‘The Teacher Wars’ Author Talks Race and Gender in American Education

First-time author Dana Goldstein talks about how race and gender have influenced the evolution of the U.S. education system.

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Sep 17, 2014

Journalist Dana Goldstein’s absorbing, ambitious first book, "The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession," was released earlier this month and it’s already made the New York Times bestseller list. I sat down with her to talk about how race and gender have influenced education in the U.S. 

Race and gender are major themes in the book and in the history that you recount. Did you anticipate this being the case?

I knew I wanted to write an intersectional history of teaching; that was super important to me from day one. A lot has been written by historians about female teachers throughout history and quite a lot has also been written about the black educational tradition. I knew I wanted these two strains to be big parts of the book.

Catherine Beecher, who you describe early in the book as America’s first "media darling school reformer," is depicted as having a clear bent toward a particular type of teacher: a middle class white female one. Where do you think we are today with the norms that shape who is the ideal teacher?

There are some parts of that early 19th century ideal that have persisted, particularly that the ideal teacher [who] is passionate and mission-driven. Back then [education] was very explicitly mission-driven. The mission was spreading Protestant ideas. Now the mission is that teachers are there to close achievement gaps. The mission is to bring poor kids up to middle class kids’ level and to help poor kids get ready for college. Teachers are not supposed to care about how much they get paid, and they are supposed to have a calling to do this work and not complain too much about the conditions of the labor.

Is our concept of the ideal teacher racialized?

We have discussed, on the policy level, quite a bit in recent years about getting more "elite" people to be teachers. Any time I hear language like that I wonder: "Are you talking about a Harvard grad who is probably white, maybe male? Do you think getting more people like that will solve our crisis?" 

What surprised you most about the history of race and education?

One of the really big things that surprised me was that the roots of this "no excuses" reform ideology that is so popular today was actually in black educational theories and ideas dating back to the 19th century. We often mischaracterize those movements today as something that white people are imposing on communities of color. Yet what I found is that in the ideas of Anna Julia Cooper, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois–figures who disagreed with each other on a lot of things and had a fertile debate–[valued] "no excuses," strict discipline and academic rigor. Those things were, to a certain extent, areas of agreement among black educational leaders.

You can quite easily trace how the founders of the "no excuses" movement, for example the founders of the KIPP network of charter schools, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin [who are both white], were explicitly influenced by a female black teacher who they observed using these "no excuses" strategies. And there is a translation process that happens there, where this set of ideas of was mostly being used by teachers of color with children of color. Now a multi-racial group of teachers is using these strategies. When someone from your community says to you, "Look, there are no excuses," that is very different from when someone from outside your community is telling you "no excuses." Although these are very old ideas, what they mean in practice today is has changed.

And this teacher that the founders of KIPP were influenced by, do you know where her ideology came from?

Her name is Harriett Ball. I didn’t interview her myself but you see that black teachers use these strategies. They’re passed from black teacher to black teacher, generation after generation.

What do you think about the "no excuses" style?

I take a look at it in the book [considering] that those are the strategies that Teach For America (TFA) recruits are asked to learn. I think there is one aspect of it that is really successful: the high expectations. When you have high expectations for children’s academic achievement there is research that [shows that] kids do better. [Showing that] you believe intelligence is something that every child has the capacity to learn over time is fundamental to the "no excuses" philosophy.

But with the discipline strategies–walking in straight lines, wearing uniforms, eye tracking (literally following the teachers around the room)–there is very little persuasive research on any of those things. The research that does exist shows that these really strict strategies have the potential to backfire. The more time the teacher spends policing all those things, the less time they spend on the lesson. If you’re motivated to behave because you really want to learn, you’re going to learn more than if you’re motivated to learn because you’re going to get tossed out of the room in a really embarrassing and public way.

In the book you describe long-standing tension between veteran teachers and programs that seek to bring elite graduates into the school system. Do you see a racial tension in that dynamic?

Something that often gets overlooked is that alternative certification teacher programs are better at recruiting people of color than traditional teacher recruitment programs. The current group of TFA [teachers] is 50 percent people of color. It’s also about one third first-generation college students.

Even as we see programs like TFA really put a focus on diversity, the overall numbers of black teachers in big urban districts like New York City and Chicago [continues] going down. The reason for this is that the school closure movement–where low-performing schools are targeted to be shut down–disproportionately affects older teachers of color. It’s important that we’re offsetting that with new recruits. The typical teacher is still a white female who grew up in the suburbs. This describes the vast majority of teachers. For the first time [in American history], over half of American students are students of color. You don’t have to share your students’ race and class to be effective; we know that teachers can be extremely effective when they come from different cultures than their students. But we also know that [there] can be an additional social emotional impact when the teachers do share the students identity.

What about gender?

It’s a 76-percent female profession, still. It’s even harder to get men into the profession than it is to get people of color. TFA has been able to have this great percentage with people of color, but it’s still 73 percent* female. Even in the most prestigious and elite pathway into the profession, it’s hard to convince men to do the job.

Do you see a correlation between the loss of black teachers during integration in the post-civil rights South and the loss of black teachers in today’s school closure movement?

I do make that connection in the book. What I say is that we don’t often acknowledge how painful that history was. The loss of black teaching jobs in the ’60s and ’70s was incredibly painful for Southern black communities. You see school reformers today, whether it’s in Washington D.C. or Chicago, push a school closure agenda that disproportionately affects communities of color and there is no acknowledgement of this history. It’s hard to heal when similar issues come up again and again with no acknowledgement of the past.

Why were black teaching jobs lost during integration in the ’60s and ’70s?

As the student populations merged in many regions, they didn’t need as many teachers and administrators. Unsurprisingly, the school boards protected the white teachers’ jobs. For a black teacher, if you were invited to transfer to a school that was integrating, it was considered a promotion. You were considered the best of the best because we’re going to let you teach white children. Now for a white teacher, if you were transferring to a school that was formerly all black, it was considered a demotion.

Talk about black teaching job loss today.

Back then there was an explicitly discriminatory set of policies. Today is very different. The reason why schools are getting closed that have more black teachers is that black teachers are living where black children are. Black children are disproportionately low-income. Low-income kids are more likely to have lower test scores. Schools with low test scores are targeted for closure. Through this data-driven process, you see the outcome is a loss of black teaching jobs. I’m sure some would argue that the outcome is racially discriminatory. In fact there is a lawsuit in Chicago regarding this exact question. The Chicago Teachers Union sued regarding the loss of black teaching jobs.

You describe an incredibly racialized conflict between mostly white teachers’ unions and communities of color in the ’60s and ’70s. Does that kind of tension exist between communities today?

One of the interesting outcomes of the Chicago teachers’ strike [was that] parents of color were more likely to support the strike. Reformers have often assumed that parents of color have this long tension with teachers’ unions, dating back to the ’60s and ’70s [that they] can exploit. Actually, what you see is that there are generally positive feelings from parents of color toward unions. Parents of color choose to send their kids to non-unionized charter schools [because] they like the strict discipline or the schools have a good reputation or they’ve seen kids wearing uniforms in the neighborhood. There is really no evidence that the schools being non-union is a factor at all.

Polls of low-income parents show that they have pretty warm feelings about the teachers’ unions. If you look at the increasing number of Latino parents in the school system it’s not that surprising. Latino workers are much more familiar with the union concept in many cases than native-born white Americans. We only have 7 percent unionization in our private sector; some of our immigrant groups are coming from countries where being in a union is much more standard. 

Who are some of the prominent women of color in today’s education policy debate?

Both of the national teachers unions are headed by women–Randi Weingarten, with the American Federation of Teachers is white but [queer]. Lilly Eskelen García is the new head of the National Education Association–she’s Latina. Karen Lewis, a black woman, has become the face of the radical teachers’ unions and she heads up the Chicago Teachers Union. Michelle Rhee is a lightening rod. … She pursued a school closure agenda in Washington D.C., but she also did some good things regarding race. She was very interested in recruiting more white and college-educated families to enroll in public schools. It’s really quite progressive that she wanted to give white and upper-middle-class parents the message that their kids would thrive in public schools.

How do you feel about what’s coming down the pike regarding education reform?

I am optimistic because I think a growing number of parents and educators have witnessed that the huge focus on standardized testing and accountability for adults based on kids’ test scores have unintended consequences that we don’t want. The curriculum narrows to what is on the test. When you have folks like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan questioning this, there is a sign that a sea change is happening. What I argue for in the book is that we take this pause on testing and accountability as an opportunity to peer into the classroom itself and see what the best teachers are doing. That way improvement is coming from the bottom up. The big question that makes me nervous is, "What’s next?" You don’t want it to be. "Let’s just let schools do whatever they want."  We know that when there is no oversight, no standards at all, it leads to inequitable outcomes for poor kids.

*Article was updated to reflect 73% female in TFA, not 76% as originally printed.