U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jonathan Zimmerman and American Teachers

zimmermanHistorian Jonathan Zimmerman has an essay in the December 4 issue of The New York Review of Books that I highly recommend. Its high quality is to be expected from one of our greatest educational historians, author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, which has been formative in shaping research on both of my books.

In “Why Is American Teaching So Bad?”—the title of the essay, which is a review of three books on teaching, including Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession—Zimmerman is highly critical of what goes for education reform these days. He argues that the push for “accountability” “makes our best teachers do their jobs worse” because they are forced to teach to tests that deaden the soul. Zimmerman also criticizes education reform platitudes about how good teachers are the solution to “the crippling effects of poverty.” So Zimmerman is pro-teacher, to a point. American teaching are so bad, in part, because of meddling reformers.

But Zimmerman does not let teachers off the hook so easily, and this is where his perspective challenges those of us who are harsh critics of education reform. He is correct when he points out, for example, that the American teaching force has often, for a variety of historical and social factors, been an exhibit of anti-intellectualism. There is some truth to Zimmerman’s charges that our colleges of education lack high standards. He writes:

American education schools are often derided as overly theoretical, inscribing an arcane vocabulary about education and few real skills for delivering it. But these institutions actually teach a hollow and decidedly anti-intellectual brand of theory, as many critiques of education schools have concluded. Future teachers receive a warmed-over set of homilies about preparing “the whole child” and “student-centered learning” (with the requisite homage to philosopher and education theorist John Dewey) instead of a serious intellectual initiation into the subjects in which teachers will have to instruct students.

One of the biggest problems is that most teacher training is not grounded in the academic disciplines. Many American high school history teachers did not major in history, rather they received a degree in education. This is problematic because much research shows that in order to properly teach a discipline a teacher must be grounded in the epistemological assumptions of that discipline. Although I might be a good teacher of history, I can’t teach chemistry because I am unfamiliar with the system of knowledge that grounds the discipline of chemistry. At my institution—Illinois State University—those training to be high school history teachers must major in history, and they learn pedagogy from historians like me. So this might be one solution, although Zimmerman points out that a lot of instruction in colleges of arts and sciences is no more rigorous than that found in colleges of education.

So I agree with Zimmerman that we can and should improve our teaching force, even if such improvement is not a solution to the problems endemic to a society riven by economic and racial inequality. We could do as they do in Finland, where “students of education take carefully constructed courses in the subject they will teach; they then spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors; and finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.” Yes, that would be great. Let’s do that (and pay teachers more while we’re at it, and since we’re aiming high, let’s have Scandinavian social democracy, too).

But even though I agree with much of Zimmerman’s analysis, and appreciate the challenge he offers us, I think he overstates the case against teachers, and understates the case against education reform. Take this telling paragraph on Teach for America:

The jury is very much out on the effectiveness of TFA teachers, who represent just 1 percent of America’s teaching force. But even such small numbers can be seen as an enormous indictment of the profession and especially of the institutions that prepare people for it. Imagine if an Ivy League student started Nurses for America, giving highly qualified recruits a quick five-to-seven week training (which is all that TFAers receive) and then sending them into hospitals to draw blood, administer vaccinations, and monitor life-support machines. Newspapers and patients’ rights groups would immediately mount a strong political protest, and personal injury lawyers would see fertile new ground for lawsuits. Everyone understands that you can’t be a nurse without attending a nursing school with carefully developed standards that must be met if candidates are to be systematically inducted into the profession. Most of our schools of education lack such high standards. If they did, TFA and other “alternative routes” into teaching wouldn’t exist.

I think most teachers are as qualified as nurses–and I think teaching and nursing are very different vocations–and as such I find this conclusion an odd misunderstanding of the politics of TFA and education reform. As Tim Barker correctly remarked on a Facebook thread about this article, Zimmerman’s charge is like blaming unionized workers for the existence of scabs.

Why does Zimmerman come down so hard on teachers, and especially on colleges of education? A bit of intellectual history might prove helpful.

Zimmerman, in a sense, represents the longstanding critique that professors of the humanities have made of so-called “educationists.” This debate goes back to the Progressive Era but was especially pointed in the early Cold War, when colleges of education saw it as their mission to adjust children to the status quo and emphasized vocational and technical skills instead of liberal values. So in this way Zimmerman is following in the trajectory set forth by Arthur Bestor, Robert Hutchins, and Richard Hofstadter, among others, whose criticisms of progressive education I analyze at length in Chapter 6 of my first book, Education and the Cold War. That Zimmerman straddles a line professionally between the history department and college of education at NYU might exacerbates this tension for him.

The problem, though, is that circumstances have changed dramatically. TFA and the larger reform movement represent an unparalleled attack on public education and a unionized teacher force, a contemporary reality that to some degree transcends the old humanist-educationist debate, rendering it less important. Furthermore if TFA sides with either side in this division it sides with the vocationalists since it advocates standardized testing and the Taylorization of the teaching force that Zimmerman rightly sees as a bad development.