Teacher Wars aren’t new

978-0-385-53695-0Dana Goldstein‘s new book, The Teacher Wars is “meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced,” writes Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Times.

The book starts in the 1820’s with the advent of universal public education. To teach at a “common school” required little education. “Normal” schools didn’t require teachers to be high school graduates.

Low standards have persisted in teacher training, writes Goldstein.

Teaching became the province of “angelic public servants motivated by Christian faith” — that is, women — who would make the schoolhouse “America’s new, more gentle church,” writes Goldstein.

The notion that teaching is “low-paid (or even volunteer) missionary work for women,” Ms. Goldstein persuasively argues, continues to haunt the classroom.

So does the question of how to close the racial achievement gap, another topic of current debate whose historical roots Ms. Goldstein capably excavates.

Almost every education reform has been tried before, and failed to make much difference, writes Claudia Wallis in a second New York Times review of the book. (Two reviews!)

Long before Wendy Kopp dreamed up Teach for America to place Ivy Leaguers in public schools, we had the Teacher Corps. Before that, Catharine Beecher — “America’s first media darling school reformer” — was recruiting proper East Coast spinsters to go west to teach the unlettered children of pioneers. . . .  35 years before the Gates Foundation became the 2,000-pound gorilla in American education, the Ford Foundation was throwing its weight around the classroom chasing a similar goal of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Goldstein includes anecdotes about famous Americans who started as teachers, including Susan B. Anthony, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and Lyndon B. Johnson.

But she agrees with John Dewey that, “Education is, and forever will be, in the hands of ordinary men and women.”

Stressing accountability, with no ideas for improving teaching, is “like the hope that buying a scale will result in losing weight,” she concludes.

A future for all

Despite fears of tracking, high-quality career tech programs are overcoming the voc-ed stigma, writes Dana Goldstein in The Nation.  At Aviation High, a five-year career and/or college prep school in Queens, junior Noel Adames taught her about welding.

A member of ROTC, Noel spends his mornings preparing to become an FAA-certified aircraft mechanic, learning the forty-three skills—from welding to air-conditioner maintenance to electrical wiring—required to service planes and helicopters. He spends his afternoons in traditional academic courses, including one college-level class, and will graduate from Aviation’s five-year program with a New York State Regents diploma. His ambition is to attend the Air Force Academy.

“If you understand how the inside of the plane works, it’s a whole other level of being a pilot,” he says. But if that doesn’t work out, Noel’s FAA certification will qualify him for a union job that pays about $55,000 per year with benefits, and could help him finance a college education.

While the Obama administration is pushing science and math education, it’s not funding hands-on programs to prepare students for STEM careers, Goldstein writes.

On Dewey to Delpit, which I’ve just added to the blogroll, Max Bean writes about the unrealistic expectations at no-excuses, college-for-all charter schools. Here’s part three.

“Ideally, every student not suffering from severe biological handicaps should receive the kind of rigorous academic training that would provide an avenue to college; but, even in ideal circumstances, not all students should actually attend college,” Bean writes. “Moreover, the rigid, uniform format in which college prep is currently being implemented in many inner-city schools is absurd and counterproductive.”


The life story of “LIFO”

According to Dana Goldstein, the acronym LIFO did not come up in education discussions until May 19, 2010. In 2009, officials referred to “last in, first out” rules, but they did not use the acronym. Goldstein did some detective work to determine how and when the acronym entered education discussion. (The term “last in, first out” came up in education discussion in 2009, but people used the phrase, not the acronym.)

From what I can tell, the first American use of the LIFO acronym to refer to teacher seniority protections came on May 19, 2010 in an Education Week op-ed by Eric Hanushek, a prominent Stanford University education researcher and fellow at the free-market Hoover Institution. Hanushek introduced readers to the acronym and argued that ending LIFO would be a good way for cash-strapped states to cut costs during a recession.

I emailed Hanushek to ask him how he got the idea to apply “LIFO” to education. “I just know [the term LIFO] from accounting — and my use just picked up on the standard accounting jargon, which seemed to characterize the [teacher seniority] rules perfectly,” he wrote back. Now that teacher layoffs are a reality because of the recession, Hanushek wrote, people are paying more attention to the problem of good, young teachers losing their jobs because of seniority rules.

The New York Post used the acronym on January 25, 2011; according to Goldstein, over 300 news reports have used it since then.

Does the use of the acronym affect the discussion? It probably does. I don’t see a conspiracy in the use of the term–but, as Goldstein points out; “the acronym powerfully recalls one of the most potent critiques of teachers’ unions, that they provide incompetents with job protections for life.” It is hard not to hear “life” in “LIFO.”

In any case, it’s interesting that the acronym has such a short history in education discussion. And it’s generally good to know where terms come from, or at least to ask.