How TIME Magazine Blew Its Cover

ApplesTime magazine’s current cover story is raising some hackles among educators. After reading the article, my impression is that Time magazine goofed pretty badly with this cover.

The actual story deals with challenges to teacher tenure laws, mostly in California. The article by political writer Haley Sweetland Edwards is an articulate, fairly balanced journalistic piece alliteratively entitled “Taking on Teacher Tenure.” The essence of the article is that some very rich people are plowing a lot of money into their visions of what American education should be, and part of their vision is getting rid of tenure laws: “The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.” None of this is particularly startling news. Billionaires involving themselves in public education has been a growing trend over the past decade. The actual “news” is that back in June a California lower court judge “struck down five decades-old California laws governing teacher tenure and other job protections on the ground that they violate the state’s constitution.”  That judge’s ruling is now worming its way through the California’s court system’s appeal process.

So, the article focuses on an event that happened five months ago and plants it in the context of a trend that has been obvious for quite some time. I don’t know about you, but I expect a little more timeliness from Time magazine.

Then there is the cover. The bold headline “Rotten Apples” accompanies an image of a judicial gavel coming down on what appears to be a pretty tasty-looking apple. The text says “rotten” but the picture shows the opposite of rotten. In my writing classes, we call that muddled thinking or, at best, a lack of clarity. Does the picture intend to illustrate how perfectly good apples are being smashed by judicial gavels? If so, the headline should reflect that.

Then there are two subheadings below the “Rotten Apples” headline. The first subheading says, “It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.” That qualifying “Nearly” weakens any boldness inherent in “Impossible.” Although “Difficult” might be a better choice, it’s not really accurate. It isn’t “nearly impossible” or terribly difficult “to fire a bad teacher” as the Time cover suggests.

We can all agree there are some bad teachers, just as there are subpar practitioners of any occupation, and we can probably agree that students should not be subjected to those bad teachers. Bad teachers need to be remediated or removed. The agreement begins to crumble, however, when we try to define “bad teachers” and, more importantly, who gets to do that defining.

When I was in a leadership position, I was involved in releasing tenured and non-tenured teachers who were not performing their jobs as well as expected. Although I took no pleasure in removing teachers from their jobs, I did what I thought was best for our students, and it wasn’t “nearly impossible.” Although it can be emotionally difficult, releasing a non-tenured teacher doesn’t require much tactical or legal preparation. Releasing a tenured teacher requires following due process, which involves an investment of some time and energy, but the law is the law.

A common misunderstanding is that teacher unions protect bad teachers, which isn’t really true. As a former union president and a third-generation union member, I’m very comfortable saying again that bad teachers need to be remediated or removed. Bad teachers reflect poorly on the rest of us. Unions protect due process, but they do not protect bad teachers.

Unions also protect teachers from incompetent or predatory administrators. I’ve worked with many administrators who are effective, selfless, inspirational leaders, but I’ve also worked with a few who are, well, not exactly stellar human beings. I wish we didn’t need unions to protect teachers from that kind of administrator, but unfortunately we do.

Back to the Time cover. The second subheading says, “Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That.” Again, the qualifying “May” renders the statement almost meaningless. The title of the article inside the magazine—“Taking on Teacher Tenure”—more accurately reflects the content of the article and the current state of the topic under discussion.

This topic should have never been the cover story. It’s not timely (no pun intended) or particularly urgent. It’s an interesting, important, developing story, but Time’s hyperbolic cover undercuts any seriousness contained in the article.

But the name of this blog is What’s Not Wrong? So, let’s end with a story that is timely, accurate, and positive. Congratulations to the new Illinois Teacher of the Year, my former colleague Steve Elza! Steve is the kind of person all parents want their kids to have as a teacher. He is a brilliant educator and a great guy. You can read about Steve Elza here.

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2 Responses to How TIME Magazine Blew Its Cover

  1. Glenda Funk says:

    I admire your ability to focus on the good, the right, the positive. That’s not so easy for me; I can only imagine how difficult it must be for mid-career teachers. For me, the message in “Time” magazine’s cover is one you mention: Good teachers get smashed in the obsession to rid our profession of those tagged–often arbitrarily–as bad. When will the pseudo-ed reformers ever learn?


  2. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    Perhaps Time didn’t blow its cover because I’m certainly going to buy it now that everybody’s talking about it, whereas I no longer subscribe and don’t seek out the magazine. Also, I do think that the issue is urgent, but probably for some states more than others where the system is more dysfunctional in some spotty areas. California is where the Vergara Decision originated and where the first Parent Trigger law was pulled and parents took over a school completely (Adelanto).


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