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City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective

reviewed by Harvey Kantor - 2001

coverTitle: City Teachers: Teaching and School Reform in Historical Perspective
Author(s): Kate Rousmaniere
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: , Pages: 178, Year: 1997
Search for book at Amazon.com

Over the last decade, there has been a revival of interest in the history of teachers and teaching. This interest has produced several notable histories of the feminization of teaching, classroom pedagogy, and teachers' political organizations. But, as Kate Rousmaniere observes in the introduction to her new book, absent from nearly all of these historical studies have been accounts from inside the schools that describe teachers' working conditions and daily work processes. One result is that while we now know a good deal about issues such as gender, unions, and professionalism in teaching, we still know little about the history of teachers' work or about the meaning that it had for teachers.

In City Teachers, Rousmaniere tries to fill this gap by examining teachers' experiences of what it was like to work in New York City during the 1920s when school reformers sought to re-make the city's schools in accordance with the principles of social efficiency. She begins with an account of the politics of teaching and teacher unions in New York in the years just prior to and immediately after World War I followed by an analysis of the occupational structure of teaching (including salary scale, personnel policies, and educational requirements for entry, as well as the ethnic, gender, and class composition of the teaching force) in the city during the 1920s. But the heart of the book draws on interviews with nearly two dozen retired New York City teachers, contemporary observations of teachers and schooling, and official reports from government agencies in an effort to uncover what Rousmaniere calls "the commonplaces of schooling" (p.7) that made up the daily rhythms of teachers' work during a period of intense educational reform.

Rousmaniere acknowledges that in the 1920s teachers in New York were paid higher salaries and received better benefits than teachers in any other big city in the country. By and large, however, she argues that the history of teachers' work in New York during the 1920s is one of intensifying demands, worsening work conditions, and misplaced expectations. Not only did the city's teachers have to put up with excessively large classes, inadequate facilities, and a shortage of supplies, she says, but the school reform initiatives of the 1920s made their working lives even more difficult by increasing their workload, alienating them from each other, and isolating them in their classrooms with little outside support. And, though New York teachers did not simply comply with the new demands placed on them, Rousmaniere argues, they were too weak and divided to fight for their own vision of an efficient workplace. Rather, they developed an informal work culture that equipped them with the coping strategies they needed to exert some control over their work but that in the long run discouraged their efforts to organize collectively for "real change in the workplace" (p. 5), since it reinforced their identities as "lone individuals" (p. 5).

Unfortunately, Rousmaniere offers no satisfactory framework to make sense of these patterns. She suggests at the beginning of the book that the work conditions she describes and teachers' responses to them are best understood as the product of a multiplicity of factors, including class, ethnicity, gender, professionalism, administration, and unions. But she rarely looks systematically at the relationship between teachers' work and any of these issues. Consequently, despite her initial observation, the explanation she offers to account for what she says teachers experienced seldom goes much further than the ideological predilections of school reformers or the organizational abilities of school administrators.

Despite this shortcoming, it is possible to learn a good deal from City Teachers about working conditions in New York City schools after World War I and how school reform looked, not to the school reformers and administrators who promoted it, but to those who were responsible for implementing it. As Selma Berrol has also observed, there is a good section on how teachers responded to the intelligence tests that captured the imagination of administrators in New York and other cities in the decade after World War I. It illustrates that while many of the city's teachers welcomed the introduction of these tests because they relieved teachers of responsibility for students' failure, they also resented them because of the extra work they required to administer and the time they took away from the regular curriculum. In addition, by pointing out how reforms such as the socialization of the curriculum intensified teachers' work by adding to their duties outside the classroom, the book helps us see why teachers often opposed changes that many outsiders at the time viewed as progressive and democratic. And, though the book tends to view teachers as victims, it does a good job showing how teachers in one city resisted the demands placed on them by developing a variety of informal traditions and practices that enabled them to deal with the problems they encountered at work.

Rousmaniere laments all of this, especially the failure of New York teachers in the 1920s to fight more aggressively to alter the conditions that degraded their work. But it is hard to know from her analysis what strategies the city's teachers might have adopted to achieve the work conditions she believes they deserved and needed. Although teachers insisted that they be viewed as professionals, her argument implies that they should have given up the search for professional status since, in her view, the ideology of professionalism encouraged them to blame themselves for the problems they faced at work rather than form strong collective organizations, particularly teacher unions. But the evidence from the first chapter of her book suggests that teacher unions in New York in the decade after World War I did not do a very good job addressing teachers' needs at the workplace either, partly because their leaders shared conventional views about the role of teachers and schools and partly because they were too weak to do much to shape directly teachers' working conditions and therefore focused on raising salaries and improving benefits instead.

Rousmaniere's disappointment about teachers' failure to organize and fight more aggressively for improvements in their working conditions stems ultimately from her assumption that the pinched conditions of teachers' work inhibited their ability to open up learning opportunities for students. But the notion that stronger unions dedicated to improving teachers' work conditions would necessarily have resulted in better education for students merits closer scrutiny than she is inclined to give it. For not everything teachers did in the classroom can be attributed to their working conditions, or to their inability to organize to do something about them. To the contrary, not only did many teachers in New York and other big cities discriminate against their students for reasons that had as much to do with their racial and ethnic prejudices as with the conditions of their work, but, as Robert Lowe and Howard Fuller have pointed out, when big city unions did gain more power, they frequently fought for changes in work conditions that had as much to do with protecting teachers from their students as with educating them, especially when those students were black.(1)

Rousmaniere's inattention to these issues does not invalidate the historical "lessons" that she draws from her study. But it does limit what might profitably be learned from it. Based on her research, it is hard to quibble with her conclusion that reform today cannot succeed unless it considers teachers' ability to get their tasks done given their working conditions. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to know from what Rousmaniere tells us why reformers today are any more likely to consider this than they were in the past, or what else needs to be done to make schools better places, not just for those who work in them, but for the students who attend them as well.


1. Robert Lowe and Howard Fuller, "Toward Reinterpreting the History of Urban Teacher Unions During the Collective Bargaining Era." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 1998.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 132-135
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10493, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:45:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Harvey Kantor
    University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    Harvey Kantor is a Professor in the Education, Culture and Society department of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Utah. His research interests include: history of education; social policy; and school and work. Publications include Learning to Earn: School, Work, and Vocational Reform in California, 1880-1930 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) and Work, Youth, and Schooling: Historical Perspectives on Vocationalism in American Education (edited with David Tyack) (Stanford University Press, 1982).
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