Jonathan Alter exemplifies the sorry state of today’s journalism

As a teacher of Mass Media, I take great interest in current events – and pay particular attention to how they are presented. Admittedly, it’s getting easier to teach students what not to do using examples from the writers of today. While I don’t like teaching things in this manner, necessarily, it can be a very effective way of doing things. As an aside, I much prefer to use pieces like The Hard Road, written by Thomas French, and Final Salute, written by Jim Sheeler.

Which brings me to Jonathan Alter’s latest piece for Newsweek. A Case of Senioritis, Gates tackles education’s two-headed monster is, quite possibly, the definition of a puff piece. Actually, it’s a shameless plug for everything Bill Gates, and Mr. Alter should be ashamed, to say the least. Because of the money Gates wields, his voice is heard – especially when those like Alter are willing to forget the principles of Journalism as they were taught.

To be fair, Alter does mention that Gates previously spent $2 billion to break up larger schools into smaller ones, reducing class size at the same time. He did mention that Gates has now come to the realization that class size has little to do with the issue – that it’s the quality of that person who’s leading the class that matters, but the topic of attack du jour is now seniority and seniority pay.

Alter refers to this as the two-headed monster of education in his piece. According to Alter, “After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?” These statements are based upon the oversimplified idea that all young teachers are the “top teachers” and that those with experience are not. And this is just preposterous. In terms that are certainly more blunt, this is actually offensive – and both Gates, and more specifically, Alter – should be held accountable for propagating this idea so freely.

I’ve said it many times before – there are lazy teachers and teachers who just aren’t that good or passionate about what they’re doing at every level – first year teachers and 30th year teachers can be equally as ineffective – and for very different reasons. They can also both be exceptional – and it’d be nice if both Gates and Alter would recognize this for once.

Alter, in his tribute to all things Gates,  takes some pot shots at the “jaundiced” Diane Ravitch as well. He does so without giving her the opportunity to defend herself or contradict the statements that Mr. Gates has to say. A little one-sided, wouldn’t you say? Well, I would. And I’m living for the day that people like Alter and Gates and Davis Guggenheim, of Waiting for Superman notoriety, actually take the time to sit down and allow someone to refute their faulty ideas. They don’t have the guts to sit down with Ms. Ravitch, though. They’d rather just sit down with Alter and the likes of Oprah – people who are going to advance their cause sans logical questioning.

Perhaps the most appalling part of Alter’s piece, however, is allowing Gates to get away with the following: “In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: ‘Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews, and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.”

As a teacher, I am greatly offended at this comment that Gates said and Alter printed. I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever to the landscapers of this world – they work extremely hard – but this analogy simply makes no sense. It’s a classic example of somebody giving a faulty analogy and using faulty logic. Actually, let’s ask Mr. Alter if we could simply change the quote to the following: “Hey, how long have you been writing articles?…I want to pay you more for that reason alone.”

Or, for that matter, let’s continue to compare things in an inaccurate manner in such a manner: “Mr. Alter, you’ve been writing for X number of years, and you just wrote a piece that demonstrates absolutely none of the journalistic principals the industry was founded upon. Because of this, and the fact that Newsweek is hurting for money big time, we’ve decided to let you go and we’re bringing a new young buck because he is young and therefore must be better than you.”

Faulty logic. And it runs amok in Alter’s article. Actually, I think I’ll just stick to French and Sheeler – I’d rather my students aspire to be better than Mr. Alter, his position be damned.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Alter exemplifies the sorry state of today’s journalism

  1. Newsweek just isn’t what it used to be. Almost comparable to Time magazine’s baffling choices in “Person of the Year.”

    And on the Bill Gates issue…

    If Bill Gates told me something about computers, I’d be inclined to believe him. But being Bill Gates doesn’t make you an expert on everything. It’s the same reason people shouldn’t listen to a NASA engineer’s perspective on fashion.

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