What the Thousands of Calls Against Betsy DeVos Say About American Public Schools

An Iowa public school. Photo by photolibrarian

Congress was inundated with thousands of phone calls from people urging their representatives to vote against Trump’s education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Given her poor performance during confirmation hearings, her lack of experience, and her history of supporting attempts to dismantle traditional public education, Americans had visceral, negative reaction to DeVos. But this defense of our schools comes after years of anti-public education rhetoric by our country’s leaders about “failing schools” and teacher accountability.

Dana Goldstein’s 2015 book The Teacher Wars seeks to understand how America’s relationship with its public school teachers became so complicated. It goes much farther back than the battles of the past few decades:

Why are American teachers both resented and idealized, when teachers in other nations are much more universally respected? In South Korea, teachers are referred to as “nation builders.” In Finland, both men and women name teaching as among the top three most desirable professions for a spouse. Meanwhile, that old American saw—“Those who can’t do, teach”— continues to reverberate, reflecting elite condescension toward career educators.

I suspected that the key to understanding the American view of teachers lay in our history, and perhaps had something to do with the tension between our sky-high hopes for public education as the vehicle of meritocracy and our perennial unwillingness to fully invest in our public sector, teachers and schools included. For two hundred years, the American public has asked teachers to close troubling social gaps— between Catholics and Protestants; new immigrants and the American mainstream; blacks and whites; poor and rich. Yet every new era of education reform has been characterized by a political and media war on the existing teachers upon whom we rely to do this difficult work, often in the absence of the social supports for families that make teaching and learning most effective for kids, like stable jobs and affordable housing, child care, and health care. The nineteenth-century common school reformers depicted male teachers— 90 percent of the classroom workforce in 1800— as sadistic, lash-wielding drunks who ought to be replaced by kinder, purer (and cheaper) women. During the Progressive Era, it was working-class female teachers who were attacked, for lacking the masculine “starch” supposedly necessary to preside over sixty-student classrooms of former child laborers. In the South during the civil rights era, Brown v. Board of Education prompted the racially motivated firings of tens of thousands of black teachers, as the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations looked the other way. Then, at the height of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, it was inner-city white teachers who were vilified, for failing to embrace parental control of schools and Afrocentric pedagogical theories.

Teachers have been embattled by politicians, philanthropists, intellectuals, business leaders, social scientists, activists on both the Right and Left, parents, and even one another. (As we shall see, some of the critiques were fair, others less so.) Americans have debated who should teach public school; what should get taught; and how teachers should be educated, trained, hired, paid, evaluated, and fired. Though we’ve been arguing about these questions for two centuries, very little consensus has developed.

Amid these teacher wars, many extraordinary men and women worked in public school classrooms and offered powerful, grass-roots ideas for how to improve American education. Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Lyndon B. Johnson are just a few of the famous Americans who taught. They resisted the fantasy of educators as saints or saviors, and understood teaching as a job in which the potential for children’s intellectual transcendence and social mobility, though always present, is limited by real-world concerns such as poor training, low pay, inadequate supplies, inept administration, and impoverished students and families. These teachers’ stories, and those of less well-known teachers, propel this history forward and help us understand why American teaching has evolved into such a peculiar profession, one attacked and admired in equal proportion.

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