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.