Curriculum Opinion

‘The Teacher Wars': An Interview With Dana Goldstein

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 01, 2014 11 min read
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This summer, I’ve been publishing thematic collections of past posts: ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core, Teaching Reading & Writing, Parent Involvement, Teaching Social Studies, Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year and Teaching English Language Learners , Using Tech In The Classroom, Education Policy Issues, Teacher & Administrator Leadership, Instructional Strategies, Assessment, Teaching Math & Science , and Brain-Based Learning have already been published, and I only have two or three more left to post.

I’ve also been sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators: Meenoo Rami was the first, co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second, Warren Berger was the third, Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker were the fourth, David Berliner and Gene Glass were the fifth, Eric Sheninger was the sixth, Regie Routman was the seventh, and Elizabeth Green was number eight.

Today’s interview will be the last author interview of the summer, and it’s a good one! Dana Goldstein has has offered to answer a few questions about her book, The Teacher Wars.

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 nineteen century predecessor to Teach For America that sent teachers to the U.S. Western frontier, or that Susan B. Anthony 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 two to fifteen 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 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, 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 in determining what good teaching is.

LF: You bring attention to a number of beliefs among certain policy-makers that appear, in the face of almost overwhelming research, to just be wrong. These include that the teaching profession suffers by not attracting the “best” candidates; Value-Added Measurements are ready for prime-time as a key tool for evaluating teachers; and merit pay improves teacher performance.

What do you think drives this continued belief in strategies that don’t work?

Dana Goldstein:

Forgetfulness! As a society, we aren’t very interested in learning from the past, and so we end up constantly inventing new “innovations,” like merit pay based on test scores, that have actually been tried before. I love this line in economist Thomas Piketty’s book: "...the imperfect lessons that we can draw from history, and in particular from the study of the last century, are of inestimable, irreplaceable value, and no controlled experiment will ever be able to equal them.”

There is another factor, which is that the particular reforms you mention are especially attractive to businesspeople. In every generation, we see corporate philanthropists get interested in education, and they gravitate toward ideas that seem, to them, to encompass the values and virtues of the free market.

LF: In your Epilogue, you list actions that you believe will improve our education system. Of the items you list, which do you think are the two or three most important ones and why would you choose them? Can you point to successful examples of those two or three actions taking place today in some places?

Dana Goldstein:

I want to be clear that there is no silver bullet, which is why The Teacher Wars isn’t what I sometimes jokingly call a “fix-it book.” I make 11 recommendations in the epilogue because there are a number of steps we could take to make teaching more effective. Improving teacher education and preparation is important, but it’s not everything; the profession needs to be better structured over the entire course of a career, with opportunities for mentorship and advancement over decades of a professional’s life. Teachers need time to collaborate with adults. They can’t spend their entire workday in front of kids. It’s too exhausting, and there is too little space for them to collaborate with and learn from colleagues, or even to foster their own intellectual lives. The same goes with pay. I love imagining a world in which an excellent 35-year old teacher can earn $100,000 per year. But if the job itself isn’t enjoyable, challenging, and intellectually engaging, pay alone won’t increase the profession’s prestige.

Another favorite idea of mine is to focus more on the role of the principal. When top teachers are asked what would make them change jobs to work with a lower-income population of kids, they answer “a great principal.” And we can’t forget about the problem of deeply segregated schools, where over 90 percent of kids are poor and non-white. There are exceptions, but most of these schools are schools of last resort. The kids in them are failing. Most adults don’t want to work in them, because they are overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty and too often test-prep becomes the de facto curriculum. All kids benefit from integrated schools, and there are wise people in the charter school movement, the magnet schools movement, and in the world of urban education and housing policy who are working on this. I offer some ideas and evidence in chapter 8 of the book, and also in the epilogue. And on integration, I always recommend the work of the experts at the Century Foundation.

LF: I loved the book, but was surprised and a little disappointed at two topics that I felt deserved more attention. You rightfully criticize “incentive-driven punishment and reward systems” that can be found at schools and in classrooms using them. However, you comment that there has been “little convincing research done” on them. But there is an extensive body of research done on the destructive results that these kinds of systems have in any situation. Was there a particular reason you didn’t refer to it, particularly to the work of Edward Deci?

Dana Goldstein:

Yes, I’m familiar with Edward Deci’s excellent work on motivation, and I interviewed him for this piece I wrote back in 2011. It’s certainly true that intrinsic, or self motivation, is more effective than extrinsic motivation, which is based on fear, control, and incentives. “No excuses,” however, goes beyond rewards and punishments to also include uniforms; a proscribed way children are taught to sit, speak, and walk; and even silent hallways at school. It’s all about establishing routine. I would like to see more research on how the full set of those routines, implemented together, affect kids in current-day schools, in terms of whether these strategies help or hinder learning. A lot of the great research on motivation in education was conducted before today’s “no excuses” movement was in full flower. If there is something I should read that I missed, I hope you and your audience will let me know!

LF: The other point that surprised me was what appears to be your dismissal of LIFO (last in, first out) policies. You write that seniority should be used only as a “tie-breaker between teachers with similar levels of performance on the job,” though you don’t specifically say how those “levels” should be determined. An administrator once told me that “LIFO is a bad system, but it’s better and more fair than anything else that could replace it.” I’m interested in hearing more details about how you think lay-offs should be handled.

Dana Goldstein:

I’m glad you are challenging me on this. I think that in order to replace LIFO or streamline due process/tenure proceedings (which I would also support), we first have to implement other changes. We have to provide teachers with more pre-service and in-the-classroom instructional training and mentorship. We have to shift toward more holistic, and simpler, teacher evaluation systems, which do not overly weigh standardized test scores. We have to attract and retain great principals whom teachers trust as instructional leaders, and we have to get comfortable empowering principals and teacher-leaders at the school level, even if they have different ideas than national reformers about what makes a great school. These are the positive models I report on in Chapter 10, from schools where they have worked.

In short, if schools were more collaborative environments, I think it would make sense for teachers to work in a context in which they do have due process, but there are not overly mechanistic rules pertaining to who must be retained or let go, or how long it takes. I acknowledge that politically, we may be far from the situation I am imagining. But I think collaboration and professionalism are useful constructs to work toward.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Dana Goldstein:

Great questions! Thank you Larry.

LF: Thank you, Dana!

Readers, look for the final “compilation” posts this week and next. This year’s first “question-of-the-week” will be published in about ten days...

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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.