The Roots of Educational Warfare

By Kate Mereand (originally posted to Flickr as Lifeforce) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I just finished reading Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. It has been interesting to learn how cyclical educational mores and politics have been. The romantic ideal of the missionary teacher, for example, has its roots in Catherine Beecher and Horace Mann’s advocacy for troops of underpaid female teachers spurred to teach morality and character. Goldstein also traces the tension in educational philosophy of serving African American students to debates between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker Washington. Washington was a strong proponent of vocational education, while Du Bois advocated for a classical education for the “talented tenth.” “Over the next half century,” Goldstein writes, “vocationalism remained the ascendant education reform ideology among philanthropists and politicians. . . ”

Goldstein’s presentation of the rise of teacher’s unions is balanced–she demonstrates how unions provided much needed advocacy for the rights of women and of labor, while at the same time noting the tension between maintaining worker’s interests and the educational interests of children. Goldstein writes, for example, that “amid increasing political and business pressure on schools during the interwar years, teachers unions in Chicago and beyond often found themselves making unsavory alliances, and engaging in rough-and-tumble politics far afield from education itself.”

I especially appreciated Goldstein’s presentation of efforts at desegregation, as this has been a topic of study here at Schools & Ecosystems. She notes the promising results of districts which did make substantive efforts to integrate, while also noting the challenges and complications, such as “Where integration led to staff redundancies and school closings, black schools were disproportionately closed and black teachers disproportionately dismissed or demoted, regardless of their seniority, qualifications, or success in the classroom.” She also spends time digging into the Black Power and community control movement in NYC and the warfare that erupted against a Shanker-led UFT. “This seemingly local event triggered not only the most infamous and largest teachers’ strike in American history, but also a political and racial crisis of national proportions, which continues to reverberate in almost every debate about contemporary school reform.”

One insight that really struck me here was how teacher’s unions are in reality more closely allied to a strong, central administration, rather than community control. Goldstein attributes this insight to historian Marjorie Murphy’s Blackboard Unions, and she states, “Under collective bargaining, it was easier for unions to negotiate with one strong administrative body, such as a city superintendent, board of education, or mayor, than with a plethora of neighborhood school boards or principals, each with their own set of demands.”

I was also interested by Goldstein’s tracing of the the lineage of the community control movement to present-day “no excuses” schools, a correlation which I’ve sensed when exploring the issue of segregation with my students. Goldstein writes that “Though the rhetoric of black separatist politics has all but disappeared, in many ways today’s “no-excuses” school reform movement has inherited the mantle of community control by aligning low-income parents with elite school reformers and philanthropists from outside their neighborhoods.” She points out that such schools, however, tend to be “deeply segregated,” and not necessarily high performing. What she also brings to the fore is how the critique of teacher’s unions which arose from the Black Power movement has been co-opted by reformers since the “Reagan Revolution”: “These new centrist critics rejected Black Power, but, more powerfully than ever before, they promoted a view of career public school teachers as professionally incompetent and insufficiently committed to closing racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.”

Goldstein presents support for the success of school integration efforts, and suggests that perceptions that “desegregation did not work” are unfair “because the United States did not, in fact, commit to integration.”

The Teacher Wars explores various reform efforts, such as merit pay and value added. On the latter, she points to the detrimental effect of tying individual scores to evaluation systems, and notes that the repercussions of this can be to increase competition, and reduce collaboration. Her presentation of the fall-out from past evaluation schemes is especially salient right now, given NY Governor Cuomo’s push for heavier weight on value-added measures in an individual teacher’s evaluation. “If the key to systemwide improvement is not through mass firings or union busting, than what remains is to turn the existing average teacher into an expert practitioner . . . [which] will require a shared vision of what excellent teaching looks like, and the mentorship and training to get teachers there.”

Goldstein advocates for a bottom-up efforts that seek to “replicate the practices of the best.” “These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities. As history has taught us,” Goldstein writes, “that is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground.” She points to programs that provide in-classroom professional development and coaching, such as The Children’s Literacy Initiative, as actions that hold much greater promise than typical reform efforts like merit pay, charter schools, and evaluation. She also points to the promise of urban teacher residency programs beyond TFA, which can boost longer term teacher retention, such as the Memphis Teacher Residency and Boston Teacher Residency.

Unlike many out there who try to tell us that teachers shouldn’t be developing curriculum, Goldstein advocates for increased professionalization of teachers: “reform programs that combine high-stakes standardized tests with scripted lesson plans and a limited arsenal of pedagogical strategies may make teaching a less attractive job for exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, high-achieving people we most want to attract.” She provides an example of a former TFA teacher, Alex Caputo-Pearl, and his efforts with teachers at Crenshaw High School to create an “Extended Learning Cultural Model,” in which “teachers worked together to create interdisciplinary units built around neighborhood problem solving.” This model reminded me of an Australian model of a Global Learning Village we once discussed on this blog.

In the Epilogue of her book, Goldstein presents some conclusions from her research which are all tenets that I can get behind:

  • Teacher pay matters
  • Create communities of practice (she gives NYC’s Relay School and San Diego’s High Tech High shout outs here)
  • Keep teaching interesting (please!)
  • Focus on the principal as much as the teacher (yes, yes, yes!)
  • Return tests to their rightful role as diagnostic tools
  • Recruit more men and people of color

And many other lessons worth considering. Her final suggestion is to “be real about the limitations of our system.” She points out that the US system of education is decentralized in nature, and that as a result, we put unrealistic expectations upon the federal government and upon individual teachers, leading to the volatile political battles at the heart of “the teacher wars.” She hopes that “sustainable and transformative education reforms” can be “seeded from the group up. . . built upon the expertise of the best teachers.”

This is certainly a recommendation that a recognition of schools and school systems as ecosystems also supports.

I recommend reading The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled ProfessionHistory has much to teach those of us who work in the educational minefield. It’s remarkable how many of the debates that are ongoing in our field can be traced consistently over the course of these last two hundred years, like motifs in a novel.

Odds and Ends and Weekend Reading Recommendations

First off, I would like to celebrate the fact that since Will and I first opened this blog up to the public on February 5th (after our introductory post on GothamSchools), we’ve posted a grand total of 22 posts within that month alone. Not bad for a couple of busy and harried public school special education teachers. Finger snaps.

I’d like to invite all visitors to our blog to post a comment and subscribe to our news feed. We’ll be doing our darndest to keep posting and struggling to advance and develop our model. We welcome any and all constructive feedback and support along the way.

To get you through the weekend, here’s a few articles worth investing the time to read.

The first I discovered thanks to a tweet from the ever insightful Annie Murphy Paul (if you don’t yet follow her, do). The article discusses a study on the factors that contribute to black male success in college. These factors are salient to our model of schools as ecosystems:

[Prof. Shaun Harper’s] report, published Monday, explores what characteristics and conditions nurture success among black male college students. However, what separates Harper’s report from many others of its kind is its positivity: rather than identifying problems that limit black men’s potential, which Harper coins a “deficit model,” he aimed to identify positive influences using an “anti-deficient achievement framework.” [Emphasis added]

An unsurprising parallel to Martin Seligman’s PERMA model here. If we focus on the strengths of our students rather than their deficits (such as in our current monomaniacal pursuit of academic achievement and value added accountability), we can cultivate greater positive outcomes and greater achievement, most especially for students at a disadvantage.

. . . But perhaps the strongest driver for success among young black students was finding support from like-minded others. According to the report, many respondents found support in “same-race peers,” mostly older students attending the same college or university. . . [Emphasis added]

This speaks to my last post on the ecological principle of redundancy and interconnectedness, as well as to similar findings by the Posse Foundation. Strong relationships are critical to the resiliency and sustainability of any ecosystem. If we want to cultivate the long-term success of all students, then we will take the time to foster niches that establish lasting relationships.

“Nearly every student we interviewed said it was the first time that someone had sat him down and asked how he had successfully navigated to and through higher education, what compelled him to be engaged and what he learned that could help improve achievement and engagement among black male collegians,” wrote Harper. 

Well, and this last bit is just sad. Our political leaders and punditry quote statistics and research ad nauseam, but it is rare that anyone takes the time to speak to the ones everyone is talking about: students. I’m a big proponent of the importance of student surveys in teacher evaluations. If we want to say students first, then by all means, let’s talk to the students. Ask them the right questions, and they will speak the truth. I administer Google Doc student surveys based on Ron Ferguson’s Tripod Survey (pg. 12-13) to my students twice a year now, solely for my own professional growth and learning.

The next article I discovered from a link by @openculture, and which is on the always enlightening site Brain Pickings. Entitled What is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality, Maria Popova provides a series of quotations that demonstrate the importance of contexts in the ever evolving formation of character. The consideration of contexts is critical to our model of schools as ecosystems.

Finally, the last article is entitled What Jay-Z Can Teach Us About the Future of Education. In this article, Nathaniel Whittemore discusses the critical importance of an understanding of the values and vision that underlie public education:

A question is being drowned out: Why are we educating our children? 

There are so many obvious answers to the question that it hardly seems worth asking. We educate our children so they get into college, understand how to think, and are able to get good jobs and have a successful life (whatever that means). 

Yet each of these answers is slightly different. Each answer is a statement of values and has the power to reshape the entire trajectory of any conceivable education system. An education system designed to maximize employability is different, ultimately, than a system designed to maximize capacity for critical thinking, and so on. How we chose to define the “why” shapes what we do and how we do it.

. . . if we fail to attempt to understand the big, inextricable “why” at the core of the system, we limit our capacity for change and do a disservice to the future.  

 So very true. As I said in one of my recent posts, “only when we ask the right questions and frame the problems appropriately will we be able to target our policies and actions to best improve the quality of our public schools.”

John Dewey On Schools as Ecosystems

The child is an organic whole, intellectually, socially, and morally, as well as physically. We must take the child as a member of society in the broadest sense, and demand for and from the schools whatever is necessary to enable the child intelligently to recognize all his social relations and take his part in sustaining them. . . .To isolate the formal relationship of citizenship from the whole system of relations with which it is actually interwoven . . . is a hampering superstition which it is hoped may soon disappear from educational discussion. . . 

The informally social side of education, the æsthetic environment and influences, are all-important. In so far as the work is laid out in regular and formulated ways, so far as there are lacking opportunities for casual and free social intercourse between pupils and between the pupils and the teacher, this side of the child’s nature is either starved, or else left to find haphazard expression along more or less secret channels. When the school system, under plea of the practical (meaning by the practical the narrowly utilitarian), confines the child to the three R’s and the formal studies connected with them, shuts him out from the vital in literature and history, and deprives him of his right to contact with what is best in architecture, music, sculpture, and picture, it is hopeless to expect definite results in the training of sympathetic openness and responsiveness. . . 

We need to translate the moral into the conditions and forces of our community life, and into the impulses and habits of the individual.

All the rest is mint, anise, and cumin. The one thing needful is that we recognize that moral principles are real in the same sense in which other forces are real; that they are inherent in community life, and in the working structure of the individual. If we can secure a genuine faith in this fact, we shall have secured the condition which alone is necessary to get from our educational system all the effectiveness there is in it. The teacher who operates in this faith will find every subject, every method of instruction, every incident of school life pregnant with moral possibility.

–John Dewey, Moral Principles In Education 

And just what have we been focusing the preponderance of our efforts in education reform upon? On mint, anise, and cumin.

Three Steps to Transform Our Classrooms and Schools

In my last post on the conference I attended on What Works in Urban Education, I discussed the insights on positive psychology and teaching well-being that I gained from Martin Seligman and how a focus on character strengths and positive thinking is fundamental to nurturing a sustainable community in schools. But in KIPP’s Dave Levin’s words, the question remains, how do we “operationalize” these things?

The steps I’ve outlined below are not direct lessons I obtained from the conference, but grew out of pieces of insights I began to put together on further reflection. In more posts to follow, I’ll continue to bring forth some of the direct lessons and insights I gained from that conference.

1) Knowledge of self through self-reflection

This probably sounds circuitous, but the fact remains that unless a teacher is able to authentically model and communicate what she is to teach, her teaching will remain ineffective. One of the great crimes of the teaching profession in the United States is that space and time for professional planning, collaboration, and reflection is nearly completely neglected, and a general afterthought when it is implemented.

Through reflection, one gains an awareness of one’s strengths and values. The most direct way to get started is to take a survey that will spit out your character strengths, like the one I mentioned in my last post on Surveys like this are also used in the business world. When I was a manager at Trader Joe’s, part of our leadership training was to take a survey that identified our particular styles of leadership. It’s no doubt superficial to gain knowledge of self in such a manner, but even these measures have value in promoting reflection and building self-awareness. Other methods are journaling, blogging, supping on a good whiskey, or just good ol’ conversatin’ and meditatin’. Whatever floats your boat–suffice it to say, however, that it needs be done. And it needs to be done continuously.

2) Knowledge of others through active listening

It is the primary role of a leader and a teacher to listen, and to listen well. As a special education teacher who deals with children in crisis frequently, I can tell you that how you listen and speak to a child can often be far more important than what you actually say. Teachers have some notion that they have to tell a kid what to do at every step of the way. Most of the time, kids just need someone to hear them out and nudge them towards their own insight.

But it’s not only kids who need this. After moving to NYC from California and without a job, I volunteered at the GMHC downtown and underwent training as a crisis hotline counselor. I was just about to enter the stage of taking live calls with support from an experienced counselor, when I suddenly got the job at TJ’s. This took away every last scrap of free time I had, so I was unable to continue. But the leadership training I received at Trader Joe’s eerily–and wonderfully–paralleled the crisis counseling training I had just been undergoing. Adults, whether customers or employees, need leaders who can listen and empathize.

And the training I subsequently underwent as a NYC Teaching Fellow in a self-contained classroom in the South Bronx eerily–and terribly–and wonderfully–paralleled all the training I had had up to that point.

Ever worked in a high needs public school? Everyone–adults and children, leaders and staff–desperately requires a warm listening ear.

Being an effective teacher, leader, and counselor are all rooted in the same fundamental necessity for active listening. Body language, reflective statements (repeating back what the speaker said), summarizing what the speaker has said, and guiding the speaker through their own problem-solving process are all critically important components in achieving positive communication, building productive relationships, and establishing motivation.

3) Finally, the transformative leap is to render content and contexts personally meaningful to all involved

In order for the content and contexts of schools to be personally meaningful, they must build upon the personal strengths and interests of those who inhabit them. Finding out about these strengths and interests, of course, must first be achieved through the steps outlined above.

When the community and ecosystem of a school is personally meaningful, and the content is personally meaningful, then there is nothing left to hold back the achievement of the students nor the adults.

Operationalizing positive and meaningful thinking, communication, and relationships is the real work of education.

John Dewey on Schools as Social Institutions

The much lamented separation in the schools of intellectual and moral training, of acquiring information and growing in character, is simply one expression of the failure to conceive and construct the school as a social institution, having social life and value within itself. Except so far as the school is an embryonic typical community life, moral training must be partly pathological and partly formal. Training is pathological when stress is laid upon correcting wrong-doing instead of upon forming habits of positive service. Too often the teacher’s concern with the moral life of pupils takes the form of alertness for failures to conform to school rules and routine. . . Any conditions that compel the teacher to take note of failures rather than of healthy growth give false standards and result in distortion and perversion. Attending to wrong-doing ought to be an incident rather than a principle. The child ought to have a positive consciousness of what he is about . . . [Bold added]

John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education

It’s startling how John Dewey continues to sound so current. Notice how Dewey’s conception of the school as a social institution and the necessity for a focus on positive and healthy growth parallels our model of schools as ecosystems and the PERMA idea of positive psychology that I discussed earlier.

In our crazed school culture of high stakes testing, our focus is primarily on a child’s–and teacher’s–deficiencies, and we can see the effect that this has on schools: distortion and perversion. Environments of backstabbing and bullying.

Teachers relate well to the reality that all too often we are largely alert only to “failures to conform to school rules and routine,” and that this is the majority of the character education that we would purport to deliver. This lack of true guidance and modeling of character by the adults that children spend the majority of their time with serves only to widen achievement gaps. I have called this failure to provide explicit guidance and nurturing on matters of values and social needs the inevitable result of our “hidden curriculum.”

What should we focus on in schools? On what children are interested in and do well. On what adults are interested and do well. And celebrate those strengths and interests, while tackling the greatest of challenges with those strengths. It is only through the strength of a community that healthy growth is promoted.