Friday, March 12, 2010

Today's Zeitgeist

I knew the moment that I saw this week's copy of Newsweek arrive in my mailbox that I was going to hate it. It says, "The Key To Saving American Education" in big yellow font with "We must fire bad teachers" written over and over again on a blackboard. I tried to read it with an open mind, but sometimes you can judge a Newsweek by the cover. I hated the article.

In terms of education ideas, it wasn't all that helpful (I'll get to that in a moment). If I was looking for a bright spot, I might say that it provided a helpful glimpse into the education reporting zeitgeist of the moment. Consider, the article slams "obstructionist" unions and "insipid" schools of education. Good things include KIPP and Michelle Rhee. In other words, in 20 years when I'm trying to explain to people what the educational dialogue was like in the year 2010, I can just pull out this article and it's all there. It'll save me the trouble of needing to hunt for multiple sources.

So now back to the actual point of the article - namely, that teacher quality is the key to good education and so we should fire all the bad teachers. First, let me say that I think teacher quality is incredibly important, but I don't know that I'd label anything, no matter how important, as the only and only way to get to the promised land of educational success and parity. Trying to solve complex problems with simple solutions sounds to me like a recipe for constantly lurching from one extreme to another. (Good thing school reform has avoided that, right?)

So we've got bad teachers in the system. Okay. We don't know how many (Randi Weingarten says 2%, but the article seems to think it's probably higher), but if it's the sole reason that we have an educational achievement gap, you can bet that it's a lot. Okay, so let's fire them.

Now what?

Seriously. Think that through for a moment. Now what?

Keep in mind, we've already got our best teachers in the schools. It's not like there's a whole lot of brilliant, wonderful, dedicated, committed teachers floating around out there without jobs because all the teaching positions are being hogged by obstructionist union members with degrees from insipid education programs. Who goes into the classrooms if we fire all of the teachers who aren't up to par? And how do we ensure that those teachers are better than the ones they're replacing?

The article chose to remain silent aside from some general puffery about making teaching a more desireable job. Well, good thinking. Why don't you get right on that?

I don't mean to be doom and gloom here because I don't think educational reform is hopeless and I do think that improving the quality of our teachers is important. I just don't think it's the only important thing and I don't think that massive firings are going to be as productive as Newsweek seems to imagine.

P.S. It didn't make the printed version, but check out this Newsweek blog that maybe undermines all their doomsday talk. My favorite line: "And the fact is that success – not failure – is actually the American educational norm."

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