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."

The focus on testing to evaluate teachers, then, is not based on a rational look at the research. Instead, one could argue, it's based on the logic of the moral panic, and the created identity of teachers. If welfare mothers are the cause of poverty, then you can solve the problem of poverty with tighter restrictions on welfare mothers. If teachers are the problem with education, then you can solve the problem of education with ever more vigorous control, and ever more constant evaluation, of teachers.

The comparison between welfare mothers and teachers may seem overdone. Aren't teachers lauded and beloved, after all? Aren't they seen (a la Catharine Beecher and Teach for America) as messianic figures who can lift kids out of poverty and into excellence? Yes … but again, the good teacher/bad teacher dichotomy is predicated on the idea that the bad teachers are already in place and must be driven out by the good teachers. The dream, from Beecher to today, seems to be that if only our schools could get rid of the career educators and install angels instead, the millennium would arrive.

This is an especially pernicious dream since, as Goldstein says, one of the consistent findings in education research is that first-year teachers are not very good. In teaching, Goldstein notes, there is a learning curve, and "the curve is steep." If we want to improve schools, one of the quickest ways is to reduce turnover; skilled veteran teachers may be schools’ most valuable resources. Because of that, many of Goldstein's recommendations at the book's conclusion are focused on making teaching more attractive as a long-term profession. That involves increasing teacher pay, but it also means giving veteran teachers more responsibilities—for mentoring, for developing curricula, for working with peers to develop and evaluate programs. It means treating teachers as professionals to rely on, rather than as suspects to be policed.

This isn't to say that all teachers are good. There are certainly bad teachers, and Goldstein recommends adjusting union rules to make such teachers easier to remove. But the existence of bad teachers doesn't justify our two-century-and-counting moral panic. There are bad accountants, but we don't define "accountant" as an identity to be policed in order to solve our nation’s economic woes. There are bad doctors, but even at a time when medical malpractice suits are frequent, the idea of replacing doctors isn’t at the center health care reform. Our education system has many problems, but one of the biggest is that we define those problems in terms of "teacher wars"—and then try to solve them through a war on teachers.