TIME’s recent cover story has elicited a lot of the usual rhetoric in national education debates. Like, a lot.
But has anyone noticed that there has been much more discussion about the cover—depicting teachers as “rotten apples”—than the actual story?
Sure, as a teacher, I was discouraged by the cover. But not because it personally offended me (it didn’t) but because I feared it might further polarize the national dialogue on much-needed education reforms (it did).
TIME’s cover is unhelpful. But rejecting anyone who thinks there are some not-so-great educators out there, and who wants to improve teacher tenure, is also unhelpful.
Tenure is only one piece of a complex system that needs to be improved. And when we focus only on that piece—whether we believe that tenure is the first thing we must change or the most important thing we must protect—the conversation stops.
We have to stop falling victim to this trap. We have to start talking about how to improve the whole system. Because right now, the system is really broken.
In the district where I teach—and I’m guessing in most urban districts in the United States—anyone could draw a demographic map indicating that as income level increases, so too does the percentage of white students. On top of that, the whiter the school is, the more experienced the staff is, so the highest-paid teachers are often teaching in the least diverse schools.
Furthermore, the schools in higher income areas with a whiter student body, taught by more experienced staff, also tend to have predictably higher teacher observation scores and higher value-added measure (VAM) scores.
Our schools are segregated and our best teachers are not where we need them most.
“There is no other city in our country where a child’s future is as determined by the color of their skin,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said just this week. It is unconscionable to force children into this inequitable scheme.
Teachers like me want change and for every child to have access to a great public school. We don’t want any part of a system where students and families have vastly different school experiences based on their race, zip code or family income.
If we actually want to change the outcomes for students, we need to seriously reform our schools—not just teacher tenure.
We can start, for example, by elevating great teaching and leadership by offering incentives to work in hard-to-staff schools. District leaders can create alternative compensation models that offer multiple career pathways and reward excellent teaching and high student growth. School leaders can have more autonomy over how they spend their budget, measure accountability and track results.
And, yes, we can also improve tenure so that it’s a meaningful milestone in an educator’s career.
We have to stop treating teachers as interchangeable parts and start offering all teachers—whether they’re labeled “probationary” or “tenured”—much more differentiated support and opportunities. We have to stop laying off effective teachers just because they were the “last in.”
In suggesting that rotten teachers are the only problem and that tenure reform is the only solution, TIME’s cover was a distraction. The response to that cover also was a distraction. We can’t afford to be distracted anymore.
For those of us who could look past the TIME cover and read the story itself, we learned that many reformers are turned off, too, by the adversarial conversations surrounding teacher tenure. They want to see the whole system improve, and they know that teachers need to lead this overhaul.
So, fellow teachers, let’s put down TIME and lead. Let’s advance policy changes that will better our classrooms and careers and improve outcomes for our students.
Rather than rotten apples on the cover of TIME, I want to see a photo of teacher advocates who are fighting for a better system for kids—not for an apology for themselves.