She describes the development of the nineteenth-century common school and the rapid transformation of teaching from male to female work through the stories of Catharine Beecher (she successfully promoted the ideas that women’s nurturing nature was better suited to teaching children and, all important, women could be paid less) and Horace Mann (Beecher’s like-minded reform ally and Massachusetts’ first secretary of education). Goldstein argues that their success produced the détente between advocates for universal public education and anti-tax activists that “redefined American teaching as low-paid . . . missionary work for women, a reality we have lived with for two centuries. . . . ”

One of the recurring themes in this history is the thorny issue of evaluating teachers accurately. Early twentieth-century reformers argued that evaluation was necessary to improve and professionalize teaching. The Chicago Teachers Federation dismissed proposals for testing teachers and merit pay as ploys to avoid raising salaries across the board—and, in fact, merit pay was used in other cities to lower payroll costs. The tug-of-war has never ended. Goldstein is critical of teacher unions for digging in their heels on teacher evaluation. After pointing out some of the Chicago union’s “achievements of high idealism” in the early decades of the twentieth century, she closes the chapter stating, “Yet the teachers union movement was (and remains today) a pragmatic, even sometimes cynical, lobbying effort, and one that protected some poorly performing teachers.”

Goldstein confronts today’s reforms, reconfirming that “failed ideas about teaching . . . keep popping up again and again, like a Whac-A-Mole game at the amusement park.” For critics, the reforms this time around come wrapped in market ideology and are structured for massive data collection, numerical ranking, survival of the measurably fittest, bottom-line efficiency, and freedom from government regulation. Goldstein doesn’t examine the reforms from this perspective, but, overall, she doesn’t think they are successful.

For anyone who isn’t paying attention to public education news (unfortunately, a majority of citizens), the chapter called “Big, Measureable Goals” would be a valuable compendium on the genesis and consolidation of the major market-model reforms for teaching: quickie training programs like Teach for America, which are often used to replace unionized veteran teachers; “no excuses” charter schools, which some educators are increasingly criticizing for their punitive style of schooling; value-added measurement (VAM), which uses algorithms to compute a number that represents how much each teacher has added to her own students’ standardized test scores each year; and Obama’s Race to the Top program, which offered grants to “coax” financially strapped states to implement VAM or VAM-like measures as well as other market-model reforms. Goldstein questions both the design and implementation of these reforms.

Under “End Outdated Union Protections,” Goldstein supports maintaining tenure but wants due process for dismissed teachers (that is, review of the decision by a neutral arbitrator or a peer-review board) to be “swift and certain.” Tenure plus effective due process is the soundest system, but getting the balance right—no effective teachers fired, no poor ones retained—requires careful oversight. When budgets demand that multiple teachers be laid off, Goldstein would use performance, not seniority (“last in, first out”), as the criterion. Seniority would be the tie-breaker to decide between two equally effective teachers. This presupposes an accurate and fair evaluation method. Goldstein’s proposed method fits into one sentence: “[T]eacher evaluation must be based on genuine measures of student learning, such as rigorous, non-multiple-choice tests and sophisticated, holistic classroom observations.” This is surprisingly skimpy after her examination of almost two centuries of evaluation controversies….

I’ll close with two other reservations about her inquiry into today’s teacher war.

First, Goldstein provides no political context for the market-model reform campaign, which is thoroughly political, and often ideological. She doesn’t explain, for example, why ed reformers keep pushing VAM despite its error rates, which she cites: 35 percent for calculations based on one year of data and 25 percent even when three years of data are used. Thanks to ed reformers, close to forty states now tie teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. She describes how merit pay was tried and failed in the 1920s, late 1960s, and 1980s. Yet ed reformers keep selling the policy despite recent studies showing more failures. She doesn’t explain why ed reformers want more standardized tests in more subjects, starting in kindergarten, although it’s been obvious for years that testing is hollowing out public education. She doesn’t explore the deep ideological antipathy to government endeavors or the goal—embraced across the political spectrum—of weakening teacher unions; or the strength of market ed-reformism in state legislatures and its limitless funding; or the ties between ed reformers and testing companies (we’ll hear more about this as Jeb Bush pursues the White House); or the large politicized constituency consisting of employees of ed-reform think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofit projects; or the role of private mega-foundations in fueling the reform machine. All of this constitutes not a conspiracy (ed reformers accuse their opponents of being conspiracy theorists) but a successful political movement.

Goldstein might respond that she wants to quiet the teacher wars. She might have given high priority to the possibility of constructive engagement with ed reformers, many of whom complain that opponents are shrill and that only cooler heads and more polite wording will produce useful dialogue. “Throughout this book I have tried to be more analytical than sharply opinionated,” she writes in the epilogue. But political context is part of a full analysis. This book about public education—a fundamentally political topic—is strangely unpolitical.

My second reservation is that Goldstein doesn’t convey any sense that public education as a publicly provided and democratically accountable service is under assault. Perhaps she doesn’t agree that it is, but something new is underway. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the teacher wars were enmeshed in efforts to create, expand, or improve public education. One thrust of the current ed-reform movement is to curtail the role of government in running schools, to use tax money to fund privately managed education (the distinction between for-profit and nonprofit privately run schools has become largely meaningless). True, Goldstein isn’t writing about charter schools or vouchers—the most direct means of limiting government’s role, but today’s teacher war is tied up with this endeavor. Much as I support many of the proposals she makes, I worry about getting a chance to implement them widely. I worry that by the time the market-model reforms fail their way into disrepute, the “public” in public education will be damaged beyond repair.

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