Education Reform, Media, Politics, Washington Post

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery…Even in Journalism

Joel Klein has a very interesting piece in today’s Washington Post, titled “What the school reform debate misses about teachers.” In it, he argues for making education hiring decisions based upon merit (As the former chancellor of New York City’s schools, Klein knows all too well how difficult it is to terminate a tenured teacher for incompetence under current contracts).

Consider the fight over teacher layoffs. In many states, you must lay teachers off solely based on reverse seniority – last in, first out. That’s nuts. Do you know anyone who would say “I want the most senior surgeon” rather than “I want the best surgeon”? Sure, experience matters. That’s why, in baseball, the rookie of the year is almost never the most valuable player. But the rookie of the year is better than a whole lot of 10-year veterans, and every baseball team takes this into account when deciding its roster.

Most of you know that my sympathies are with Klein on this, so I’ll spare you exposition on that score (Look at some of the pieces here if you want to see my arguments about teacher accountability). Klein’s point about good vs. experienced is well-taken, and well-phrased. Give me Jason Heyward over Carlos Guillén any day. Under Last-In-First-Out hiring/firing practices, though, if you were a GM and money was tight, you’d be required to fire Heyward and keep Guillén.

Anyway, I’m writing because Klein’s column sounds VERY similar to a column that I wrote in the Post just a month ago. Start with Klein. He writes that the education reform debate has gotten particularly vicious and polarized and unfortunate, etc:

As the debate rages over public unions and, in particular, over their role in school reform, an unfortunate dichotomy about America’s teachers has emerged. On one side, unions and many teachers say that teachers are unfairly vilified, that they work incredibly hard under difficult circumstances and that they are underpaid. Critics, meanwhile, say that our education system is broken and that to fix it we need better teachers. They say that teachers today have protections and benefits not seen in the private sector – such as life tenure, lifetime pension and health benefits, and short workdays and workyears.

Both sides are right.

Back on February 4, I wrote a column titled “Ending the education wars.” I argued:

Both sides can be egregiously unfair. Want to hear that you hate teachers? Claim that those that do their jobs poorly should be dismissed. You’ll hear that the data are flawed (or that data are irrelevant), that teachers aren’t the problem, that former District schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is not a nice person and that Teach for America is ruining education and this country.

Want to hear that you don’t care about students? Claim that poverty might be a factor worth considering for educators working with low-income students. You’ll hear that education isn’t about serving adults, that all kids can learn, that you are a racist, that it’s become impossible to fire a teacher and that teachers unions are ruining education and this country.

Here’s some good news: Both sides are right.

The thrust of the arguments are a little different. I argued that poverty was no excuse to protect bad teachers and that bad teaching was no excuse to ignore poverty. Klein is more interested in pushing for a specific policy goal: merit-based human resources decisions in teaching. Still, I chuckled to see the similarities.

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About CPW

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find him on Facebook or Twitter. Here’s his email. Here are his credentials.


March 2011
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