The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a walk through America’s history of the public school education system. This book covers roughly 175 years of the education system in the United States. The following passage is taken from the book’s overview page at

In her groundbreaking history of 175 years of American education, Dana Goldstein finds answers in the past to the controversies that plague our public schools today.

Teaching is a wildly contentious profession in America, one attacked and admired in equal measure. In The Teacher Wars, a rich, lively, and unprecedented history of public school teaching, Dana Goldstein reveals that teachers have been similarly embattled for nearly two centuries. From the genteel founding of the common schools movement in the nineteenth century to the violent inner-city teacher strikes of the 1960s and ’70s, from the dispatching of Northeastern women to frontier schoolhouses to the founding of Teach for America on the Princeton University campus in 1989, Goldstein shows that the same issues have continued to bedevil us: Who should teach? What should be taught? Who should be held accountable for how our children learn? 

She uncovers the surprising roots of hot button issues, from teacher tenure to charter schools, and finds that recent popular ideas to improve schools—instituting merit pay, evaluating teachers by student test scores, ranking and firing veteran teachers, and recruiting “elite” graduates to teach—are all approaches that have been tried in the past without producing widespread change. And she also discovers an emerging effort that stands a real chance of transforming our schools for the better: drawing on the best practices of the three million public school teachers we already have in order to improve learning throughout our nation’s classrooms.

The Teacher Wars upends the conversation about American education by bringing the lessons of history to bear on the dilemmas we confront today. By asking “How did we get here?” Dana Goldstein brilliantly illuminates the path forward.

What Worked Well

This is a thorough and compelling recount of the education system across almost two centuries. While bits and pieces of the story have been known, this book connects all of the dots. Even dots we didn’t know existed. If you are curious as to how teaching, one of the most important professions in existence, became one of the lowest-paid this book will explain it in great detail. It wasn’t an accident. The facts are presented in such a way that the reader can draw their own conclusions and explore their own thoughts about the information.

It is easy to follow and chronologically laid out. The research is impeccable as well as many of the inferences she draws. As can often happen in accounts such as this, the black experience is often left out. That is not the case here. She provides a fair and balanced recounting of the facts against a backdrop of shifting politics in the country.

What Didn’t Work Well

There isn’t much that could be done to improve this book. While Ms. Goldstein gets a thumbs up for including the dismantling of black schools, there is little discussion on how the same system impacted Native Americans or Hispanics. In the national conversation, the race debate often breaks out to white and black, leaving Native Americans, Hispanics, and other races/ethnicities out of the discussion. There is room to have a broader discussion in this book about that.

It is a fact-dense book. It may need to be absorbed in portions rather than sitting down for a complete and long read. There is much to digest. Some aspects may even make you angry. Could the book have been broken up into two different books? I don’t think so. It’s a seven-course meal that you will need hours to consume and digest.

The Verdict

This is a must read book if you are in education or have a child in school. This book is even more important given today’s political landscape. The reason for low teacher pay is astounding to me. I was surprised to find out it has its basis in discrimination. My original thought was teaching just wasn’t valued. Not only is this not the case, it used to be a highly paid profession. Teacher Wars is illuminating and is an important work as this country continues this war whose casualties are children and the future of this nation.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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Genre: American History, Non-Fiction
Subjects: Education

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