Martin Haberman

Portrait Image


Shorewood, WI




Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin School of Education, author

“I’m a pragmatist doing the best I can with the situation as it exists.”


Early in his career in Milwaukee, Martin developed an innovative teaching internship program for liberal arts graduates which caught the attention of the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Sen. Ted Kennedy. This became the model for the National Teacher Corps, which eventually prepared 100,000 teachers between 1963 and 1972. He has devoted over 50 years of his life to methods of selecting and preparing teachers and principals for diverse students in poverty. He is the author of Star Teachers of Children in Poverty (2005) and the Haberman Evaluation for Effective Teachers. He long has argued that selection is more important than training. The Haberman Educational Foundation is dedicated to his work.

We met on three different occasions in his home.  The following interview is an amalgam of all three, plus a subsequent phone interview during the 2011 demonstrations in Madison against Gov. Scott Walker.

On all three occasions, he  offers me ginger ale and Fig Newtons.

He tells me how and why he became a teacher educator and why it became a lifelong commitment.


You’re not going to believe this, but I’ll tell you. I was drafted three times. This was during the Korean War, 1950. Each time, something happened that prevented me from going. I remember the first time going down to the recruiting station in downtown Manhattan with 500 guys all standing around naked, going through various stations where they would check your ears or eyes or nose, whatever, your feet. One station was intelligence. If you were a college student and you passed a 30-word vocabulary test, you could stay in college for one year more. If you failed it, you went into the army. Your bus was downstairs. They took you to Fort Lee, New Jersey, ended up in Korea. If you passed it, you went back to college.

Just think about that. I mean, you have to realize that [Edward] Thorndike and his crew created all this during World War I. He convinced the army that he could classify people by giving them IQ tests. Not only the army, but the public believed in IQ tests, then. So the first time I was drafted, I had another year to be able to go to college. Second time I went, I had a cyst the size of a hardboiled egg. Third time, I had jaundice. I never got there.

In 1953, the war was over. 55,000 people were killed and more than that were wounded for really no good reason. But because I passed that vocabulary test … you see? Sorting people. Lots of people benefit from these kinds of sorts. I was benefited, and people like me were benefited, so if you benefit from racism or sexism or whatever it is, you don’t really reflect on it too much. And so it’s easy to believe that you’ve “earned it,” when you really haven’t. In the broad sense, you want to change it. But personally I benefited from it. I never went to Korea. I can understand why lots of people don’t think about it. But I thought about it because that test at the draft board was a signal event in my life. From that point on, I was thinking of the social justice issues.


When did you start pointing yourself toward a career in education?

I thought, how could somebody who believes what I do find a job that would support what I believe in? My wife was an art teacher in Elizabeth Port, New Jersey. She was working with really poor black kids, teaching art. And I had various jobs and was going to college. I got a master’s degree from NIU in sociology. By the time I was 25 I had had maybe a dozen jobs.   I had tried various things and didn’t like any of them particularly. It struck me that my wife was enjoying her work and seemed to be doing good things.

So at 24 or 25, I said to myself, How do you become a teacher? Columbia Teachers College had a master’s program where you could take a master’s degree and get certified, so I went up there. That’s where I became a teacher.   And that’s what changed my life. I fell in with really brilliant, wonderful people. I had great, great teachers, and there were wonderful students. I was just knocked for a loop by the issues we were discussing. Some of the faculty I had were people who got their degrees or studied with Dewey or were colleagues of his, so it was a direct line to that whole thought process. In fact, my ed psych teacher was Robert Thorndike, Thorndike’s son.

What did you think it was possible to achieve, at that time?

Oh, everything. All of it. We thought we still had a chance to change the world. I had a three-year scholarship to finish my doctorate, so I started to teach. This is the exciting and important part to me, this is where I really came to it, where it all fit together, during this three-year period.   I wanted to be a teacher educator. So then the issue became, How do you become a teacher educator? Do you become a teacher educator by taking courses? Well, of course not. It’s only through, we didn’t say “hands on,” we said, “direct experience.”

During this three-year period, I was part of a group. We had 30 people each year. Our question was, How do we make these liberal arts students teachers? What is it? We decided early on we didn’t want them taking a lot of education courses. We wanted them doing stuff, so we had them doing what was called laboratory experiences. They worked in schools and then they student taught in schools. We would only meet with them once a week. It could not be coursework. That was a big step, because the courses I was pooh-poohing were courses from great people, courses where you learned a lot, but it didn’t bridge the practicality gap.

And so they saw firsthand the inequities in America, how those inequities are reflected through the schools. We helped them understand that it’s naïve to believe the schools are going to build the new social order. To understand that it’s the schools who are propagating the inequities in society. It’s the schools that are the institutionalized vehicle for maintaining inequality. They’re not the basis for how we’re going to build a new social order.

That’s when my career changed from being a supporter of schools of education to being a critic. I took that step –which the people at Columbia, who had educated me, didn’t ever take –that a person could be a teacher of record and responsible while they were learning. You see, that was the step. That was the big step. Fifty years ago that was a big goddamn deal.

I started to look at teaching in a whole different light. It struck me early on that this is not a science or an art. It’s a craft. So I then I thought, Well, it’s a moral craft. You’re not making bookcases, you’re making people. Okay, if it’s a craft, then the people who have the knowledge base, the practical knowledge base, are the greatest teachers, not the professors. Because the professors aren’t doing it, can’t do it or don’t want to do it.

I decided early on to start studying great teachers. Then the issue became “What constitutes greatness?” Those early definitions were not just based on test scores; they were based on behaviors of people who could relate to all different kinds of kids. Slow, fast, interested, not interested, this ethnic group, that ethnic group. So that’s why I studied great teachers and what they believed, what their values were that we could identify in the classroom. That’s where I came up with what ultimately led to the questions on the questionnaire [The Star Teacher Interview].


Greatness is…?

The most important value that separates greatness from failure is the belief that for kids in poverty, being successful in school is a matter of life and death. They think of themselves as air traffic controllers, brain surgeons, somebody driving a Greyhound bus on an icy highway in the middle of the night. Somebody who’s doing something that’s a matter of life and death.

Look. I trace every problem we have in our society to the failure of the schools. The health of the society is at stake, and it’s all of us in a life and death situation. It’s direct and indirect. 7,000 kids a day drop out of high school. That means a city the size of Chicago lost every two and a half years. How long can you lose cities the size of Chicago every two and a half years and still have the society that can provide Medicare, social security? I mean, you can’t. Now that’s the mega picture, but the individual tragedies are also life and death.

Here’s the problem: Everybody benefits from keeping the schools the way they are. We have our health insurance, our houses, our cars, and it’s all on the backs of an eight-year-old kid skipping rope who can’t read. This whole failure system is on her shoulders, so everybody can quack about everything they’re doing for her, and nobody’s doing a fucking thing for her except exploiting her. Why can’t we change? We don’t want to. We all benefit too much from this failure.

 But that suggests there’s no way out of it.

No, there isn’t. Of course there isn’t a way out. Ok. The way out is to get some kids some better teachers. I don’t think people who are transforming the system are worth talking to. They’re not going to transform anything.

 So it’s about transforming what you can.

That’s right. If I were a doctor and my field was cancer, I wouldn’t choose to be working on research. I’d say to someone else, You do that. I’m going to work with the patients I have using the modalities I have. You work on the research for the cure. So that’s my personality, those are my values. I’m a pragmatist doing the best I can with the situation as it exists. I set a goal for myself. I will reach X number of kids this year. Then when I meet it, I can say, Hell I had a great year! And I set another goal for the following year. You see? And that’s the only way I can put meaning in my own life, because I can see results now.


At the height of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, 2011, Martin and I talk again. I ask the octogenarian if what is happening there reminds him of any other period in history.

Not that I’ve lived through. It’s a very, very sad state of affairs. It’s a historic reversal of history.   Because the entire period I’ve lived through has been about the establishment of social security, safety in coal mines, OSHA requirements in the workplace, the rights for women. Everything in my lifetime has been an expansion of rights, expansion of workers’ dignity, shortening of the work week, maternity benefits, equal opportunity in the workplace for minorities, anti-discrimination laws and so on. This is the first one in my lifetime that’s a real step backward.

It’s obvious that most people, whether they’re for or against this, have very little knowledge of the impact of the labor unions in American history. Most Wisconsinites, as most Americans, are suffering from a lack of basic knowledge about the place of labor unions in American history. They don’t understand it; they don’t think it’s important to know. I think it’s been a notable failure of the schools, since the schools emphasize reading and math, they don’t emphasize social studies. I think it’s possible to graduate from a Wisconsin high school and the university and never once learn anything about labor movement or the role of the labor movement in American history or how many thousands of people have physically, literally died to get a six day week and then a five day week and two weeks vacation and safety rules and health benefits and so on and so on. People just don’t know it. [Gov.] Walker himself doesn’t know; he doesn’t want to know. He’s an ideologue. He doesn’t think about anything. He refers to some inner voice that tells him what’s right and wrong; it’s just the belief system he has. It’s not based on knowledge, it’s not based on research, it’s not based on history.

The ideology is quite clear, that the unit of analysis is not society. The unit of analysis is the family and the individual, and every individual and every family should stand on its own. Taxpayers should not be burdened by people who don’t want to work hard. They don’t believe that unemployment is the result of a recession; they believe unemployment is a result of laziness, and they see most of the money going to people who are unworthy, in their mind, and most of those are minorities.

 If you were a 35-year-old teacher in Madison, partway through his career, what would you be doing, right now?

I’d be probably in the capital, picketing. But I’ll tell you this. I wouldn’t expect that if I were a teacher, I would ever be able to own a particularly nice home. I wouldn’t expect that I would ever be able to afford to send my kids to college. If I were a 35-year-old teacher, I’d be thinking about, what can I do to help my kids someday get into college and pay for it?

Where do you see signs of hope right now?

I think it’s very hard for me to just be hopeful. I think our educational system is so bad, our schools of education, especially. I’m hopeful that, in a society like ours, there’ll always be enough free speech that there’ll always be people who will say, “This is all bullshit.” Even if it gets down to just 10%, there’ll always be a substantial number of people who question everything.

So to the teachers marching in Madison, you would say….

They need to stick with it. They can’t just go home defeated. They have to keep this alive as a burning issue. Stick with it.

Now, Mark,  you’ve got everything I know and then some.


Dr. Haberman died on January 1, 2012.