Book Review: The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars is an excellent overview of the role of gender and race in the teaching profession that has persisted from the early 1800’s to today. It also is a good overview of how trends in K-12 Education have come and gone and circle back.

The book traces the teaching profession from the early 19th century to a few years ago starting with the story of Catherine Beecher who believed women would make better teachers than men. She encouraged women that teaching was an honorable profession for women to work outside of the home and as an option other than marriage. She started an early version of ‘Teach for America’ setting up well-off New England women to work in the prairie towns opening west of the Mississippi. Horace Mann furthered this idea as America’s first secretary of education by urging the federal government to capitalize on women in education by paying them less than men. Even Susan B. Anthony, who is known for woman’s suffrage, supported the idea of opportunity for women in teaching and worked for equal pay. The author does well in highlighting the role of gender in the profession.

A profession started out sexist was racist too Goldstein explains. With Reconstruction there was some hope particularly with an experiment in North Carolina, but with Jim Crow and the segregation that followed, Goldstein wonders if we are just in other stages of The Civil War. “Colored” schools and school systems were the norm for a century. W.E.B Du Bois, who favored educating the “talented tenth” of black students with higher education, and Booker T. Washington, who focused on the importance of vocational education, led the debates of teaching in these segregated schools. The book traces the growth of unions that did not help the students of either race as much as it helped teachers. New Yorker Al Shanker who picked up the mantel of leadership from the union pioneer Chicagoan Margaret Haley famously remarked that he indeed represents teachers and not students.

The book finishes with a survey of attempts by different administrations from Johnson, to Reagan, Carter, Bush, and Obama. It’s worth having this history when trying to work in schools today.