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The US has had the same arguments about teachers for 100 years

A teacher with her students in Germany, once a model for the American education system.
A teacher with her students in Germany, once a model for the American education system.
Sean Gallup
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Should teachers be judged based on their students' test scores? Should they get tenure and job protections that other workers don't? Should education schools recruit the best and the brightest, or change how they teach future teachers entirely?

Those are some of the hottest questions in the education debate. And it turns out that none of them are anything new: Americans have been arguing about teachers and comparing our schools to other countries' for as long as the country has had schools.

In her new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, journalist Dana Goldstein explores the history of teaching in the US from the early 19th century through Teach for America. For more than 100 years, Americans have argued about who should be able to teach, what role teachers play in helping kids escape poverty, and how teachers should be judged on their work.

Goldstein and I talked Friday about teachers' unions, teacher tenure, and the strong sense of déjà vu her book sheds on today's education policy debates.

Libby Nelson: We spend a lot of time talking about who should be a teacher, or why good teachers are important, in a way we don't about other professions — even professions that play critical roles, such as doctors. Why are teachers so central?

Dana Goldstein: The first reason has to do with the role that we expect teachers to play in our inequality debate. We're having this huge national conversation about socioeconomic inequality and to somewhat of a lesser extent about poverty, especially childhood poverty. And really we see teachers held up as people who can help us solve this problem.

Because we have a relatively weak social safety net, we're really asking them to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids. We are in a way setting ourselves up to be somewhat disappointed. That's not to say that teachers don't make an impact. We know from the latest economic research that teachers do have a big impact on kids. But as big as the impact is, it is a secondary impact. The home, the parenting, the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the family are still the primary impact.

So that's one reason why teaching is controversial and embattled.

The second reason has to do with the fact that teaching is a unionized profession. It really comes down to what [American Federation of Teachers President] Randi Weingarten says to me, that America looks at teachers as "islands of privilege." Only 7 percent of workers are in unions. So the fact that teachers have this strong body representing their interest, they have generous pensions they can look forward to, that they enjoy strong due process — these are things that make teachers unlike most workers. And it's totally natural that Americans look at that and say, what's going on? Why do teachers have so much more protection than the rest of us?

LN: So why do they? Where did these job protections come from?

DG: Teacher pensions and teacher tenure both date back to the early 20th century. Tenure starts in New Jersey in 1909. At the time, it was a consensus policy that good-government reformers and teachers' unions agree about. They look at the German system, which was considered a model for the United States at the time. And they notice that teachers there are more respected and the profession was considered more prestigious. Two of the things German teachers have are tenure and pensions.

So this is something that is sort of supposed to offset the low pay and make the job more attractive. At the time, you see 95 percent of primary school teachers being female in most American cities. Reformers want to bring more men into the profession and these are some of the policies they think might help.

It doesn't necessarily work out the way they think it will. But that's what they're thinking. And another thing that's going on is teachers are being fired for a lot of ridiculous reasons. We see teaching jobs being part of the patronage machine in major cities.  For example, the city councilman's sister-in-law will get the teaching job. We see teachers being fired because they're pregnant, because they're African American, because they take a stance against IQ testing, which was a very big part of urban education reform at the time. A lot of sensible people were looking at these kind of retaliatory firings and saying, "Tenure is a good idea. We need to protect educators."

LN: When did teachers' unions shift from being the ally of the good-government reformers to being viewed as special interest groups that protect their own, as they're often seen today?

DG: It really happened in the 1960s and 1970s after the unions gained collective bargaining rights. Everything the unions achieved before collective bargaining was through political lobbying, and in particular the way that the female-dominated teachers' professions were able to ally with male organized labor.

After the unions have collective bargaining rights in the '60s, they were actually able to meet with mayors and school boards at the bargaining table and they were legally empowered to make demands and have negotiations with the people who supervise teachers' work. At this time you see jumps in pay and jumps in retirement support that the unions are negotiating.

LN: One idea that comes up over and over in the book is that so many of these debates are debates we've had before. Why is this so cyclical?

DG: As a nation, we don't seem to care to learn the lessons of history. I think education is particularly cyclical, maybe more so than other policy areas.

Americans have been fascinated by standardized testing for a very long time. Even back into the early 19th century there were crazes for various ways of testing and categorizing kids. We see the pupil change method develop in the 1920s and the 1930s. That's really that era's version of value-added measurement [which aims to determine how effective teachers are based on student test scores]. It does find differences between effective and ineffective teachers, but it also finds the differences are rather small, and it finds teachers themselves resist being evaluated in this way. So we're really seeing a very similar conversation now.

We constantly see business-oriented philanthropists in each generation get interested in education, which makes a lot of sense because they're interested in educating the next generation of workers, and they bring experience from the corporate sector that's relevant to education. But you see that they have an interest in data-driven reforms in each generation. And they are attracted to that because it reminds them of how they would make decisions in the business world.

LN: What can we learn from these debates we've had before and are now having again? What lessons do you hope people draw from this history?

DG: I think the most promising reform that we have not tried, ever, is to actually look at what the best teachers, the most effective teachers are doing in their classroom at the instructional level and create structures and systems for them to share and teach those skills to other educators. We've created a system in which teachers are very autonomous and alone for a lot of their workdays and they don't spend that much time with other adults.

What teachers really need is more time to collaborate with one another to share good ideas. This is more than a bottom-up than a top-down reform model, and generally in the US we have not tried bottom-up change. We have tried to make change come from the top down, and that model is fundamentally at odds with our political system and our political structures.

LN: Why have other countries been more successful than the US at creating a teacher-led, bottom-up education system?

DG: Our school system is earlier. It's older. It dates back to the 19th century, and in many ways the one-room schoolhouse is the model of our system, where an adult is working alone. One adult.

Japan, South Korea, Finland — these were systems that were completely reformed after World War II. There is a lot more modern or contemporary thinking that has gone into these systems. We are still living with the legacy of an early 19th century education system.

Those countries also have very strong national governments, so they set standards for the schools and have a much greater power at the level of implementation. Our federal government only controls 13 percent of local school funding. Through incentive programs, the Obama administration has actually been very successful at getting local schools to do things because they want every last dollar they can get. And yet once they promise to do something like evaluate teachers in new ways, there's actually nobody watching at the implementation level to make sure they do it in a smart, strategic way.

We have these top-down reform priorities and the federal government is successful in getting schools to adopt them, but there's no quality check on that process. That's fundamentally different than other nations.

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