A recent Time magazine cover story has touched off quite a controversy. More than 70,000 people signed an online petition decrying the magazine’s affront. The offending article is headlined “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that.” For those of us that live in the real world, the only thing upsetting about Time’s education reporting is that it’s more milquetoast than condemnatory. But we suppose the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten—who’s organizing the campaign against Time—has to earn her $407,323 paycheck.
According to the AFT, Time has smeared the reputation of America’s hardworking teachers by pointing out that some of them are bad. Yet pointing out that bad teachers can undermine our public schools is not even a remotely debatable observation—nor is it any service to all the good teachers to cover up the truth. In education, there’s even a term of art, “the dance of the lemons,” for how bad teachers get shuffled from school to school because they can’t be fired.
In 2010 LA Weekly published an exposé of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which happens to be the largest school district in the country, employing over 33,000 teachers. LA Weekly reported that, over the course of a decade, the LAUSD fired exactly four teachers for poor performance and spent $3.5 million in legal fees to do so. A supposedly chastened LAUSD responded to the report by promising to implement reforms. Earlier this year, however, USA Today noted that, on average, just 2.2 teachers are fired annually for “unsatisfactory performance” in the entire state of California. This problem is hardly unique to the Golden State. Public schools across the nation have Kafkaesque tenure and seniority rules, which teachers’ unions defend to the death with their taxpayer-funded dues. If Weingarten’s job is to protect bad teachers from ever being fired, she’s indeed worth every penny of that salary. If, like most Americans, you care primarily about the well-being of children, you will conclude that she’s attacking Time because it’s telling the truth about the union racket.
Of course, Time was kind enough to publish a response from Weingarten that’s largely fact-free venting about how the problems of public education have “nothing to do with tenure.” Weingarten also has the temerity to complain about “the woeful lack of funding our schools receive.” As if! In 2011, Washington, D.C., schools had the worst graduation rate in the nation. In 2010, census data showed that D.C. was spending $29,409 per pupil, and spending has surely gone up since then, while school performance remains abysmal. By comparison, Sidwell Friends, the elite private school in D.C. where the Obamas send their kids, charges around $35,000 a year. With a per-pupil budget comparable to D.C. public schools, Sidwell Friends has so much extra cash lying around they recently announced they’re hiring a barista at $11 an hour to make smoothies and lattes for the privileged children who attend the school.
Nonetheless, MSNBC, Politico, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post all spilled sympathetic ink chronicling the AFT’s ginned-up outrage. Of course, it should be noted teachers’ unions don’t speak for all teachers. In fact, one way to tell a good teacher from a bad one is the frustration they express at the plethora of bad colleagues getting in their way. We suspect if Americans knew just how bad the problem of incompetent teachers really is, there would be a real backlash—not just a silly Internet petition.