cover of Dana Goldstein's "The Teacher Wars"As many reviewers have already said, Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars is a super smart look at the history of the American education system, with a focus on the key stories and leaders we need to know in order to understand what’s happening now.

If there’s one thing I took away from the book (which is currently #8 on The New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list), it’s that none of the proposed solutions in our current (and heated) education debates are new. In fact, they’ve all been tried before. We are, as usual, repeating history.

I’ve been following Dana’s reporting on education (and feminism and criminal justice) ever since we were part of the same writing group in Brooklyn in 2012 (I even got to workshop early drafts of the book’s first chapter). When I was teaching writing and urban issues at American University, she was a guest speaker in my classes (students loved her).

I’ve been so excited to see her successes, and the timing of this book feels particularly symbolic: Last month, I left academia for a full-time job in the education reform movement (I’m a writer at Bellwether Education Partners). I’m so happy to have more time to delve into the issues she so smartly writes about, and to do so while on the clock, so to speak.

Last night she joined New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey and Slate.com’s Jamelle Bouie to discuss the book, and while there were a ton of smart things I could highlight from the discussion, let me focus on one.

Dana’s book (and other writing over the years) describes the dichotomy where teachers are either seen as heroes (e.g., their work with the highest needs kids is a form of community service) or devils (e.g., they are failing our kids, our schools, and our communities). In the best case scenario, teachers are the “angel-magicians” who mentor vulnerable children, and in the worst case scenario, they are killing the American Dream.

Dana argues, and I would agree, that this dichotomy is damaging because it locks teachers into one camp or another without leaving room for improvement. Teachers aren’t viewed as professionals who can use training and mentorship to grow, but as a corps of do-gooders who either are or miserably fail to be saviors.

At the same time, as Dana said in a recent interview, “Because we have a relatively weak social safety net [in the United States], we’re really asking [teachers] to close these gaps between life outcomes for middle-class kids and life outcomes for poor kids.” So there is a sense in which teachers are doing extraordinary work.

At yesterday’s event, I asked Dana how to dismantle the harmful dichotomy while still acknowledging the tremendous teachers who work in extremely challenging circumstances. How can we name and honor the teachers who are essentially being asked to double as social workers, “particularly in high-needs schools in poor areas, where children are often coming from unsteady home lives?”

Dana recalled public school teachers from her childhood (in racially integrated schools!) who were heroes for some kids, buying winter coats for those who couldn’t afford them, etc.

But she also talked about wanting teachers to have less of these cases per classroom. Ideally, Dana said last night, a teacher has only a few students that she needs to be a hero for, and the rest of the students just need “a great instructional leader.”

Obviously this means we need classrooms that are more integrated, both racially and economically.

Based on her research, Dana thinks we also need to systematically move the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms. Does this imply the Teach for America (TFA) model works as a solution? Not quite, argues Dana. She doesn’t want new or novice teachers who only work for a few years (a missionary-style model that Dana’s book traces as far back as the 1800s).

Her problem with the TFA-style model is the “churn and burn cycle,” where even if a classroom teacher is an all-star veteran, the constant turnover in the school around them can negatively impact student achievement.

This makes sense when you think about how kids need consistency to develop trust and build relationships. But Dana also added that part of the “churn and burn” problem is that the attention and energy of the adults in the school is “focused on recruitment not instruction.”

So how do we get the best teachers into the classrooms that need them the most?

Dana has reported on the Talent Transfer Initiative, an attempt to get the best teachers into the highest needs classrooms and to get them to stay there.

Last night, she also talked about polling that reveals the reasons teachers leave: No career ladder. Little or no recognition from adults (feedback, compliments, mentorship). Problem principals.

Tackle those issues and teachers might be willing to work in some of the most challenging schools.

To read more, including Dana’s 11 recommendations for improving American education, go buy the book.

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