The Teacher Wars

A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

By Dana Goldstein

Doubleday. 352 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Paul Jablow

The main thread that runs through The Teacher Wars is the conflicted relationship between teachers and the American public.

Dana Goldstein, a journalist who was an associate editor at the Daily Beast and the American Prospect, makes a convincing case that teachers and public schools in other countries "are threads in a social fabric that includes affordable child care, health coverage, and job training.

"Here, schools and teachers constitute virtually the whole cloth. We look around the world at countries such as Finland and South Korea, whose students consistently outscore Americans on standardized tests, and wonder what our teachers are doing wrong."

As a group, she says, perhaps not all that much. They are haphazardly chosen, unevenly and often inadequately trained, and, yes, in some cases too difficult to fire when they are clearly incompetent. "Watching a great teacher at work can feel like watching a magic show," she writes, but they are sometimes pilloried as the 21st-century equivalent of Ronald Reagan's apocryphal "welfare queen."

 There are no magic bullets here, but much suspicion that those who believed they were shooting them have been firing blanks instead: "More and more accountability reformers acknowledge that new teacher evaluation systems are not a panacea.

"They identify only a small number of teachers as ineffective and do nothing on their own to guarantee that teachers' skills will actually improve over time. The hope that collecting more test scores to be used in value-added calculations will raise student achievement is like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight."

Testing, she says, should be used for diagnostic purposes and not to pick winners and losers among schools and teachers.

"Today, reformers across the country are experimenting with empowering teachers to coach their peers, to remake teacher education, to design creative curriculum materials, and to lead school turnaround efforts. These practices conceive of veteran teachers as assets, not liabilities," she writes.

"That is a pragmatic stance crucial to sustaining any reform program, which teachers must carry out on the ground."

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer reporter and editor.