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.

An open letter to Bill Gates…

Due respect, Mr. Gates, but you have no clue.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, in this puff piece — or ode to you, if you will — published on Newsweek.com today, does everything but say that you are the savior that our educational system needs right now (I’m saving my critique of Mr. Alter for tomorrow – I’m so beyond disappointed in this piece of “journalism” that I need some time to cool off).

Mr. Gates, you are now calling for larger class sizes – of course, I guess we’re to forget that this is a complete 180 from your former vision of smaller schools and smaller classes. So let’s just throw some big time money at the wall and hope that it sticks this time. And since your name is Bill Gates and Newsweek is kissing your butt, more and more people will mistakenly think this is the way to go.

Beyond your extraordinary wealth, what exactly are your qualifications when it comes to education? Do yourself a favor and move beyond the pay system. If you truly believe that merit based pay, in which the merit is based upon a high stakes test score, well, then I’d like to know what you’re smoking — or who your advisers truly are. This is beyond a joke and you need to come to this realization. You’re obviously an intelligent guy — why are you so blind when it comes to this topic?

While I agree with you when it comes to seniority pay having “little correlation to student achievement,” I think that people need to truly understand that the converse of this is also true. A new teacher does not guarantee a good teacher any more than experience guarantees a good one (or a bad one as so many people are wont to say these days). I wish that people could truly come to this realization sooner rather than later. You should know better than to base your theories (and comments to Newsweek for that matter) upon such a horrid assumption. By the way, I’m with you on the rest of your ideas concerning how pay and promotion are determined — just not by basing it on these idiotic tests. And please don’t take my disdain for these standardized tests as not wanting to be held accountable — this would be the furthest thing from the truth.

Mr. Gates, your influence is incalculable. Do yourself a favor and sit down with some teachers. Don’t announce that you’re coming. Don’t take a television or documentary crew in with you. Just walk in, observe and listen. I have a feeling that any school in the country will grant you the visitor’s pass to do this. Ask the teachers for an honest response concerning how these high stakes tests are ruining our system of education. Ask the teachers what kind of support they’re getting on a daily basis from the parents they need to have this support from.

And then quit blaming seniority and teachers in general. Are lazy, bad teachers partly responsible? Absolutely. But no more so than the lazy, bad parents. Or the lazy, bad administrators, for that matter. We all must take responsibility to turn things around. And you could help us greatly in turning this around. (By the way, why is it that nobody will take the parents to task for their misgivings in this situation??)

While on your visit, take the time to speak with some of these new teachers. These teachers who are the supposed saviors are being poorly prepared to teach. The state of our nation’s training programs is — well, it’s just horrendous. Walk into their rooms unannounced and see just how ready — or not — they are. And I hope when you do this that you truly see what is going on in our schools — both the bad AND the good. The vast majority of our teachers are caring, well-educated human beings who are doing everything they can even though we are being trashed on Oprah and by Davis Guggenheim, and now Newsweek.

The money you’re throwing around right now is being wasted. Your investment is failing you and the return will be small, if anything. If you want to be a reformer, then you need to truly do your homework. And if you’re willing, I’d love to have you come to Greensburg Salem High School’s Room 273. I’ve got some great kids who’d love to speak with you as well. I’m 100% confident I can get you that Visitor’s Pass.