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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

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

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 17, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP