Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org.

Education Opinion

‘There Is No Silver Bullet': Dana Goldstein on ‘The Teacher Wars’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 17, 2019 4 min read

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth post in a series called “A Look Back.” In it, I’ll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator or author has provided in a past column.

You can see the previous eight here.

Today’s “A Look Back” shares a portion of a lengthy interview I did with Dana Goldstein in 2014 about her book, The Teacher Wars.

You can read the entire interview at ‘The Teacher Wars': An Interview With Dana Goldstein.

Dana Goldstein is a reporter at The New York Times.

LF: Your historical examples and anecdotes about the teaching profession and its challenges are fascinating. I suspect that I’m not the only teacher who didn’t know there was an early 19th-century predecessor to Teach For America that sent teachers to the U.S. Western frontier or that Susan B. Anthony’s roots were in fighting for the rights of educators.

This may very well not be a fair question considering that such a large portion of your book looks at our profession’s history, but what do you think are two or three stories/examples/lessons that are particularly relevant today?

Dana Goldstein:

This is a tough one! Eight of the book’s 10 chapters are historical, covering debates over public education and teaching that took place before I was on the scene as a journalist. Each day I spent at the library doing research, I’d come home absolutely bursting with excitement over how relevant the past is to our contemporary debate over school reform. (Yes, I’m a huge nerd.) If I were to pick a few broad themes I hope people take away from the history, here’s what I’d say:

First, the genesis of the American teaching profession lies in our political system’s hope that teachers can close inequality gaps, whether between Catholics and Protestants, immigrants and the mainstream, poor and rich, or black and white. Yet by paying teachers pretty badly and providing them with inadequate preparation and training, we neglected to truly empower teachers to fulfill these staggeringly high expectations.

Second, so much of today’s education reform movement, with its emphasis on rigorous academic standards and strict discipline for poor children, is borrowed directly from the ideas of African-American education theorists, dating back to the years just after the Civil War. I write about educators like W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Forten, and Anna Julia Cooper, and about the work of contemporary scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lisa Delpit. This is material I cover in Chapters 3, 6, and 7. It’s the tradition of combining love for the child with high, sometimes tough expectations. How do these strategies, and their meaning, shift when the teacher and the child are not from the same race or class? There is a difference between someone from your own community telling you “no excuses” and someone from outside saying that. It’s a tough thing to talk about, but necessary considering the relative lack of diversity in the teaching force—a problem a lot of folks are trying to solve.

Third, the obsession with rating and ranking teachers is not new. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, researchers experimented with something called the “pupil change method.” It was basically value-added measurement! I hope people will read the book to find out what happened back then when reformers tried to implement this.


LF: In a few places in your book, you refer to people citing percentages ranging from 2 percent to 15 percent of current teachers who “cannot improve their practice to an acceptable level.” That’s a pretty wide range, and the term “acceptable level” can mean a lot of things. Based on your research, do you tend to agree with the lower or higher end of those percentages, how would you define “acceptable level,” and do you know how those percentages compare with other professions?

Dana Goldstein:

Really great, provocative question. I came up with this range—2 to 15 percent—by interviewing reformers, asking them what percentage of teachers, each year, they thought were beyond being helped and ought to get fired. The superintendent in New Haven, Conn., Garth Harries, is smart and thoughtful. He told me he is satisfied with his district’s new system, which removes tenure protections just for the 2 percent of veteran teachers, annually, who are rated “ineffective.” In Colorado, state Senator Mike Johnston, a leading national reformer, offered the figure 10 percent. When I did classroom observations with Mike Miles, now the superintendent in Dallas, at a middle school in Colorado Springs (where he used to work), he told me he wanted to let go four of the school’s teachers, which was about 15 percent.

These are all guestimates. But given how difficult it is for high-poverty schools to staff up, I think the smaller numbers are the more realistic ones. Once you fire someone, you have to replace them, which is a challenge.

I don’t think teachers are any more likely to be bad at their jobs than other white-collar professionals. And as I demonstrate in the introduction, on the national level, teachers get fired more often, not less often, than other workers employed by large firms or by the government. The difference is that other professions often have more established training and mentoring procedures to help practitioners improve, and teaching, for the most part, lacks that.

As a journalist, I hesitate to define “acceptable” teaching. I leave that up to the practitioners. But I do feel teachers themselves ought to be highly involved in determining what good teaching is.


The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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