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.


  22 Responses to “Shame on You, Newsweek”

  1. I was at an Educational Law Review session last Friday. The document they shared listed the following statistics …

    The state of Illinois looked at evaluations from the 3 largest districts in Illinois (40,000 +) evaluations. (Remember, this includes Chicago). 92% of all evaluations were rated as excellent. 7% of the evaluations were satisfactory. .04% of the evals were unsatisfactory.

    Now … I am proteacher all the way … but … really? 92% were excellent? Grade inflation is everywhere …

  2. Great post, insane article!

    Larry

  3. Nice job taking apart the latest hit job from Newsweak.

    Regarding the comment above about evaluations in Illinois, the problem lies in evaluation (poor tools? poor ideas what to look for?) and evaluators (lack of human resources, time, and training). Even good and excellent teachers will get on board with improved evaluation systems, not just to move out those who should go, but to help us all improve.

  4. You parsed this article well and pointed out the authors' flagrant errors in thinking as well as their poorly drawn conclusions; too bad the editors at Newsweek couldn't have done the same!

  5. Great post. Now that it has become fashionable to bash teachers, I think we are going to see more and more of this. I am principal who taught for 16 years before becoming an administrator, and I can never forget the hard work and long hours spent even at home grading papers and working on lesson plans. Those who don't teach or haven't really taught, do not have a clue regarding what it takes. I agree there are bad teachers, but in my career of 21 years I only know of two that might have been considered beyond hope and probably in need of firing. As a principal now, I just hope they never put me in the position of telling me to fire someone because of test scores. That might be the day I return to the classroom. Thanks for the great post.

  6. I, too, was appalled by the article and reacted in the same way to almost the same points you raise in your response. I wondered how many actual classrooms they visited or how many teachers they interviewed. There was little balance in the perspective. I appreciate that you took the time to write about it instead of just talk about it (which is all I've done, thus far). Did you send this to Newseek? Just curious.

  7. Well done Mary! I haven't gotten to read the article yet, but once I get my hands on it, I plan to write a response myself. You've provided a useful summary for us all. Thanks!

  8. The Newsweek article wasn't perfect but it underscored important and hopeful trends in American education. After the pedagogical devastation caused by the constructivist ideologies of the last forty years, the reemergence of scripted Direct Instruction is a sign that schools actually want their students to learn. Even more importantly, we now have much more refined tools for assessing teacher performance. We need to be using these tools to improve teacher performance where possible (and I would point you to excellent cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine) and replacing ineffective teachers where necessary.

    But most crucially, we need to stop the kind of sorry excuse-making exemplified by this post. The success of Direct Instruction, Effective Teaching and other methods show that even children from the most disadvantaged home situations can learn when good teachers are allowed to teach.

    P.S. Those rigid hiring practices you mention were almost certainly put into place to protect members of the teacher's union.

  9. I completely agree that teacher performance is important and that children (our future!) need good teachers. The article, however, did a terrible job of supporting that belief.

    Education will always be shifting toward whatever is fashionable. Right now, the fashion is that teacher quality is the problem. The tools that we use (standardized tests) do not do the job completely.

    As far as the 'sorry excuse' comment goes, I'm sure that your child does not sit in a classroom for 2 hours a day repeating after the teacher as the teacher reads from a mandated script and is not allowed, for fear of reprimand, to deviate AT ALL from said script. These kinds of programs KILL the joy of learning for students and turn learning into rote memorization and regurgitation. It does not grow sharp thinkers or creative minds.

    You put it best when you said "even children from the most disadvantaged home situations can learn when good teachers are allowed to teach." They aren't being allowed to because of Direct Instruction.

    P.S. I completely agree that teachers unions need to realized that times are a-changing and the protectionist measures that keep bad teachers in schools must be reviewed. That's why I stated: "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 hope that parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers can all work together to make this jumbled education system work. We need to stop pointing fingers and remember who is really getting hurt here: the children.

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. Let me know when you do read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

  11. No, but maybe I should. I'd be curious to hear a reaction from the authors themselves. I know they meant well.

  12. We teachers can only hope to have a principal who realizes how silly it is to judge a teacher on test scores. Hopefully one day we'll be able to judge our students on more than just that, too!

    I wonder what your thoughts are on how to 'weed out' (for lack of a better term) ineffective teachers?

  13. I'm really disappointed. John Meacham, really? <sigh>

  14. David,

    I think that good and excellent teachers are teachers who want to become better teachers and welcome feedback of all kinds. What they fear is being unfairly evaluated by one person who may just dislike them and act accordingly.

  15. Thanks. I enjoyed reading your reflections, too. Thanks for providing the link to that article in the post.

  16. Completely agree. One of the problems lies in poor leadership. I have been working at my school for 5 years. All of my first 5 years of teaching. According to PA Dept of Education, I must be formally observed (with a copy of observation put in my box) 3 times a year during my first 3 years of teaching (before that glorious and arbitrarily granted tenure). I have been formally observed twice in 5 years.

    There is definitely a problem. It's easier to rate me satisfactory than have to justify an unsatisfactory rating based on no observations. My admins always told me "I trust you, you're doing a good job." What they don't realize is it hurts me that they don't seem to care what I do in my classroom or that I might not actually WANT to get observed so I can get some real feedback on my teaching.

    Sounds like you had an interesting session on Friday. I would have loved to be a fly on that wall!

  17. "don't receive any kind of support within their first years of teaching to help them become successful teachers"

    Amen to that! I'm a teacher with many years' experience but I'm new to Philadelphia Public Schools. Let me tell you – NO support for a teacher coming in after September 1. I am endlessly frustrated by the lack of information, help and supplies — sheesh we can't even get a stapler or paper clips in our school! If I didn't have prior experience to help me through, I wouldn't have survived. I feel sorry for rookies.

  18. I've run businesses and now I'm a teacher. When the banks failed no one blamed the tellers or the branch managers, they rightfully blamed the people at the top. So why is it that when schools fail the people at the top get a free pass and the educational equivalent of branch mangers and tellers, principals and teachers, get vilified?

    Rather than do original reporting (did I mention I also used to be a newspaper and radio news writer and reporter), Newsweek repeated what have become the cliches of the field.

    No doubt, now that states are drastically slashing school budgets, teachers will also get blamed from the negative educational outcomes sure to result from those cuts.

    Who knew that teachers had so much power? Surely not the teachers.

  19. Hmmmmm…….dare I even get involved in this ;)
    Random thoughts…
    I have no problem blaming the teachers. I had zero, less than zero support my first five…ten…I could keep going…years of teaching. I didn't place blame on anyone for not giving me support, I worked my butt off at becoming better on my own, seeking support from places on my own. Only once in my entire career has anyone ever offered any advice to me on how to do my “job” better.
    As a parent, I watch my kids go through the high rated school and just get worksheeted to death. There is nothing creative, innovative, or even remotely interesting about most of the things they do. Their coercive academic and behavior plans are so firmly in place no alternative is considered. As a parent you feel powerless—the teacher knows all, you know nothing. I have watched the love of learning get sapped from my children, and my students. I watch the school leaders do nothing but work to keep the traditional methods in place. If my kids school, that is considered a little gem, started over by having everyone fired I would have no problems with that.
    Growing up I did not have a teacher who inspired me until college. While teaching I did not meet a teacher who inspired me until 10 years into teaching. In my work for the State department of Ed I saw 100s of second year teachers, only a few would I want my daughters to have. I ask all of my graduates when they come back to visit to tell me about just a single class they have enjoyed in high school, there is only ever one single teacher mentioned out of four years of school.
    When people start defending the teachers I wonder what I am missing—have I just lived in a weird bubble all these years?
    In order for me to start defending the teachers, I need to see more teachers worth defending. 99% of the teachers I know blame the kids/parents for ever single problem they have. I never ever hear teachers taking responsibility for anything…even after teaching the same thing, the same way, with the same negative results, year after year.

  20. As a 23 year educator and current graduate student working on a Master's degree in Education, I thank you for your intelligent response to the Newsweek article. I would just like to add my thoughts on "Direct Instruction". Whereas scripted programs do demonstrate gains in student performance, especially with low-achieving students, they do not increase higher level thinking skills and the innovation and creativity that we hope our students will demonstrate. I am seeing my 2nd graders coming to me needing to be "spoon-fed" everything after being in such programs. I am so grateful for the excellent theory and pedagogy that is inspiring me to be a better teacher. (I have always cared and worked long hours to help my students achieve to their potential.)
    Thanks, again.

  21. You love your role, you love being with your students and you couldn't imagine doing anything else. You were meant to teach special needs children, you know this in your heart.

  22. I don't consider Time, Newsweek, etc, credible sources of information or intellectual thought, so this piece written about education doesn't surprise me in the least, as far as its inherent bias and underlying agenda. They've written pieces like this before. I believe the last one was in 2005.

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