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Time Covers the Battle Against Teacher Tenure

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Time magazine cover stories sometimes capture the zeitgeist of an education issue.

I'm thinking of the 2008 cover ("How to Fix America's Schools") featuring Michelle Rhee and her broom or the 1988 cover on New Jersey principal Joe Clark and his baseball bat ("Is Getting Tough the Answer?"). 

Actually, if you play around on the Time website's cover archive, you'll find that the magazine is fixated on a few education topics that have shown up repeatedly in the last quarter-century or so: sex education, Harvard, the SATs and the teaching profession. 

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The Nov. 3 cover story (subscription required) is "Rotten Apples," with a judge's gavel coming down on a shiny red apple. "It's nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher," the cover continues. "Some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that."

Haley Sweetland Edwards' cover story neatly captures one of the year's biggest education stories—the Vergara ruling against California's teacher tenure and last-hired, first-laid-off employment laws.

"It was the first time, in California or anywhere else, that a court had linked the quality of a teacher, as measured by student test scores, to a pupil's right to an education.," Edwards writes. "What happened next was predictable: the educational establishment hit DEFCON 1."

Edwards notes that some reactions to the decision were a bit premature since it much depends on how California's appellate courts respond.

"But on another level, the Vergara case is a powerful proxy for a broader war over the future of education in this country. The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires," Edwards writes.

The magazine sits down with David Welch, the relatively low-key Silicon Vally business type behind the Vergara suit and Students Matter, the nonprofit group he founded to push his view of school reform. That eventually led to the Vergara lawsuit against the state, which resulted in Los Angeles County Superior Judge Rolf M. Treu's June decision that tenure and other job protections keep bad teachers in the classroom, which violates students' right state constitutional right to a "basic equality of educational opportunity."

Edwards notes the Vergara-inspired lawsuits filed in New York State, but doesn't give more than a mention to the most prominent face of those efforts—former TV anchor Campbell Brown. Teachers' unions and their allies will surely protest that Time has no perspectives from them. In fact, the only voices in the story questioning the Vergara strategy are two conservative education analysts, who argue that the courts aren't the best forum for building widespread support for reforms.

[UPDATE: 11:40 a.m. Friday: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten calls the cover unfair, saying it "blames teachers for the problems in America's schools." She urges teachers to sign a petition calling on Time to apologize for "the misleading an hyperbolic attack." And Diane Ravitch calls the cover "malicious" and includes Weingarten's longer email attack on the cover, in which the AFT president says the article itself is much more balanced than the cover.]

Forthcoming appellate court decisions will determine the fate of the Vergara litigation—and whether Time's "Rotten Apples" cover is one that will be someday be remembered as capturing the beginning of something big.

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