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DANA GOLDSTEIN comes from a family of public school educators. She received the Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism, a Schwarz Fellowship at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellowship at the Nation Institute. Her journalism is regularly featured in Slate, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, and other publications, and she is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. She lives in New York City.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:One of the themes that runs through your book is the “moral panic”–these recurring moments in history when people become convinced that teachers are indoctrinating kids, or abusing them, or something else. How did you arrive at that theme?
DANA GOLDSTEIN: I had read the literature from sociologists describing the moral panic, and it was a phenomenon I was familiar with as a journalist from covering poverty issues. It comes up a lot in ideas like drug-addicted moms who give birth to crack babies – that was certainly a big moral panic in the eighties – or welfare queens, that’s another one. Basically what I argue is that the panic over teacher tenure, teacher job security, and low-performing teachers that we’ve seen over the past decade in the United States is our new moral panic. It’s about poverty, because we’ve asked teachers to close socioeconomic gaps, to solve child poverty, to address inequality, and these problems are so bad that we have very high expectations for teachers. But it’s difficult for them to meet these expectations, so it leads to this cycle of outrage and panic.
PRH:At the end of your book, you have a list of your prescriptions for what needs to be done to improve education, which includes toning the rhetoric down and being more realistic about what teaching is and can do.
DG: Absolutely – and also focusing on building teachers’ skills. If we already have these very high expectations for teachers, we can’t just pile on more without helping them get better at what they do.
PRH:How does the idea of the moral panic tie together the historical stories you tell – of what’s happening in education after the Civil War, or in the 1930s – with what’s happening now?
DG: The first moral panic we see in American education over bad teachers is about male teachers. In the nineteenth century, policymakers wanted to hire female teachers because they’re cheaper to employ, so they make the argument that male teachers are sadistic, that they’re constantly using corporal punishment, that they’re alcoholics – a broad-brush generalization there! Then in the twentieth century there was panic about female teachers: that they weren’t tough enough to deal with misbehaving kids. So this comes up again and again.
I hope the fact that I tell so many stories about interesting real-life teachers – some of whom are very famous to us, like W.E.B. Du Bois or Lyndon B. Johnson, and some of whom are less famous – will help people find this book accessible.
PRH:One thing the book makes clear is that opinions and beliefs about teaching don’t track neatly along party lines.
DG: Exactly, and that’s what’s always been interesting to me about education as a journalist – it’s not an area that has a very clear divide between what liberals believe and what conservatives believe. It’s all mixed up, and that’s been the case historically as well.
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