A history of education in America shows we've never accorded teachers much status

tags: book review, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein

Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek. He was the first English teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School.

When it comes to books on public education, we crave a diet of meat as red as a teacher’s cruel pen. In case you plan to write one, here’s a brief primer: 1) Pick a contentious and complex topic, like charter schools, teacher evaluations or standardized testing. 2) Reduce that issue to a Manichaean battle for the soul of the American student, presenting your side as inarguably salvific. 3) Fire off some frightening statistics about Finland or South Korea. 4) Ignore evidence that might dampen your zeal; just remember, above all, that nothing sells books like outrage.

But in “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” her first book, the journalist Dana Goldstein disregards this facile formula. Ms. Goldstein’s book is meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced, serving up historical commentary instead of a searing philippic. A hate-read is nigh impossible. (Trust me, I tried.) While Ms. Goldstein is sympathetic to the unionized public-school teacher, she also thinks the profession is hamstrung by a defensive selfishness, harboring too fine a memory for ancient wounds.

The book skips nimbly from history to on-the-ground reporting to policy prescription, never falling on its face. If I were still teaching, I’d leave my tattered copy by the sputtering Xerox machine. I’d also recommend it to the average citizen who wants to know why Robert can’t read, and Allison can’t add.

Inevitably, some of Ms. Goldstein’s book summarizes a familiar story in which a youthful nation grapples in the classroom with some of its most pressing questions: of race, class, religion, gender. But she always writes with a purpose, namely to remind readers that teaching was a fraught profession long before “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” flickered across the screen and everyone had an opinion about the Common Core.

Ms. Goldstein begins in the early 19th century, when American classrooms were presided over by “coarse, hard, unfeeling men,” in the words of one early reformer, exemplified best by Washington Irving’s inept, doomed Ichabod Crane. The solution was to feminize the teaching corps, handing it over to “angelic public servants motivated by Christian faith,” who would make the schoolhouse “America’s new, more gentle church.” The notion that teaching is “low-paid (or even volunteer) missionary work for women,” Ms. Goldstein persuasively argues, continues to haunt the classroom...

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