The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
Teacher Wars

Feb 15, 2016

Journalist Dana Goldstein’s book, Teacher Wars, shows, through 200 years of U.S. public school history, how education has been constantly underfunded and how teachers have had to fight off attacks in many epochs.

From the early 1800s, politicians wanted public education at the lowest possible price. One key way to cut costs of education was to hire women as teachers. Publicly, officials argued that women would offer a more pure, that is, a more “Christian” education, than men. But in reality it was a way for politicians to cut costs because women teachers were paid less. The justification was that men teachers had families to support – as if women didn’t!

But women turned out less “Christian” than the politicians hoped. Susan B. Anthony, later famous as a suffragist, was among the New York women teachers who fought to raise their salaries, which in 1850 were half what men teachers were paid.

In 1897, Margaret Haley helped to found the Chicago Teachers Federation, a precursor to the American Federation of Teachers. Haley found out that seven utility companies in the Chicago area paid no taxes. And she also publicized that the Chicago school board was renting out its real estate cheaply to area businesses and to two Chicago newspapers. Handing money over to businesses will sound familiar to those following the Chicago Public Schools battles of today!

In 1905, Chicago teachers like Haley joined local Teamsters in a strike for higher pay and union rights. The newspapers, showing which side they were on, claimed striking teachers were teaching their students “sedition, revolt against constitutional authority, disrespect for law, and subversion of private and public rights.”

Ridiculous attacks on teachers continue with the education fads of today. For example, the book looks at merit pay. It’s supposedly a method to improve educational outcomes – although no research supports this idea. In reality, it’s just another attack on teachers’ pay. Goldstein also looks at the history of Teach for America. She agrees with one graduate of that program, who explained, “Giving the least experienced teachers the toughest classes to teach is a stupid plan.” In fact, TfA is best seen as yet another cost-cutting measure.

Teacher Wars gives a useful look at the history of education with its constant blame of teachers, who are meant to remedy the ills of a society that itself has no solution to poverty, racism or sexism, whether in the classroom or the work force. Behind this history is the fact that capitalism needs the public schools because it needs a workforce with some degree of education. But the capitalists want this education for the masses on the cheap!