Why Is American Teaching So Bad?

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tags: teaching



Jonathan Zimmerman is Professor of Education and 
History at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at NYU. His new book, Too Hot to ­Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, will be ­published in February 2015. (December 2014)

In 1853, the most important man in nineteenth-century American education gave a speech praising female teachers. Horace Mann was the head of the growing common school system in Massachusetts, where women teachers already outnumbered men by four to one. That helped save money for taxpayers, because school districts could pay women less than their male counterparts. It also capitalized on women’s natural instincts and abilities, Mann argued, converting America’s formerly chaotic, male-led classrooms into domiciles of love and order. “How divinely does she come,” he declared, extolling the female teacher,

her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue! 


In a rapidly industrializing nation, in which there were many perils of poverty and violence, as well as opportunity, schools needed to inculcate thrift, civility, and self-control in the young. And the most obvious candidates to provide this instruction were women, whose delicate constitutions prevented them from pursuing other kinds of work outside the home.

The same year, in an adjacent state, the most important woman in nineteenth-century American politics gave a speech denouncing men like Horace Mann. Susan B. Anthony had taught school for over a decade but had become tired of its deadening routines; she also resented the nineteen-year-old man who was hired to supervise her, at a higher salary than she could hope to earn. In her first recorded public address, to the New York State Teachers’ Association, Anthony argued that the profession would never achieve parity with others if men continued to regard it as a feminine domain:

Do you not see that so long as society says a woman is incompetent to be a lawyer, minister, or doctor, but has ample ability to be a teacher, that every man of you who chooses this profession tacitly acknowledges that he has no more brains than a woman? 


Anthony asked the association’s male-only leaders: “And this, too, is the reason that teaching is a less lucrative position, as here men must compete with the cheap labor of women?” Privately, Anthony’s feminist comrade Elizabeth Cady Stanton condemned “schoolmarms” who had attended specialized “normal schools” for teachers—not the more demanding liberal arts colleges, which were starting to open their doors to women. The normal schools were also a brainchild of Mann and others of his generation. Teachers who defended the second-rate teacher-training institutions they had attended were “an infernal set of fools,” Stanton told Anthony. Indeed, Stanton concluded, the entire teaching profession was “a pool of intellectual stagnation.”

Both of these episodes are recounted by Dana Goldstein in The Teacher Wars, her impressive new history of teachers in the United States. For two centuries, as Goldstein makes clear, Americans have simultaneously lauded teachers’ moral virtue and deplored their lack of adequate knowledge and skills. But debate over teaching has shifted sharply over the past two decades, when public education became much more narrowly academic in focus and purpose. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind law passed under the Bush administration in 2001, schools are now rewarded or penalized based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. More recently, the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students’ test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens, as Horace Mann insisted. Instead, it’s to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test.

The shift in goals has unfortunately done nothing to alter the tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching. If anything, the strong commitment to “academic” goals has probably made teaching less academic—so far as the quality of learning is concerned—and more routinized than it was before. When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to “nurture” schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we’ve created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement—as narrowly defined by standardized tests—that no serious scholar would want to teach in it.

Who becomes a teacher in America? The answer keeps changing, and not in ways that should make any of us proud. In the first half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein notes, bookish urban immigrants used the profession to catapult themselves into the middle class. During the Great Depression, especially, teaching attracted people of outstanding academic achievement—including some with Ph.D.s—who couldn’t get work elsewhere. Since the 1960s, however, the proportion of top college students who have entered the field has steadily declined. Part of the reason lay in the feminist movement, which created new occupational opportunities for women outside of teaching. Rather than enhancing the profession’s status, as Susan B. Anthony had predicted a century earlier, this harmed it considerably, as many high-achieving women went into other professions.

The profession was also harmed by the campaign for racial integration, which closed all-black schools and threw thousands of experienced African-American teachers out of work. Those teachers had often achieved much within black school systems and then found themselves without jobs. By 1980, Texas Monthly published an award-winning article showing that public school teachers in Houston and Dallas scored lower on reading and math tests than the average sixteen-year-old in nearby suburbs did. It also reported that students of teacher education at Southwest Texas State University—where future president Lyndon Johnson received his teaching degree—were functionally illiterate. Teacher preparation, the article concluded, was “a hoax and an educational disgrace.” ...




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