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Weekend Reader: ‘The Teacher Wars: A History Of America’s Most Embattled Profession’

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Weekend Reader: ‘The Teacher Wars: A History Of America’s Most Embattled Profession’


As a new school year begins for students across the country, we remember the struggle for equality in public education that culminated in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, journalist Dana Goldstein outlines the complicated history of public education and the teaching profession. Goldstein praises teachers for the impact they have on young Americans and the role they take in shaping minds and giving students the tools they need to remedy the injustices they will see as they grow up. 

In the excerpt below, Goldstein details how President Johnson developed a progressive philosophy on education as a young teacher in southern Texas.

You can purchase the book here.

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, desegregation was moving so slowly that no one could say for sure how Brown might ultimately affect the education of black children, or the employment of black teachers. A decade after the ruling, over 90 percent of southern black students still attended all-black schools. Of the 333,000 black children who had been integrated, 80 percent lived in border states, not in Deep South strongholds of massive resistance. In Mississippi, not a single black child had been allowed to enroll in a white school. Why? Except in a few high-profile cases, such as President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School, neither the courts nor the executive branch stepped in when white schools turned away black students, when local banks denied credit to black parents who petitioned for their children to attend white schools, or when employers fired those black parents in retaliation.

All that changed in 1964. President Johnson’s enormous popularity in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, as well as his peerless legislative maneuvering, allowed him to establish an unprecedented role for the federal government in local public education. Previous efforts to expand Washington’s influence over local schools had brought limited results. The launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in 1957 prompted Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided several hundred million dollars to prepare high-achieving students for careers in the sciences, math, engineering, and foreign languages. The law did not address educational inequalities driven by race and class. John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 promising to pass a comprehensive federal education aid package, a liberal dream dating back to Reconstruction. But Kennedy’s efforts were stymied when fights broke out on Capitol Hill between lobbyists representing Catholic bishops, who wanted funding for parochial schools, and those representing teachers unions, who opposed aid to religious schools and prioritized higher pay for teachers. Then, during the frustrated decade after Brown, desegregation was the law, but not the reality.

When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Department of Justice could finally sue schools that resisted or delayed integration. The following year, the Voting Rights Act allowed many southern black parents to register to vote for the first time. That meant black citizens could threaten to unseat politicians and school board members who opposed integration. By 1972, less than 10 percent of black students in the South attended an all-black school. Though true school integration would prove relatively fleeting in many neighborhoods, it had, at least temporarily, been achieved.

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The most lasting Great Society change for the nation’s schools came through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the precursor to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind. The 1965 law, initially funded at the massive level of $1.2 billion per year, united the Left and center around a new role for Washington as a standard setter for state education agencies and local schools. While the NDEA had targeted funding toward the best and brightest students, ESEA was all about “compensatory education” for the 19 percent of low-income public school students falling behind in poor, largely black and Hispanic schools. Federal aid would now be offered or withheld depending on whether local policy makers followed national directives, such as supplying low-income schools with up-to-date textbooks, establishing school libraries, and pulling at-risk students out of class for supplemental tutoring. States that offered their low-income students more state-level funding would be rewarded with more money from the federal government. Johnson portrayed this expansion of the federal bureaucracy in stirring, soaring rhetoric. He signed ESEA in his hometown of Johnson City, Texas, with his own elementary school teacher at his side. “By passing this bill, we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than 5 million educationally deprived children,” he said. “And we rekindle the revolution—the revolution of the spirit against the tyranny of ignorance. As a son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is the only valid passport from poverty. As a former teacher—and, I hope, a future one—I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all of our young people.” Those sky-high expectations placed on educators—as revolutionary foot soldiers in the War on Poverty— are still with us today.

To illustrate the transformative power of education, the president wove a careful political mythology around his own nine months working as a teacher in a low-income public elementary school. As a twenty-year-old college dropout in 1928, Johnson followed a girlfriend to south Texas, where the couple planned to earn a little money by teaching school. Johnson found work in the dusty cattle village of Cotulla, home to three thousand residents. He had attended subpar schools in central Texas Hill Country, but he was appalled by the even worse conditions at the segregated Welhausen School, where he taught the children of Mexican American laborers. The school had no extracurricular activities, no lunchtime, and no athletic equipment. The students and their parents struggled with basic English and lived in homes without indoor plumbing or electricity. Johnson wrote to his mother to ask her to send 250 tubes of toothpaste. Because he was male, he was quickly appointed principal. He instituted an “English only” rule on school grounds, founded a debate team that competed against nearby schools, assigned classic poems for students to recite from memory, and required teachers to stay after school to tutor children who needed extra help. His students would remember him as a strict disciplinarian who spanked children who spoke Spanish or talked back to their teachers. But by most reports, Johnson was an inspiring educator nonetheless. He began each school day by telling the story of “the little baby in the cradle”—a poor Mexican American child who sometimes grew up to be a teacher, sometimes a doctor, and sometimes even the president of the United States.

Johnson has been accused, in the words of historian Irwin Unger, of viewing education as “a magic cure for social failure and economic inequality.” But Johnson’s political messages about the children he knew in Cotulla were in fact quite complex. Rather than paint schools and teachers as saviors who could overcome the challenges of poverty (to borrow the phrasing of so many contemporary school reformers), Johnson described his teaching years with considerable humility. He recalled students who came to school hungry and who wordlessly understood that they were despised by whites for their brown skin and foreignness. In a March 1965 speech to Congress on “the American promise,” he portrayed himself as a young teacher walking home from work exhausted and lost in thought, simply “wishing there was more I could do”:

But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

As a mere classroom teacher, Johnson implied, he could not fully address the social challenges his students faced. To do more for them he would need to advance not only an education program, but also a broad agenda to negate the disadvantages of poverty and racism. There would be expanded access to food stamps, affordable housing, and afterschool and summer programs. There would be a federally funded preschool program for the poorest children, called Head Start. Johnson framed this agenda in nearly religious terms. “I want to be the president who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties,” he told Congress. “I want to be the president who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth.” While there remains a consensus that income and educational opportunity are deeply linked, never again would a national school reform agenda be accompanied by so aggressive an antipoverty push.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

From the book The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. Copyright © 2014 by Dana Goldstein. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC



  1. Lynda Groom September 13, 2014

    For the life of me I can’t understand what would make a young college graduate want to pursue a career in teaching these days. Teachers have been blamed for the fall of western civilization by the extremist among us. Teachers and other public servants have also been blamed for all of the financial woes of the states. Teachers are underpaid for the service to the nation that they provide and are too often subject to asinine verbal abuse. Maybe someday in the future they will get the recognition they deserve from the craven politicians that use teachers as a whipping posts. Maybe???

    1. John Michael Hutton September 14, 2014

      As long as there are ignorant, idiotic TeaBaggers around, that will never happen.

  2. John Michael Hutton September 14, 2014

    And now we know the reason for the rise of the REThgulican party. The racists fled to them like ducks to water. All of this other crap about social programs is a canard. It’s all about allowing black kids to be educated and allowing blacks to vote. EVen today we see ReThuglican efforts to prevent minorities from voting. ReThuglicans make me sick.

    1. joe schmo September 14, 2014

      Then puke why don’t you? Voter registration ID was enacted to insure that there would be no cheating. Apparently you are not O.K. with that. Makes me think your side has something to hide.

      Besides, if you are so worried about the poor and blacks not being able to vote then do something about it. Go into the poor neighborhoods and make sure they all have ID’s and have the ability to vote. Hey, concept! Something that most of you don’t have.

      1. sleepvark September 14, 2014

        Madam joline schmoka, your tampon is leaking all over your keyboard again, you hateful foreign bitch. You twist the little you have learned since you arrived on our shores to some sort of evil purpose, which you cover with conservative psychobabble that even most honest conservatives (there are a few out there) cringe at when they hear it. Go back to Mordor, where you belong.

  3. bikejedi September 14, 2014

    In 2012 Chicago already had the highest paid Public Unions Teachers in America ( Large system school districts ) Our Dem Mayor Emanuel had agreed to give them a raise of over 14% IN THIS BAD ECONOMY when no one else in America is getting raises and most are being transitioned to part time jobs thanks to Obamacare . Karen Lewis called a strike . She held the City hostage and used our kids as Human Sympathy Shields . Lewis knew that the Dems ( who support her Socialist Union anyway ) would not want a protracted battle with labor in an Obama election year . So our Teachers struck with no regard for the parents or the children just for an even bigger raise and also to gain an evaluation process that would ensure that even the worst performing teacher could not be fired . She gamble correctly as Rahm caved even further and gave them a 17% raise ( by some more accurate accounting a 19% raise ) IN THIS ECONOMY on the backs of their neighbors who pay Taxes . Now our Teachers are scheduled to make 98 K a year after 4 years of service and that number gets pushed to over 130 k with their Tax Payer supplied Health care plans ( God forbid they should have to buy one of those useless Obama plans ) and their Pensions ( which are golden ) . They work 8 1/2 mos a year and 5 1/2 hour days and get every Fed State and city Holiday off . They get paid vacation during the school year ( disrupting the flow of classes ) And the average retirement age of a Chicago Unions Teacher is 48 .. so the Tax Payers are on the hook for the rest of their lives . For all of that they produce horrid results . We have some of the lowest graduation rates in America and of those who do graduate only 6 out of every 100 will have a college degree by the age of 25 . for Minority students that number is 3 out of every 100 .. So excuse me if I have no sympathy for these indoctrinators .. By the way the average medium income of a Chicago household is 47 K and these Union Indoctrinator make double that off the backs of their neighbors .. Now you know why people are leaving Chicago in droves and why I sold my home

    1. Lynda Groom September 14, 2014

      The overall population of the Chicago metro area grew by only 23,230 during 2013. Since 2010 the area has grown only by 70,000, primarily due to the poor economic conditions. The economic recession has slowed growth to less than 1% annually. It will be interesting to see if the growth rate improves when the economic condition improves.

  4. charles king September 14, 2014

    I am so proud Of President Johnson more so than ever because I came away from the teaching experience with the same truths that education was needed for the People cause it was the one thing that could beat poverty. America, it is about time that we get our education system working properly for all of our childrenof all shades instead of playing the Plutocracy game of privatizing the Peoples Assets like their Public school and turning them into Charters schools. I am an reasonable Black American Who? has fought its War and pay his taxes but I am getting pissed off at the disrespect that has been displayed by my State and Federal Govt. towards the Black American’s prespectives in our Country, I say “Our’s) because as A Black American, I definitly make My claim for me and My family from the begining of time of My Country. I hear comments from the GOP ” take the country back ” Well, I am here asking ” from Who? Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING

  5. Larry Nopen September 14, 2014

    Really, your now selling books for amazon? Teachers have it made. There should be no ten year, an they should be tested for drugs just like the military.

  6. Eleanore Whitaker September 15, 2014

    The minute school boards realized more than half of the town can’t be bothered to attend school board meetings, they knew they had enormous power. In my state, (NJ) THE most powerful union is NJEA. Most Americans would not want the school taxes people pay in NJ. How does $4,000 a year…just for school taxes sound to you?

    Stop the complaining. Education is the best investment any American can make in their country. The long term ROI is seen in NJ who has just been nominated No. 1 in Ivy League Universities with Princeton coming out ahead of MIT, Harvard and Yale.

    Your investment in education doesn’t mean every teacher who receives a salary should become a millionaire on tax dollars. That reality of teaching is that teachers know going in, they are paid by TAXPAYERS. In NJ, teachers are not underpaid. Their salaries start at or near $50,000 in the first 3 years. By their 3rd year, they either become tenured or they don’t. There are over 150,00 NJ teachers earning $90,000 or more annually. This doesn’t count their benefits which are virtually free. Most teachers in NJ pay $5 copays for their medical. And, all NJ teachers retire on their last employment year’s income.

    Teacher salaries in NY, CT and MA are even higher. So where are all these underpaid teachers? In red states. That figures.

    A professor at NJ’s Rutgers, earns on average $210,000 a year. Not enough to live on? When taxpayers who earn $40K a year are the ones contributing to those 6-figure salaries? And, these college professors don’t work 40 hour weeks either. Don’t believe it? Call your local college and get the facts.

    I believe teachers should be paid according to the value they add to the education system in the US. Dead wood in teachers’ unions is impossible to remove. NJ just recently had to remove a teacher who committed a crime. The cost was to pay that teacher the $210,000 in accumulated sick, vacation and personal time over a 2 decade period. Who gets paid to NOT be sick?


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