At the Chalk Face: Dana Goldstein and New Insights into Why Teachers are Targeted

Before reading Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars, I mostly believed that it was bad luck that turned teaching into America’s “most embattled profession.” Primarily, teachers were in the wrong place at the wrong time when a self-righteous movement of inexperienced neo-liberals chose us as their enemy. I still believe that the best explanation of how and why test-driven reform unfolded in a basically anti-teacher manner was that the newcomers assumed that they needed to personalize and simplify systemic problems and to find a demon to pillory. After reading Goldstein, I better understand how the forces that led to the targeting of teachers were also grounded in a number of longstanding social, economic, and political dynamics.

Growing up in the conservative state of Oklahoma, I have seen and studied some of America’s worst gutter politics. As a public school student, I repeatedly heard Rightwingers bellow “Accountability! Accountability! Accountability!” at educators, and I recall how my teachers grimaced at this mean-spirited mantra. Sometimes the politics of personalized demonization didn’t live up to its promise. When I was a teen, the short-lived attack on Sociology and social workers as the personification of softhearted liberalism was a laughable failure. By the time I was in graduate school, it was clear that the Right was growing much more sophisticated in selecting its targets in way that better used fear and loathing to mobilize voters.

Later, as a Pro-Choice lobbyist, I was taught how to read between the lines of Anti-Choice and Pro-Life public relations spin. In that career, I had met people who were sincerely Pro-Life, but my job also required me to analyze the propaganda of activists who were viciously Anti-Choice. They were incredibly skillful in slandering women who they could portray as the type of person who didn’t care for babies’ lives.

Then I became a teacher. Reading even the (then) semi-tame teacher-bashing of the 1990s, the similarities between Anti-Choice campaigns and “papers” issued by reform think tanks was unmistakable. The TNTP and other “astroturf” reformers clearly studied the most effective, state of the art, negative advertising and they chose teachers, in part, because we were an ideal target. Their public relations campaigns required beautiful pictures of endearing children and a semi-plausible scenario where kids are being victimized by a profession.

Reformers could have never gained such traction, for instance, by blaming social workers and sociologists for the persistence of poverty. Instead, their top dollar public relations teams had a field day portraying the anguish of children trapped in poverty as the avoidable result of “bad teachers” and their unions. To be Pro children, one must be Anti teachers union.

But, Goldstein documents a variety of other factors that made teachers uniquely qualified to become to poster child targeted by gutter politics and twisted propaganda. Over and over, Goldstein lets the historical facts portray teachers as being like everyone else. Although many of us exhibited missionary zeal, we were flesh and blood employees who did our jobs about as well as other Americans. We opposed merit pay, not just because it required indefensible use of incompetent tests, but because of the discord it could sow in our workplaces. We sought disciplinary backing so that a relative few disruptive children did not undermine our efforts to serve the vast majority of students. In doing so, we antagonized some of our patrons and we didn’t sound as noble as teachers were supposed to be. I suspect that many of us, rightly and wrongly, have long mentioned chronic disorder as part of the reason why teachers overuse worksheet-driven, basic skills instruction.

On the other hand, we were different because we serve children. Even a century ago, when school board member Jane Adams hoped that education could overcome extreme poverty in Chicago, it was possible to turn a blind eye to the abuse of teachers in the service of a higher cause. Sure enough, Addams supported the superintendent’s unfair and secretive evaluation system. A recurring tradeoff was thus illustrated. To improve schools for poor children, school administrators often played ball with abusive politicos. A subsequent investigation of Chicago during Addams’ time showed that teachers with 95 percentile scores were denied raises and promotions while less qualified teachers were rewarded for their loyalty to the school system’s leadership.

A half century ago, history repeated itself with funding by the Ford Foundation as an unquestionably sincere principal, Rhody McCoy, aggressively blamed teachers for his students’ plight. Their community control experiment created a mess for everyone, culminating in the New York City teachers’ strike. McCoy not only unfairly fired ineffective and good teachers, sometimes merely because of their skepticism regarding community control, but he did so without keeping accurate personnel records. (McCoy also claimed falsely that student achievement increased by 30% during his disastrous experiment, illustrating the way that too many righteous reformers repeatedly say and do anything necessary to achieve their lofty goals.)

I was especially intrigued by Goldstein’s account of the 1967 New York City teachers strike. Although it was before my time as an adult employee, the strike illustrates the moral quandaries that teachers and parents must continually wrestle with. Goldstein greatly enhanced my understanding of the context of the strike. First, it came right on the heels of the city’s last great witch hunt, targeting teachers. The last purge of NYC teachers based on personal politics did not subside until 1960, as the city’s United Federation of Teachers, allied with the Teachers Guild, finally nailed down the due process rights that the Ford Foundation and McCoy would deny to teachers.

I had also known that research on the “Pygmalion Effect” around that time had reinforced the beliefs of some that teachers’ “expectations” were the root of educational failure for poor children of color. If teachers really believed in their students, the achievement gap would supposedly close. This was also a polarized time when Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his words about a “culture of poverty” aggravated that divisiveness. Throughout my career, I heard theorists make statements along the lines of the 1960s’ assertion that teachers are to blame for class disruptions because they didn’t “set a tone so you don’t have any such thing as ‘disruptive children.’”

One of the best things about The Teacher Wars is that it brings all of these story lines together so that all sides of the teachers strike become alive. The issue of teachers’ expectations is real, as is the recurring problem of blaming the complex legacies of centuries of oppression on teachers’ expectations. The full range of stakeholders should read and discuss Goldstein’s account of the strike so that that type of tragedy doesn’t repeat itself.

But, then again, diverse stakeholders should read Goldstein’s entire narrative and wrestle with her findings.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside. A former oilfield roughneck and...