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The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession [Kindle Edition]

Dana Goldstein
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In her groundbreaking history of 175 years of American education, Dana Goldstein finds answers in the past to the controversies that plague our public schools today.

Teaching is a wildly contentious profession in America, one attacked and admired in equal measure. In The Teacher Wars, a rich, lively, and unprecedented history of public school teaching, Dana Goldstein reveals that teachers have been similarly embattled for nearly two centuries. From the genteel founding of the common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the violent inner-city teacher strikes of the 1960s and '70s, from the dispatching of Northeastern women to frontier schoolhouses to the founding of Teach for America on the Princeton University campus in 1989, Goldstein shows that the same issues have continued to bedevil us: Who should teach? What should be taught? Who should be held accountable for how our children learn? 
   She uncovers the surprising roots of hot button issues, from teacher tenure to charter schools, and finds that recent popular ideas to improve schools—instituting merit pay, evaluating teachers by student test scores, ranking and firing veteran teachers, and recruiting “elite” graduates to teach—are all approaches that have been tried in the past without producing widespread change. And she also discovers an emerging effort that stands a real chance of transforming our schools for the better: drawing on the best practices of the three million public school teachers we already have in order to improve learning throughout our nation’s classrooms.
   The Teacher Wars upends the conversation about American education by bringing the lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today. By asking “How did we get here?” Dana Goldstein brilliantly illuminates the path forward.

Editorial Reviews


"Ms. Goldstein’s book is meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced, serving up historical commentary instead of a searing philippic ... The book skips nimbly from history to on-the-ground reporting to policy prescription, never falling on its face. If I were still teaching, I’d leave my tattered copy by the sputtering Xerox machine. I’d also recommend it to the average citizen who wants to know why Robert can’t read, and Allison can’t add."
—New York Times

"[A] lively account of the history of teaching ... The Teacher Wars suggests that to improve our schools, we have to help teachers do their job the way higher-achieving nations do: by providing ­better preservice instruction, offering newcomers more support from well-trained mentors and opening up the “black box” classroom so teachers can observe one another without fear and share ideas. Stressing accountability, with no ideas for improving teaching, Goldstein says, is 'like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight.' Such books may be sounding the closing bell on an era when the big ideas in school reform came from economists and solutions were sought in spreadsheets of test data."
—New York Times Book Review

"Goldstein presents detailed case studies from different periods that should give pause to any contemporary reformer who claims to know exactly how to fix public schools in America. Her careful historical analysis reveals certain lessons useful to anyone shaping policy, from principals to legislators ... thorough and nuanced."
—San Francisco Chronicle

“A sweeping, insightful look at how public education and the teaching profession have evolved and where we may be headed.”
—Booklist, starred review

"[An] immersive and well-researched history ... Attacking a veritable hydra of issues, Goldstein does an admirable job, all while remaining optimistic about the future of this vital profession."
—Publishers Weekly

"Think teachers are overpaid? Or are they dishonored and overworked? Both positions, this useful book suggests, are very old—and very tired ... Goldstein delivers a smart, evenhanded source of counterargument."
—Kirkus Reviews

“I wanted to yell ‘Yes! Yes! Thank you for finally talking sense’ on page after page. Anyone who wants to be a combatant in or commentator on the teacher wars has to read The Teacher Wars.” 
—Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and author of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy

“It’s hard to know what to make of teachers. In the news and in the movies they are sometimes vampires sucking off public goodwill and sometimes saviors of America’s children. In this totally surprising book Dana Goldstein—who has always been Slate’s sharpest writer on education—explains how teachers have always been at the center of controversy. At once poetic and practical, The Teacher Wars will make school seem like the most exciting place on earth.”
—Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men

“Dana Goldstein proves to be as skilled an education historian as she is an astute observer of the contemporary state of the teaching profession. May policy makers take heed.”
—Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

“A colorful, immensely readable account that helps make sense of the heated debates around teaching and school reform. The Teacher Wars is the kind of smart, timely narrative that parents, educators, and policy makers have sorely needed.”
—Frederick M. Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute
“Dana Goldstein is one of the best education writers around. Her history of the teaching profession is that and much more: an investigation into the political forces that can help or hinder student learning.”
—Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy

“Dana Goldstein has managed the impossible: She's written a serious education book that's fresh, insightful, and enjoyable to read.”
—Michael Petrilli, Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“Teaching has always been a political profession. We all have a dog in this fight. So I can hardly imagine anyone who could not profit from reading this erudite, elegant, and relentlessly sensible book. Listen to Dana Goldstein: ‘We must quiet the teacher wars.’ Reading The Teacher Wars would be a great way to start.”
—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland

“If more people involved in today’s discussion about education reform read this book, our national conversation about schooling would be deeper and more effective. Buy this book. Read this book. Share it with your friends who care about education. A very important work.”
—Peg Tyre, author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve
“Why are today's teachers pictured simultaneously as superheroes and villains? In clear, crisp language, Dana Goldstein answers that question historically by bringing to life key figures and highlighting crucial issues that shaped both teachers and teaching over the past century. Few writers about school reform frame the context in which teachers have acted in the past. Goldstein does exactly that in thoughtfully explaining why battles over teachers have occurred then and now.”
—Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus of Education, Stanford University

About the Author

DANA GOLDSTEIN comes from a family of public school educators. She received the Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism, a Schwarz Fellowship at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellowship at the Nation Institute. Her journalism is regularly featured in Slate, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, and other publications, and she is a staff writer at the Marshall Project. She lives in New York City. Her social policy blog is

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
94 of 102 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fool's Errand! July 7, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book provides a look at the history of who became teachers, how schools were funded, why schools are traditionally underfunded, how the "profession" has changed over the years, how the politics governing school systems has changed and why. It reviews current efforts to reform education, and what research says about methodology. Goldstein has put a ton of research into the book and collaborated with many experts to put together a thought provoking look at the public school system and the teacher's role in education.
I think teachers, parents, administrators, and school board members who want to improve their schools would find the book informative and well worth the read. It gives a broad based look at schools across the nation and uses the personal anecdotes from scores of people involved in education over the years to make the book real.
As a former teacher, it was hard to refrain from turning this review into a rant and giving my personal opinions, but I would like to point out one thing. In my career I had twelve different principals. Only one ever gave me constructive criticism and only two gained my respect. In my experience, NCLB allowed mediocre administrators to keep thumbs on staff and turned teachers into automatons willing to do busy work. Teachers too often have become scapegoats for the ills of society instead of getting the respect they deserve. The majority of hard-working, dedicated, and effective teachers suffer the consequences caused by the small minority of bad teachers who administrators and colleges have failed to winnow out of the educational system.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In School, Everything Old is New Again July 29, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
You’ve heard it said, the end is in the beginning. Veteran education journalist Dana Goldstein, who comes from a long line of schoolteachers, wondered at recent vitriol directed against American public schools and their teachers. The condemnation has been consistently bipartisan, and has treated teachers’ pay and benefits—already substandard for educated professionals—as excessive, as impediments to improvement. So she went back to the beginning.

Given today’s rhetorical bombast about academic decline, Goldstein’s first discovery may surprise you: Americans have never agreed about public schoolteachers. Not their role, their curriculum, their job, nothing. Goldstein traces public schooling, as we know the concept, to the 1820s, a collaboration between proto-feminist Catharine Beecher and Massachusetts legislator Horace Mann. Bizarrely enough, in Goldstein’s telling, public schools began as an apparent jobs program for unmarried women.

Beecher and Mann founded America’s first public school system for specifically moralistic purposes. Prior schools, funded by private tuition and taught by men, suffered questionable pedagogy; Goldstein reminds us of Washington Irving’s dictatorial schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Women were preferable as schoolteachers, Beecher and Mann insisted, because women had upright ethics, gentle natures, and abstemious tastes. Also, not coincidentally, women worked cheaply. Americans, evidently, have always resented paying schoolteachers well.

Throughout history, we’ve expected teachers to work miracles. Literally so: Goldstein quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying: “An effective teacher? They walk on water.” But we’ve always wanted them to accept starvation wages, driving ambitious, upwardly mobile applicants from the field.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No truce in sight August 6, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The Teacher Wars begins with a history of the teaching profession in America as it has evolved from the early 19th century to the present. Goldstein is a journalist, not an academic, and this part of the book, while interesting, has the serviceable feel of homework well done. When Goldstein tries to tie this history to the current state of the profession, she isn't terribly successful. What a reader takes away from this (surprise!) is that teaching has always been a relatively low status profession.

Much of the book focuses on the last fifty years or so. And the impression one gets here, quite accurately, is of constant turmoil. Big ideas come and big ideas go----and the quality of student performance continues to decline. Goldstein quite sensibly comes to the conclusion that big top down reforms seldom work and that much more time and money needs to be directed towards the improvement of the professional education of teachers, towards useful evaluations of teachers that are not simply tied to test results, and towards the development of diverse models of teaching.

The problem with the book is that there are many stories, but not enough analysis. Elementary and secondary education are very different, but Goldstein seldom makes a distinction between them. She talks a lot about the Common Core, but never really explains what it is (and isn't) for a reader who is not an educator. She makes some mention of the fact that many teachers are unprepared to teach reading, but doesn't give this critical topic much attention, although one might argue that the haphazard way reading is taught lies at the heart of poor test results. But that's another book.

M. Feldman
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Now I Know Why There’s a War on Teachers July 6, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Dana Goldstein has written an informative and convincing portrait of teachers in America as being despised and scapegoated in different parts of history for different reasons. Currently, idealogues would like to blame teachers for everything bad that came in the wake of the Great 2008 Recession. In short, teachers are, in America anyway, an embattled class. Unlike other cultures, which have a healthy view of teachers, Americans have historically had a schizoid view of them: They are either worthless leeches or “superhuman” saviors. In contrast, Goldstein mentions that in South Korea teachers are “nation builders” and in Finland teaching is one of the top three desirable professions.

We learn that by the early 19th Century, leaders of the teacher movement, rejecting their puritanical influences, created a secular religion to impose moral reform on students. To save money, the schools relied on women who were seen to be intellectually inferior to men and thus began our nation’s sexist-driven contempt for teaching, associating it with a job that requires “lower minds” to implement its goals.

As we look at teachers under fire today, we see that they are still underpaid and asked to “teach to the test,” giving multiple-choice tests that too often compromise real education. Some award-winning teachers, we learn from this book, quit after their classes are audited to see how many minutes the teachers are spending per class addressing course objectives. Goldstein finishes her book with several common sense approaches to quelling the “war against teachers” and bringing real learning into the classroom. Highly recommended.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It will be a Greener world!
When you take over a business, job, department, task that is not doing well you of course try to come up with improvements, it is after all your job! Read more
Published 1 day ago by Tim Minn
5.0 out of 5 stars People Need To Read This
Very informative. It's interesting that today's "reforms" are just re-hashes of old ideas from generations ago. Read more
Published 2 days ago by Amy A. Fitzpatrick
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Highly recommended for any one who is or has been a teacher.
Published 3 days ago by Kathleen A. Krausse
4.0 out of 5 stars A battle for respect and equality.
Finally! The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein chronicles the history of women in the field of teaching as well as the present-day struggles for legitimacy, equality in pay and the... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Karen Koon
4.0 out of 5 stars Helped me sort out much of the teacher and education ...
Helped me sort out much of the teacher and education management stuff I see in the newspapers.
Published 4 days ago by Thomas L. Bright
5.0 out of 5 stars A well researched, thoughtful book!
If you are a teacher, know a teacher, interact with teachers, this is a must read! Goldstein does an impressive job of covering the history of teaching, political influences, and... Read more
Published 5 days ago by Annie
2.0 out of 5 stars It's a history of the teaching profession--if you like history, it...
It's a history of the teaching profession--if you like history, it works OK. It's got good information in it. I gave it to my daughter who is a teacher. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Nancy Bertoncelj
5.0 out of 5 stars Greatread
Incredible! Best book on the history of education I have ever read. Dana Goldstein is a very good writer and even though the material is dense, her writing style makes it an easy... Read more
Published 12 days ago by Ken
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Finally a researched book with the whole story behind so called educational reform.
Published 12 days ago by stuart fordyce
4.0 out of 5 stars ... years prior to the current reform movement as the good old days of...
Many think of the years prior to the current reform movement as the good old days of being a teacher. Read more
Published 15 days ago by Buffalo Bill
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