“It is . . . advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy: he must be an intelligent medium of action” – John Dewey, 1895

You’d think, being a teacher, I’d know more about the history of my profession. What I do know is general. I had no idea how tumultuous my career’s history is until I read The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein.

When you really think about it, it makes sense. The well-being of children is an easy thing to feel emotional about. So are workers’ rights. So is the way the United States has treated women and people of color in the past. All of these factors and more intersect with the career of teaching. 

“Why are American teachers both resented and idealized, when teachers in other nations are much more universally respected? That old American saw — ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ – continues to reverberate, reflecting elite condescension toward career educators”

Goldstein 4

“Teachers have been embattled by politicians, philanthropists, intellectuals, business leaders, social scientists, activists on both the Right and Left, parents, and even one another. . . . some of the critiques were fair, others less so”

Goldstein 5

I just hadn’t thought of it that way before. Being a teacher, I am probably focused on my students rather than a lot of the political noise that surrounds my colleagues and me. But, it’s there. I’m glad I’m now more aware of it.

Goldstein takes readers through various stages of American history to describe influences on education, mindsets about teachers, and the ultimate effects on teachers, students, schools, communities, and the nation.

“While the ingenuity and fortitude of exemplary teachers through out history are awe inspiring, many of their stories . . . shed light on the political irrationality of focusing obsessively on rating teachers, while paying far less attention to the design of the larger public education and social welfare systems in which they work”

Goldstein 12

The book begins with a look at the common schools movement and the feminization of American teaching. 

Goldstein tells how Horace Mann created the “common school,” or programs and schools to train teachers. I knew a little of this story but didn’t realize its basis in the quack science, phrenology, or teaching training programs today that closely resemble the common school system.

Common schools hinged on the idea that the teachers needed to be intelligent but single, pious women. 

“there was an explicit connection between the promotion of non-college-educated female teachers and the idea, influenced by phrenology, that American public schools should focus more on developing children’s character than on increasing their academic knowledge beyond basic literacy and numeracy”

Goldstein 27

Meanwhile, across Europe, the opposite was true: academics outweighed character. But, of course, education was often left to men. (Insert my eye-roll here.)

I always knew that teachers were commonly young, unmarried women, but I never really understood why. During the 1800s, women were meant to be the moral compasses of society. If they were not the Angel in the House, they could find some respectability in teaching. 

“public education [was] America’s new, more gentle church, and female teachers [were] the ministers of American morality”

Goldstein 15

If they got married, they had to quit their jobs.

(Just so my students know, I’m not leaving if I ever get married and have kids someday. That is good news to some of them and bad news to others, I’m sure).

“teaching was the one profession in which a woman could gain ‘influence, respectability, and independence’ without venturing outside ‘the prescribed boundaries of feminine modesty’”

Goldstein 18

Besides being a teacher, I also identify as a feminist. Reading about teaching as a feminine profession intrigues me. What about this career made it a respectable one for women supposed to marry instead of work? What about it makes it feminine in a society that believed in the intellectual superiority of men? Goldstein explores several factors:

“With teaching as an option . . . women could choose to marry only if they fell in love, not because marriage was the only socially acceptable role”

Goldstein 20

“Pious young women seemed preferable to the hapless Ichabod Cranes of the world”

Goldstein 21

“Female workers were cheap”

Goldstein 21

It seemed like a contradiction and incredibly illogical since I have had wonderful teachers of both genders (not to mention terrible teachers of both genders).

Thank goodness for some early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Anna Cooper!

Anthony didn’t see teaching merely as the only alternative for female careers or as a way to spread morality, but as a way for women to pursue a fulfilling vocation. She fought for equal pay for female teachers, for which I am undoubtedly grateful. She also recognized that female teachers had more to contribute than ministering morality to American children.

“She had noticed female educators tended to be enthusiastic about a broad array of social reform issues, not only women’s rights, but also antislavery work and temperance. Yet because of their low wages, teachers had very little disposable income to donate to philanthropic causes, and local political groups founded by women often floundered”

Goldstein 38

Anna Cooper, a black teacher, encouraged women to become teachers to take their place as leaders in American society. For her, teaching was not something to do outside of marriage; it was a career that that allowed women to meaningfully contribute to their communities.

“Cooper’s black feminism idealized teachers as leaders in the fight for racial and social equality”

Goldstein 64

Because I studied African American literature in grad school, I read a lot about racial uplift. Still, I never thought about how this phenomenon affected education. Racial uplift is the ideology that a few individuals ought to be responsible for representing or lifting up their race in a good light. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington promoted this ideology, which eventually filtered into the sphere of education.

“DuBois and Booker Washington would spend years debating the proper education for the descendants of slaves — especially those who would become teachers. Both men based their careers as educational theorists in part on their own school experiences”

Goldstein 55

Here’s the problem with racial uplift: it operates on the idea that there is a superior culture or set of norms that another race needs to rise up to. It’s a racist idea that we call assimilation. Instead of allowing for flexibility, racial uplift pressures people to adopt commonplaces that may not work best for them. This meant that teachers and students felt this pressure daily in schools across the United States. That doesn’t sound very conducive to learning to this teacher!

The final outcome of racial uplift ideology in education only leaves room for an elite few. It denies one type of learning or teaching to a large group of people and relegates them to another kind of learning or teaching that may not fit their needs.

“Much of DuBois’s writing on teachers is deeply resonant today; many contemporary education reformers insist that public schools will not improve unless more elite college graduates are brought into the teaching profession”

Goldstein 58

“vocationalism remained the ascendant education reform ideology among philanthropists and politicians, not just for black students, but for the children of white immigrants from eastern and southern Europe as well”

Goldstein 65

Another factor that heavily influences teachers’ careers is teachers’ unions and working conditions. Goldstein spends many pages exploring the causes and effects of teachers’ unions. First, she examines how unions came to be during the Progressive Age and how they influenced education at the time.

“Teacher unionism had arrived as a potent force in American civic life”

Goldstein 70

She also delineates the differences between the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. I’ve noticed that many people confuse these two unions when they’re complaining about Teachers’ unions on Facebook, so honestly, I hope people read Goldstein’s book if just for her explanation of how these two organizations differ:

“The NEA was genteel. It conducted research on education and advocated politely for school funding. From the start, the Federation intended to be a totally different animal: a militant organization modeled after the male labor unions to which the fathers and brothers of Chicago teachers belonged . . . . The purpose of the Federation was to aggressively advocate for higher teacher pay and for teachers’ freedom on lesson planning and student discipline; the organization sought to counter the influence of school reformers who believed non-college-educated women were unqualified to make autonomous choices within their classrooms”

Goldstein 69

Then, she looks at how these unions operated during the World Wars and Red Scares. Teachers came under fire, especially during this time; battle lines emerged between teachers’ unions and the American public. 

“A jingoistic climate had invaded the public schools, and teachers with dissident politics were being targeted for dismissal, regardless of their excellence in the classroom — and especially if they taught unpopular subjects that did not fit within the vocational framework, like the classics of foreign languages”

Goldstein 94

No discussion of teachers’ unions would be complete without talking about those who protest them. Goldstein chronicles that side, too, lending some clarity to an issue that still confuses most of us, teachers included! But it’s a good thing she does, for it helps us better understand the origins of teacher evaluations, tenure, and traditions of education reform. If you want to know how teaching got so political, Goldstein’s chapters do an excellent job illustrating it.

“Tenure is by far the most controversial aspect of contemporary teacher unionism, but in the period before World War I, there was relative consensus among union leaders, school reformers, and intellectuals in favor of tenure”

Goldstein 85

It seems familiar that schools are racially integrated. Still, Goldstein details how Brown v. Board of Education sent waves across the country. Even more alarming is that in many places, segregated schools are commonplace in 2021, even without a “separate but equal” Jim Crow law to enforce it. Schools remain segregated along all sorts of lines, including race and income, regardless of policy.

Out of the late century’s civil rights movements, poverty issues also influenced how our country provides education to children and how teachers are expected to operate in their classrooms.

“even the highest-poverty neighborhood schools in cities like New York and Los Angeles employ teachers who produce among the biggest test score gains in their regions”

Goldstein 6

“Most American schools are socioeconomically segregated, very little like the integrated schools I attended in Ossining, where highly qualified teachers aspired to build long careers, and to teach both middle-class and poor children”

Goldstein 10-1

Goldstein writes about how misapplied attempts to desegregate schools and hold teachers accountable also affected education in this country. A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and data-driven models get their due mention, and Goldstein thoroughly surveys the lifespans of these national dialogues about education.

“[A Nation at Risk,] a battle cry against the country’s supposed educational mediocrity, harshly critiqued America’s working teachers and secured a Washington toehold for the national standards and accountability education movement”

Goldstein 165

“the very same assumptions and ideals [behind A Nation at Risk] underlie No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core, and almost every other contemporary reform effort to improve teaching — it is crucial to look at why, exactly, the first generation of accountability-driven national teacher reform failed”

Goldstein 174

By the end of the book, embattled feelings I didn’t even know I had burbled to the surface. If you’re a teacher, maybe don’t read this book right before bed because if you’re anything like me, you will have thoughts and opinions! And you run the risk of keeping your partner or dog up all night listening to your rants.

The antagonism around education and social justice causes frustrates me so much since we all ought to work together to ensure that all of our children have the education they deserve. 

Unsurprisingly, I’m unapologetic about my idealism.

Thankfully, Goldstein spends the last chapter of the book exploring ways to reform education and empower teachers. Ultimately, my students’ awesomeness is what helps me feel empowered every day. But, I am enthusiastic about improvements teachers, schools, and communities can make to educational communities. 

“education reforms today should learn from the mistakes of history”

Goldstein 12

I love what I do; I cannot imagine doing any other work, so, naturally, I want to continuously make it better. Our kids deserve it, and they need us to model for them how to stay vigilant about continuous improvement and growth. 

What are some of your thoughts about how we might improve education in the United States?

You can get The Teacher Wars here on Bookshop.org. Support independent bookstores!


Trigger Warnings: ableism; misogyny; slavery; sexism

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