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.

How “Waiting for Superman” can lead to Education Reform…

I wanted to hate Waiting for Superman, I really did. In fact, I got caught up in what I was reading and expected to see 102 minutes of bashing teachers. I watched the episode of Oprah devoted to it, I’ve read the articles in Time and other magazines and newspapers and I’ve devoured what I could online, and you know what? I didn’t see teacher bashing in this film. Instead, what I saw was a film that should, if nothing else, get the much needed conversation going.

You don’t have to be Diane Ravitch or Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan or Joel Stein to know that there are serious problems with our educational system. And you also shouldn’t need to be any of the above mentioned people to realize that change needs to occur in order to achieve a level of education that every child in the United States deserves. Yesterday I watched a film that looked to expose the elements of our industry that need to change in order to start this process, and yes, getting rid of the bad teachers is one of the factors that must occur. In my opinion, Waiting for Superman didn’t belabor this point – but let’s not kid ourselves, bad teachers exist and those of us who are working hard every day to do our jobs should be offended that our unions that prevent their dismissal do so.

I’m taking Davis Guggenheim’s stats as fact – should they be wrong, then my opinion would change – but there is no way in the world that over 600 teachers alone from New York City should be paid to sit in what is referred to as the “rubber room.” (Please note: according to the New York Times, this practice no longer occurs according to this article). Quite simply, we should be appalled that this practice happened. Now don’t get me wrong, due process must happen – but this shouldn’t take years to happen. The dismissal of bad teachers, let alone teachers who have committed atrocities that warrant sitting in a room for a long period of time, is simply one of the things that must happen in order to see change occur.

While teachers as a whole were not attacked, the “lemons” who get passed around from school to school in Milwaukee due to their lack of effectiveness and tenure certainly did. And they should. As I said earlier, we are all responsible for seeing change happen and we all must play a role in this in order to see this necessary change. When we allow our industry to be filled with ineffective teachers who’ve been granted a lifelong job after as little as two years, then those of us who do our jobs suffer as well. Allowing these teachers to skate through year after year only hurts our reputation in the eyes of the public and this doesn’t help matters when it comes to further reform.

Through a friend on Twitter, I learned of an excellent project completed by students at State College High School in central Pennsylvania. It is a response to student suicides which have happened due to being bullied due to their sexual preferences. In essence, the video takes a strong stand to say that those of us who sit on the sidelines and aren’t willing to take a stand are just as responsible for their unfortunate deaths. This is the same situation we face when we allow our unions to hide these ineffective teachers. Sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing will get us nowhere – and fast.

So we should go all Michelle Rhee on teachers then, Lenzi? I don’t doubt that you’re saying this to yourself, as my views on this sound a lot like hers to this point. No, this is not what we should do now. What we must do now is come to terms with the idea that tenure is an outdated idea. It doesn’t help us, it hinders us. It makes our profession about US instead of what it should always be about – STUDENTS.

We must overhaul the way we are evaluated and we must figure out a way to determine what makes a good teacher. We must be ready for the consequences should we not meet the requirements we have come up with.  We must profess the idea to those coming up through the college ranks that while this profession is the greatest on earth, it’s by no means easy and we must expect more out of colleges as they prepare those who will enter our profession. We must realize that being a senior teacher doesn’t necessarily make one a strong teacher, just as being a new teacher doesn’t necessarily make one a great one. We must play our role in this crisis. We can’t simply sit back and blame the bureaucracy (which certainly deserves blame, don’t get me wrong) without admitting that we must do our part as well.

I realize that the clip from State College isn’t the highest quality, but its message is. I hope that you took the time to watch it all. If you did, I also hope that you agree with me when I say that the I Am can just as easily apply to the problems we face in education today, just as the We Are can be applied, or to use what I’ve just focused on, We Must