Why Do Americans Love to Blame Teachers So Much?

Healthcare has its critics, but few of them are calling for doctors to be replaced. Education is different—and as a new book reveals, it has been throughout U.S. history.

America hates teachers.

That's not exactly the thesis of Dana Goldstein's The Teacher Wars, but her account of 200 years of education policy provides plenty of evidence for it. "The history of education reform," she notes, "shows … recurring attacks on veteran educators." In the early 1800s, reformer Catharine Beecher argued that young women with a missionary calling should replace male teachers who were "intemperate … coarse, hard, unfeeling men, too lazy or stupid" to teach; she suggested those men should be sent into the mills instead. Two centuries later, Goldstein notes, programs like Teach for America are promoted as a kind of missionary calling, in which young fresh-faced college graduates replace lazy, stubborn, unionized teachers.

In between those two endpoints, Goldstein recounts the United States' dishonorable McCarthy-era assault on left-wing teachers—and its even more dishonorable record following Brown v. Board of Education, in which black teachers were systematically fired or pushed out of their jobs in order to prevent them from teaching white students. As Goldstein shows, the main result of Brown was not to integrate schools—which desegregated only haltingly before resegregating more recently—but to force out black educators. Education reform, as so often before, seemed to be less about aiding students than about targeting teachers.

Goldstein argues that discussions of education in the U.S. have repeatedly been framed in terms of moral panics. A moral panic, she says, occurs when "policymakers and the media focus on a single class of people … as emblems of a large, complex social problem." That single class of people is then systematically demonized, as politicians and pundits present "worst of the worst" cases as emblematic of the whole.

In fact, I think you could argue (though Goldstein does not quite) that moral panics do more than demonize a group of people. They serve in part to create a group of people—to delimit or describe a particular identity and mark it as deviant. In the ’80s and ’90s, moral panics around poverty created the "welfare mother"—an irresponsible, iconically black inner-city woman who supposedly abused drugs and had multiple children simply to receive hand-outs from the government. Similarly, Arun Kundnani, in his recent book The Muslims Are Coming!, argues that before the 9/11 attacks, Muslims were one assimilating ethnic group among many. Afterwards, the state began to view Islam as a dangerous identity and a problem to be studied, controlled, and policed. The control and policing is important. Moral panics create identities in order to regulate them.

That helps to explain the otherwise mystifying path that current school reform has taken. As Goldstein says, there are a couple of school reform strategies that have been successful. For instance, the Children's Literary Initiative, which provides prospective teachers with three years of training in early reading, has shown large gains in reading scores in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other areas. But rather than trying to implement such programs broadly, national attention has focused on testing to try to determine the "value-added" of each teacher through student testing. Value-added—looking at how individual teachers increase student test scores increase year over year—can be a useful diagnostic tool in some situations. However, value-added measures all have a wide margin of error, and are quite sensitive to manipulation (such as teaching to the test). As Goldstein says, "there is absolutely no reason to believe that value-added retains its legitimacy in high-stakes settings, when test scores are used to evaluate, pay, and fire teachers and administrators."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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