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The Shame of Newsweek

Dear Deborah,

Did you see Newsweek last week? What a stunning and uninformed attack on teachers and teachers' unions. The cover of the magazine told the story: The Key to Saving American Education, by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert. It was printed on a classroom blackboard. In the background, on the same blackboard, was the handwritten phrase, repeated again and again, "We must fire bad teachers."

The story itself is a parody of a right-wing rant. It seems that the nation's classrooms are overrun with "bad teachers," pedophiles, "weak" teachers, ineffective teachers, dumb teachers, and others who remain in the classroom only because they have "lifetime tenure." Evil teachers' unions protect these people who are harming our nation's children. Researchers now know, the writers say, that if we could fire all these malingerers, the notorious achievement gap between the races would soon close and America would once again lead the world in education.

The writers hold out hope: non-union charter schools and Teach for America will "save" American education.

Leave aside the odd assertion that "much of the ability to teach is innate." (How do they know?) Leave aside the adulation for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, KIPP, and anyone who fights teachers' unions. Leave aside the horror stories about teachers accused of abusing students and keeping "a stash of pornography and cocaine at school." The article is a flamboyant example of outright hostility to teachers, to the organizations that represent them, and to public education itself.

Nowhere does the article mention that the highest-performing state in the nation is Massachusetts, where all or almost all teachers belong to unions; nor does it mention that the highest-performing nation in the world is Finland, where all or almost all teachers belong to unions. Nowhere in the article is there an example of a non-union district or state in the United States that has achieved high academic performance.

Instead, the article baldly asserts that "New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out." Hurricane Katrina made it possible to get rid of public education and to wipe out unions, which the article claims are the biggest impediments to high academic achievement.

No use to point out that TFA, with its 4,100 new teachers every year and its 17,000 alumni, is not going to "save" American education or replace a teaching force of 4.6 million. No mention of the many studies that show that TFA often does not outperform ordinary, experienced teachers. No reason to note the high attrition rate of students at charters like KIPP and YES Prep or to acknowledge that teachers at such schools typically work 50-60 (or more) hours each week, which is not sustainable. (By the way, all of this is documented in my book.)

The Newsweek writers applaud the firing of all the teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. It doesn't bother them that teachers were not individually evaluated, but fired en masse. But that is not enough. They won't be satisfied until large numbers of teachers are dismissed, teachers' unions are crushed, and public education is replaced by non-union charter schools.

Never mind that the research on teacher effectiveness on which they rely is highly speculative and highly contested. Never mind that non-union charters, on average, do not outperform regular public schools. Why bother with such details?

Newsweek, it seems, speaks for the Jack Welch School of Management: Fire the bottom 10 percent every year. A friend said the other day, "If Newsweek is so smart, how come the magazine is in such deep financial trouble? Maybe they need to fire 10 percent of their staff every year." A dose of their own medicine?

Diane

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