Monday, November 29, 2010

Dear Jonathan Alter

Dear Jonathan Alter,

I must confess, I'm not your biggest fan.  As a public school teacher, I think your views on education often betray an ignorance of the realities that face many public schools, or, as Bill Gates apparently calls them, 'dropout factories.'  However, your audience at Newsweek certainly buys what you have to say wholesale. Indeed, careful consideration of many of your oft repeated educational talking points might force some readers to navigate their thoughts through some truly unsavory territory.  And, let's be honest, a serious look at the outrageously complicated system that is public education that appreciated nuance and critical inquiry is not really what Newsweek wants to sell, is it?  No; your one-page polemics that offer such seemingly tenable solutions on education are about all most of us are really willing to stomach when it comes to wading into the morass of educational policy.  They're well-written, cut to the chase, and seem utterly sensible - that is, until you begin to adjust your understanding for context.

Just this week, you penned a piece for Newsweek entitled, "A Case of Senioritis."  I was disappointed. Although, I will concede that you and Bill Gates make a few good points.

The premise of your recent article is that teaching quality is the most important in-school factor in raising student achievement. You argue that ensuring teaching quality means being smart about staffing decisions, and that using seniority as a means of making those decisions is not the most effective way to do it.  It's expensive; it keeps less-than-great teachers in jobs; and there are better factors to use in making judgements about staffing.

Honestly, I couldn't agree more.  However, there are a number of issues your (and Bill Gates's) argument overlooks.  The kinds of issues that, were we to buy your argument completely and adjust all of our policies accordingly, would likely lead to a very superficial, test-driven education for the majority of our public school children.

The first issue you and Gates seem not to understand (at our national peril) is that excellent teaching requires experience.  I point this out not because it denies your argument concerning seniority singlehandedly, but because it is a point we must agree on before we can move forward.  The idea that teaching twenty-five inner-city fifteen-year-olds from different linguistic, familial, and educational backgrounds to read, analyze, write about, and present on a challenging text like John Locke's Two Treaties of Government (when some are virtually illiterate, some are already ready for college, some barely speak English, and most are somewhere in between) is somehow comparable to operating a lawn mower (an analogy Mr Gates seems to think is appropriate) is not only insulting, it's indicative of how shortsighted most of Gates's educational initiatives have been.

And if you can accept that experience matters in teaching (and I assure you, you must), then you must also accept that we would do well to avoid promoting the use of poorly trained, inexperienced teachers in our local 'dropout factories.'

The second issue that you and Mr Gates must come to understand is that if we, as a country, are committed to judging our schools solely based on standardized test scores and using them to punish schools that fail to live up to our misguided standards for educational excellence, it must follow that schools that become good at avoiding punitive measures do so as a result of their ability to have their students score highly on standardized tests.

You and Mr Gates might ask where the problem is.

This, Mr Alter, is the problem.  I am extraordinarily confident that I could get 80% of my Spanish-speaking students to pass the New York State Regents exam (an exam unfortunately touted around the country as an example for other states to follow) by having them memorize facts all day long and teaching them how to write a five-paragraph essay.  These are, of course, useful skills to a degree, but they are far from what will be required of my students in the lives they wish to pursue.  If I wanted to offer my students a quality education, I would have to ask them to do things like analyze, categorize, justify, or judge.  They would have to think about connections among historical themes and attempt to reconcile disparate events.  They would have to make an argument effectively and learn to read incredibly complex texts.  But, you see, Mr Alter, nobody will ever judge whether my students are receiving such a quality education except for me.  The only thing the state and the public will judge me on is whether I got my students to remember that the American Revolution was somehow connected to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence; because that's all you really need to know to get the answer right on the test. So I can spend all year drilling my kids with facts, I can engage them in critical thinking, or I can do a little of both.  But one takes time away from the other.  And if I want to improve my students' chances of passing the test, I better stick to just the facts.  You see, test scores (as they are) are often antithetical to quality education.

Now let's take a look at the first and second issues together.  Teaching experience matters, but it doesn't matter as much if your only purpose is to drill for a test.  It takes significantly less skill in the classroom to ensure your kids memorize than it does to teach them how to read, write, speak, and listen critically about tough issues.  Therefore, if your goal is to improve test scores, you might do just as well with a third-year teacher as you would with a fifteen-year veteran.  And therein lies the problem with your argument.

Given the politics of NCLB, educational leaders and administrators who want to climb the career ladder are keen to hire and reward those under them who can make them look good.  A principal who wants to dazzle his superintendent and the community might be do just as well to create a climate where veteran teachers are disinclined to stay (e.g. by requiring outrageous amounts of work, through verbal abuse, or by assigning a math teacher a music class) and save some money by hiring any number of newbies who are too green to know teaching could be any different and too caught up in the standards movement to recognize that there's any other way to teach other than test-prep (and who, statistics say, will likely leave before their fifth year).

By removing seniority, you make costly veteran teachers easy targets for administrators looking to save money and improve test scores.  In this scenario educational quality goes down, test scores fare about the same or better than before, the school budget is more manageable, and the community is none the wiser that they may have just lost some seriously good teachers.

I'll agree that peer reviews, student feedback, and superior observations are valid forms of teacher assessment, but those are all easily manipulated by administrators in most schools to select and deselect the teachers they deem most qualified.  And as the eduphile that you seem to be, I'm sure you're well aware of the multitude of problems that come from using student test scores as a means of determining teacher quality, although I suspect you (like most corporate reformers who've never actually worked in a school) are likely to quickly dismiss most of them.  You'd be wrong to.

So I say to you, as a fifth-year teacher, that while getting rid of seniority may initially seem like a good idea, the effects will likely be detrimental in many schools.  However, I would grant that were you to remove high-stakes testing and implement the assessment process you and Mr Gates suggest (minus the use of student test scores), you may be on to something.

Lastly, I would like to briefly take issue with your and Gates's disingenuous portrayal of Diane Ravitch
as somebody who's in favor of the status quo and spends her days tearing down schools that produce results. Dr Ravitch has recently been pointing out some of the less attractive realities of our current wave of reform that people like yourself and Bill Gates are naturally prone to avoid since these realities often contradict the corporate reform talking points that everyone seems so excited to embrace these days.

It's not that I think your motives are suspect.  I'm sure you believe wholeheartedly that the corporate reform movement provides logical solutions to public education.  Unfortunately, this movement has enormous flaws that are difficult to see until you have real experience in the system (which is not to say they're incomprehensible to those outside education, only that they must listen more carefully to those within). Whether you realize it or not, Mr Alter, your function is largely as a mouthpiece for those interested in finding ways to spend less on a cornerstone of our precious democracy and still make it seem as if everything were working splendidly.  It is true that experienced teachers are expensive, but it is also true that the value of a well-functioning democracy that strives for equality of opportunity is worth the price.  I, for one, am completely uninterested in seeing many of the same people who participated in the causing of our economic downturn advocate solutions to education that implore us to spend less on it because we're going through tough times.  If it weren't for our collective willingness to tolerate a political system that allowed Wall Street to send us into a severe economic downturn while its perpetrators went unpunished and the system unchanged, we might not be having a conversation over whether education is something that is worth spending money on.  And while I will wholeheartedly agree that throwing large sums of money at massive bureaucracies will not solve any problems (and that new ideas and experimentation with our system are desperately needed), mere 'targeted' (read: limited) investment strategies will neither suffice.  Quality education is very expensive; deal with it.

I implore you to take more time delving into this very complex issue before you write any more articles that do little more than serve as advertisements for corporate reform.  The corporate world is out of its element in dealing with public education for so many reasons.  Please incorporate an understanding of these very important realities into your future articles.  Otherwise, Mr Alter, I may get the feeling that you neither understand nor care about them.


  1. Well said! One solution that's already available is to give kids high-quality reading material on the subjects they have to learn instead of boring, fact-laden texts. Yet way too many are unaware of children's nonfiction literature. Schools are also laying off librarians who DO know about us. Check out our blog: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids and our Free database aligned with National Standards:

  2. Great argument. Too bad he hasn't got the time to read or research anything that doesn't reinforce his considerable prejudices.

  3. To his credit, Alter did respond. He said I made some good points but that I seem to be in favor of the status quo. He also said it makes no sense to ignore the great numbers schools like KIPP are getting.

    I told him being against corporate reform is not the same as being in favor of the status quo and reminded him that Diane Ravitch has made a number of alternative suggestions. I also noted that most schools that get great graduation numbers in the inner-city, in my experience, are adept, one way or another, at rigging the numbers. They either cherry-pick their kids or deliberately juke the stats by cheating on tests, counseling out students who they know they will not be able to help, or dismissing entire classes en masse, as Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Success Academy did.

    Alter has not, however, replied to my response.

  4. Haven't changed my mind. When he says you make great points BUT, it means those points mean nothing to him. And it is he, not you, who favors status quo. Does he know who the President is? Has he ever heard of Bill Gates? Or Oprah?

    All he's got is boiler-plate nonsense and people pay him money for it? And we're the ones who need merit pay? Give me a break.

  5. Actually, RE - I think you're making progress with Alter -- the "status quo" argument is getting stale and I think they know it. It's almost like saying "and your mother" - it's what you say when you want to put someone down and can't think of a substantive argument. I think it is a good idea to throw it back at him.

    Things like TFA and NCLB and pay for performance have been around long enough now to be status quo and they certainly aren't working.

    Time for a change! and this time let's not do it just to "shake things up" lets do it based on common sense and the research we have that tells us what works and what doesn't

  6. Not sure. I was hoping I was going to draw him into a dialogue, but I've unfortunately not heard back.

  7. Don't wait for a response, just write to him again.

    Use a snappy title for your email that he won't be able to resist.

  8. You give the corporate "reformers" the benefit of the doubt when you say that they "believe wholeheartedly that the corporate reform movement provides logical solutions to public education.' Perhaps you're true, however the fact that they never seem to hear or reply to the objections with their plan to cripple public education leads me to suspect otherwise.

    Obama, Duncan, Gates, Winfrey...none of them are willing to look at the fact that charters do no better (or no worse), unions are not the problem (since non-union states have the same issues), merit pay doesn't work (having been tried and tried again) and the direct connection between poverty and the "achievement gap" is undeniable.

    As Susan Ohanian put it, "When Congress passes No Child Left Unfed, No Child Without Health Care and No Child Left Homeless, then we can talk seriously about No Child Left Behind."