5 reasons why Time Magazine's Rotten Apples article is right about education

5 reasons why Time Magazine's Rotten Apples article is right about education

Time’s November 3 issue began getting heat about a week ago when the cover blared, “It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”  Union leaders and teacher bloggers ignited a backlash, which included an opinion piece by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten who wrote, “America’s teachers aren’t rotten apples . . . America’s teachers are national treasures, doing the most important job in our country—educating children for today’s democracy and tomorrow’s economy.”

Like all professions, education, unfortunately, includes people who do not belong in the classroom.  Sometimes it’s these individuals’ fault for going into teaching for the wrong reasons or because they misunderstand what good teachers do.  Someone recently told me, “You must get really sleepy sitting at your desk all day.”  He doesn’t get what I do.

Sometimes, it’s our profession’s fault from not defending and supporting promising teachers.

While I agree with the backlash against Time’s ill-founded cover, Haley Sweetland Edwards’s article reveals some truths about local and national education conversations.

1. Too many white non-educators care about education.

During a recent conversation with a white non-educator I asked what I’d thought for a long time: “When did white people start caring so much about public education?”  I got a good answer.

White non-educators started caring about public education, this person told me: in 1987 (during my sophomore year at a Southwest side Chicago public high school) when Secretary of Education William Bennett called Chicago Public Schools the worst in the country.  Then, people paid attention to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, published under Reagan’s administration.  Then,  governors began to look at how much money went toward education in their budgets.  Then, people began to realize that education can shape and reshape a person’s entire life.

Some saw this optimistically through, perhaps, a social-justice lens.  Others saw this through, very likely, a traditionalist’s view: educational opportunity became a threat (although almost no one is going to admit this perspective publicly).

Time’s article again emphasizes a white non-educator’s fervor for fixing public education.  A financial supporter behind Vergara, the decision that questions the concept of teacher tenure, Silicon Valley engineer and businessman David Welch is “the least well known of a half-dozen tech titans who are making the repair of public education something of second career.”

Because these “titans” (like many non-educators) do not do the classroom-level work of teaching in public schools and, therefore, do not authentically confront the issues of race, poverty, class, grading, teaching and re-teaching, they simply do not realize what they do not know.  They think: “I’m educated; therefore, I am an education expert.”  They forget: Good teaching is an art and science with a human element that cannot always be delineated.

Would these engineers and businessmen accept sweeping attempts to change what and how they function as professionals from non-engineers and non-businessmen?  Probably not.

Classroom teachers should remain skeptical towards and hesitant about any education policy idea from people who never taught or never succeeded long-term in classrooms like ours.  Sorry professors, this includes many of you, too, who remain detached from the day-to-day reality of 21st century teaching in urban schools.

2. Most education activists—on both sides—maintain generalized myopic views on the issues.

Vergara supporters think eliminating tenure will solve the education problem.  Vergara opponents thinks we must eliminate poverty before anything in education can be fixed.

The deciding judge in this case, according to the Time article, stressed that “roughly 1% to 3% of California teachers are in the bottom 5% of competence.”  What about the approximately 250,000 who are not?  Work needs to be done—not to recruit new teachers—but to support the many good teachers who struggle under all the demands that accompany being a good teacher today.

The anti-Vergara activists should focus on shifting—leading—the education conversation to highlight what IS working in public schools.  Many teachers fight the impact of poverty and help students lead successful lives.  But all of these examples that could shift people’s perspectives fade behind the heated debates and generalizations.

3. Lots of people incorrectly equate tenure with comfortable working conditions.

Just because I, someone who’s been in education for almost 20 years, have tenure doesn’t mean I cannot get fired.  I need to meet my professional responsibilities.  Skeptics think I can kick back and hand out worksheets all day while sipping coffee.  Many people incorrectly base their concept of teachers and teaching on their 1970s and 1980s experiences in classrooms.  That was a different time.

Tenure, today, protects me as I write this commentary and all my blog posts that highlight, criticize, or defend educational situations that need a teacher voice.  Lots of teacher bloggers do the same.  Without tenure, I would have been fired a long time ago.

Without tenure, entire buildings of teachers would be fired every time a school got a new principal.  This uncontrolled, massive teacher-turnover rate would not be good for students.

Without tenure, teachers could be forced to teach for long periods of time without a lunch or even a bathroom break. Today, in many schools, teachers still must invoke their union’s contract to remind principals, “I need a lunch.”

Bad teachers can and should be fired.  If they’re not fired after due process—which is an opportunity to improve with guidance within a specified amout of time—it’s the administrator’s fault for not being an effective school leader.

Just because I have tenure doesn’t mean I get an “A” on my teaching evaluation.  Good teaching, people need to understand, is getting harder.  While tenure protects teachers from some arbitrary decisions, tenure does not necessarily make the job easier for good teachers.  And tenure does not make a teacher untouchable.

4. Testing has become equivalent to teaching.

Our mainstream delusion that all students must attend college narrows the educational and personal pathways for many students.  The trades, the arts—many options that used to be plausible options–remain belittled choices for our young people.

A college degree changes lives—it changed mine.  But young people need more options than traditional college degrees.  I want to pay for a billboard and put it up in every working class Chicago neighborhood that says: Stop getting bachelor’s degrees in psychology!”

But these unfruitful options exist because non-educators think college is for everyone and to get to college, one usually needs to take a test.  Teaching, then, becomes about the tests–plural.  In fact, the Time article does mention research that “found a ‘surprisingly weak’ correlation between teachers VAM scores and their actual skills.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in standards; I guide my instruction by standards.  And I merge these with real-world writing experiences to build students’ academic skills and social-emotional well-being.  In fact, for the past few years, my students’ average English ACT score has remained a 21 with quite a few students earning high 20s.

Test preparation is a part of what teachers do.  Test preparation does not define what good teachers do.

5. Teachers have no voice in education conversations.

Like so many articles about public education—the Time reporter failed to quote a current classroom teacher.  Sadly, over and over, teachers—affected second to students by too many education policy decisions—rarely get included in the conversation.

I recognize teachers are hard to talk to.  Many teachers fear the aftermath of speaking out or of taking to the press.  But it’s not that difficult.  A mentor guided me a few years ago: focus on the facts.

That advice strengthened my ability to present ideas in non-debatable terms.  This, in turn, increased my confidence in my own teacher voice when speaking about debatable issues.  Today, I’m as comfortable with my public teacher voice as I am with my classroom teacher voice.  I treasure and protect both.

Reporters need to build relationships with teachers before crises hit.  They cannot expect a teacher to speak publicly, honestly and express professional judgment when a stranger’s voice recorder or notebook hovers inches from his or her face.  If education reporters focused on reporting more stories about teachers and students overcoming the challenges in public education—which is highly newsworthy—they’d build trust with teachers who would, then, speak up more comfortably in controversial situations.

We need to move beyond the inflammatory TIME cover and short-sighted, superficial education conversations that won’t bring long-term benefits for students.  Conversations about teacher performance must be about more than the number of years in a classroom or students’ test scores.  But people on all sides won’t understand these complexities until a large percentage of good teachers–and there are plenty– enter and sustain the education conversations.

Updated Thursday, October 30: TIME editor Nancy Gibbs responded to the controversy over the cover by saying, “TIME has nothing but admiration for America’s dedicated teachers and their commitment to excellence. We view education as crucial to America’s success, and it concerns me if teachers who have not had a chance to read our coverage have heard it mischaracterized.”

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