Shame on You, Newsweek

I have been subscribing to Newsweek magazine for almost 5 years now.  I look forward to each week's thought provoking articles and commentary by smart, educated and well-informed journalists. This doesn't mean I always agree with everything I read, but I enjoy the discourse nonetheless.

I was appalled, however, to unfold this week's cover as I pulled it out of my mailbox.  The Key to Saving American Education with We must fire bad teachers written over and over on a blackboard like the intro to a Simpsons episode. (When was the last time a teacher actually used this method of punishment, I wonder?)

I turned to page 25 and began reading.
Much of the ability to teach is innate--an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy.
These two statements back to back make absolutely no sense. In one sentence, the authors state that the ability to teach is innate and then proceed to blame schools of education for poor teaching skills.

The article is rank with these kinds of non sequitur statements. The sentence following the quote above states, "...within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not."  What they don't mention is the fact that many young teachers, who graduate from these programs with 'insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy," don't receive any kind of support within their first years of teaching to help them become successful teachers.

The article should state: "....within about five years, you can generally tell who can teach themselves how to teach and survive their first few years alone to become a good teacher."  I say this from experience as a teacher in one of the schools the authors keep referring to.

Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking--it's the parents (or absence of parents); it's society with all of its distractions and pathologies; it's the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through "social promotion," regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate....

How is this an issue with teachers? How does this statement justify the authors' viewpoint that we need to fire bad teachers?  To me, it's a perfect description of how the problem is NOT the teachers.  First of all, letting parents off the hook is the worst thing a school can do. Second, did they mention that this 'society' often comes with hunger, violence and hopelessness? Did they mention that most teachers don't WANT to push kids through an assembly line, but are forced to by district constraints on what to teach and how to teach it?  Did they mention that the poorer performing a school is, the less freedom teachers have in what they teach and how they teach it?

In my school, teachers only 'teach' for about 2 hours a day. Students spend over 2 hours a day receiving scripted Direct Instruction programs mandated by the regional superintendent. So is it REALLY the teacher's fault if these programs don't work?

Then, of course comes the school model of Biblical proportions: KIPP.

KIPP schools don't cherry-pick--they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement.
Another non sequitur.  Isn't that the definition of cherry-picking? Being able to only include people who 'play by the rules?'  Which require some parental involvement. Translation: If you aren't involved in your child's education, you're not welcome here.

Translation: regular public schools get overwhelmed with all of the students and families who don't play by the rules.

One more. This one is about Teach for America.
Her idea was to hire them for just a couple of years, and then let them move on to Wall Street or whatever.
How does this help make a point for how wonderful the TFA program is? This is followed by, "Some (about 8 percent) can't hack it, but most (about 61 percent) stay in teaching after their demanding two-year tours."  What the authors fail to mention is how long this 61 percent stay in teaching as well as what kinds of supports are in place to support these teachers. ("We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities."--from TFA's website)

In addition, the authors state:
It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out.
In Philadelphia, we are experiencing our own hurricane: the Renaissance School Initiative.  What the authors don't state is what "educational progress" means. Does it refer to test scores? Filling classrooms with highly-qualified teachers? School climate? Improved buildings and improved school environments? No one knows what these schools will look like in ten years.

Granted, there are some statements in the article with which I agree.

For one: "Many principals don't even try to weed out the poor performers..."  I also agree that unions need to stop protecting bad teachers. For their own sake. It's those 'poor performers' that make the rest of us have to work harder.

I also agree that we need to ensure that we have highly qualified teachers in every classroom. However, it's not the teachers' fault that there are ineffective teachers in the classroom. The hiring process in Philadelphia is ridiculous.  Principals cannot always choose all of their staff and are stuck with whoever shows up in August.

In addition, teachers enter the classroom after taking classes, passing some tests and spending about 6 weeks in a real classroom.  Often, student teaching is done in a suburban school, but the new teacher finds him or herself in an inner-city school, completely unprepared for what he or she faces on a daily basis.

When it comes down to it, I am disappointed that Newsweek's cover story was so poorly written, poorly argued and contained such generic cliches.  I look forward to reading the comments on the article as well as any letters printed in next week's edition.  I hope someone can explain to me how this article ended up in the magazine.

For more reflections on this article, check out Larry Ferlazzo's post: Did You Know That THE Key to Saving Public Education is Firing Bad Teachers? There are some great comments there, too.


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