Think teachers are overpaid? Or are they dishonored and overworked? Both positions, this useful book suggests, are very old—and very tired.
Public school teaching, writes education journalist Goldstein, is “the most controversial profession in America.” Politicized from the beginning, teaching had an aura of do-gooder, civilizing purpose. As she writes, Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher had a lively correspondence around the creation of a “Board of National Popular Education” whose aim was to send East Coast schoolmarms to the frontier in the hope of taming it more thoroughly. It also combined that social service aspect with the trappings of professionalism and especially unionism, which in time has armed the critics and foes of public education with plenty of ammunition: It’s certainly difficult to get an inept but tenured teacher fired, though probably not as hard as Chris Christie would have it. It would likely surprise Christie to learn that public school tenure has been practiced since at least 1909, long before unions were empowered to intervene in due-process matters between teachers and administrators. While looking into the origins of seemingly modern controversies, such as teaching to the test and the feminization of teaching, Goldstein shows how constant the battles have been. At the same time, she turns in points that ought to condition the discussion (but probably won’t, given its shrillness), including the observation that “differences in teacher quality” have only a small bearing on test outcomes overall—which is not to say that teachers don’t matter but instead that we ought to stop relying so heavily on tests. In an epilogue, Goldstein ventures other ideas for reform, including raising teacher pay and, yes, using tests as diagnostic tools more than ends in themselves.
Probably not likely to sway opponents of public education, whose numbers and influence seem to be growing, but Goldstein delivers a smart, evenhanded source of counterargument.