"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Most Appropriate Response to Time Magazine: "Bite Me"

From Teachers College Record:

Bite Me: One Scholar’s Response to Time Magazine’s Attack on Teachers

by Zoë Burkholder — November 06, 2014

Instead of blaming teachers for the systemic problems of American public schools, how about we consider a more promising reform? This commentary explains how and why school integration remains a potent strategy to equalize educational opportunities.

By now every teacher in America has seen Time magazine’s incendiary cover featuring a gavel poised to smash an apple with the headline, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.”1 Written by journalist Haley Sweetland Edwards, the article reduces the complexity of educational reform to the simplistic claim that if we could just fire bad teachers, we would dramatically improve the quality of American public schools. A high definition photograph of three plump, juicy, red apples next to a rotten brown one engenders an almost visceral reaction as readers learn about the supposedly insurmountable teacher tenure laws that keep these “bad apples” in our nation’s schools.

While Edwards’ article and its dehumanizing images are disturbing to teachers and scholars of education, like me, here is why this story should matter to everyone.

Attacks that demonize teachers for ruining public education do more than just inflame political rhetoric, they also mask the real problems that plague American schools. Blaming teachers for the systemic failures of public education presents a modest and relatively inexpensive reform—if the problem is bad teachers, then the solution must be to identify and remove them. This is the cheapest and easiest possible fix—it doesn’t require new buildings, resources, curricula, busing, professional development, or support services for students. Widespread interest in an inexpensive, seductively simple idea has in turn fueled intense political rhetoric. Even the Obama administration has made teacher evaluation a centerpiece of its Race to the Top reform agenda, which rewards school districts for determining which teachers are most effective, and which are the bad apples.

The problem is, low quality teachers are not a major cause of endemic problems like low levels of academic achievement or high dropout rates in high-poverty schools.2 Moreover, teacher tenure laws do not make it nearly impossible to remove ineffective teachers, as Edwards claims. These laws only guarantee due process in a profession that has a long history of firing teachers for arbitrary reasons including getting married, being the wrong race, religion, or ethnicity, becoming pregnant, being gay or lesbian, criticizing school administrators, or most commonly, simply costing more in terms of annual salary than brand-new, inexperienced teachers.

In fact, American public school teachers are one of our best and most important resources, which is why we should work harder to attract and retain individuals in the profession—not drive them away.
I work at Montclair State University in New Jersey, a public institution dedicated to preparing future teachers. I also run professional development workshops for practicing teachers through the university’s Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project, such as the one I hosted on October 24th called “Global Perspectives on Holocaust Education.” In the past six years I have worked with hundreds of student teachers and educators in New Jersey who have a common goal: becoming better teachers. For instance at our workshop last Friday, teachers listened as survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide told stories that revealed how even the smallest acts of kindness can counter horrific instances of hatred and brutality. A panel of teachers and scholars reflected on the challenges of translating these ideals into meaningful classroom practice through classroom museums, writing assignments, poetry, novels, and art.

I suppose Time magazine would depict these teachers as shiny, red apples and hold out hope for removing the rotten ones, by my point is that this entire fruit metaphor is not only misguided, it is downright destructive because it distracts us from talking about far more significant and complex problems.

Let’s say our goal was to identify the most pressing problems in American public schools and then figure out how to solve these problems. Well, instead of comparing our classroom teachers to rotten fruit, we could point to the fact that Americans have allowed our public schools to become extraordinarily segregated by race and socioeconomic class. What is the significance of this segregation? On the one hand it means relatively good things for kids in predominantly white, upper-middle class suburban districts, like Greenwich, Connecticut, where parents ensure their children have proper nutrition, health care, and age appropriate educational resources from birth. These school districts also tend to have the highest levels of per-pupil spending, as the families in these communities not only value public schools and see them as a wise investment of public dollars, but also happen to have strong tax bases and potent political power. Suburban, middle-class schools create a culture of high academic expectations and as a result large numbers of students take advanced courses and go onto successful college and professional careers. As icing on the cake, high quality middle-class suburban schools attract the most qualified teachers, who find the working conditions to be productive, rewarding, and enjoyable.3

Now let’s consider the other end of the spectrum. These schools tend to be located in inner cities or rural areas, and they are filled with children born and reared in poverty. In urban areas, public school populations are also “majority minority,” with a large percentage of the student population identifying as black, Latino, or Asian American. Their families struggle to meet their children’s basic needs of nutritious food, health care, and housing. Enrichment activities are rare luxuries, and as a result children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds enter kindergarten with fewer academic and social skills than their middle-class peers. Historically high-poverty districts have been plagued by emaciated levels of per-pupil funding, but more recently lawsuits and legislation have equalized funding between rich and poor districts. It turns out, however, that equal funding is not enough, because when you concentrate poor children into a single school district, like Newark, New Jersey, you exacerbate the problems related to poverty such as children’s unmet physical, social, and emotional needs. Lacking resources, political power, and the knowledge of how to navigate bureaucracies, poor families have a harder time convincing city and state legislators to spend the money needed to remediate the compounded effects of poverty. In the end, many high-poverty schools develop a culture where academic achievement is not the norm and where there are few advanced courses, high dropout rates, and very low numbers of students who go to and graduate from college. Not surprisingly, high poverty schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining qualified teachers.

While we know that there is a tremendous disparity between middle-class suburban schools and high-poverty urban schools, most Americans seem perplexed about how to fix it. Since integration between cities and suburbs was effectively cut off by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley (1972), reformers have tried finance reform, higher academic standards, school choice, and accountability to improve urban schools. To date, however, these reforms have done little to improve the quality of education in high-poverty schools.

Surprisingly, despite this dismal track record of ineffective reform, we do have compelling evidence for what works to improve the quality of education in our most troubled, high-poverty schools: socioeconomic integration.

More than forty years of social science research has shown that the socioeconomic composition of a child’s school is a more powerful indicator for academic success or failure than the socioeconomic status of the child’s family. What is remarkable is that numerous studies have shown that if you take a middle-class child and place her in a high-poverty school, she will have much lower levels of academic performance than her peers left behind in a middle-class school. Similarly, if you take a child from an impoverished family and place him in a middle-class school, he will do far better than his peers left behind in the high-poverty school. What is more, moderate increases in the percentages of poor students in a middle-class school do not have any discernable effect on the academic achievement of the middle-class kids.

In other words, all children do better in schools with a majority of middle-class students and the resources and school culture that come with them, and socioeconomic integration can help poor students without harming their middle-class classmates. And when school districts promote socioeconomic integration, they often end up cultivating racial integration as well. This means that all children in integrated schools have the chance to benefit from studying alongside classmates of different backgrounds, a phenomenon that breaks down stereotypes and prepares students to live and work comfortably in diverse settings as adults.4

In his influential book Five Miles Away and a World Apart, James E. Ryan argues that creating more socio-economically and racially integrated schools is the single most promising educational reform on the table, because it would successfully tie together the fates of middle-class and high-poverty schools. Instead of isolating the poor from the well-off and leaving them to their own separate fate, integrated schools pool the resources and political power that middle-class families bring to public education. As Ryan concludes, “The truth is that separating the poor and politically powerless in their own schools and districts is antithetical to the idea of equal educational opportunity.”5

Mixing kids up in public schools can have a positive effect on all children, and even a positive effect on the real estate value of a community. For instance my two children go to school in Montclair, New Jersey, which boasts a booming real estate market fueled by young families from New York City who are drawn to a suburban school district with a reputation for outstanding, diverse public schools. All seven elementary schools and three middle schools in Montclair are zoned not by residential catchment zones, but instead by school choice plans. Every spring families tour the town’s public schools, each of which has a unique theme, and then rank their preferences from first to last choice. The school board uses census data from each child’s neighborhood (but not an individual child’s racial identity or socioeconomic status) to create a balance of students in each school that mirrors the overall public school population, roughly 51% white, 32% black, 10% Hispanic, and 7% Asian American/Pacific Islander, of which a total of 22% qualify for free or reduced-price meals.6

Even racially and socioeconomically integrated schools have their challenges, of course. For instance in Montclair we continue to struggle with a troubling and persistent racial achievement gap and questions about disparities in school discipline.7 Nevertheless, many parents, teachers, and administrators are drawn to the district specifically because of what they see as the shiny, untapped potential of integrated public schools.

Mr. Michael Chiles is the principal of my daughter’s elementary school, and he was so excited when he was offered the job of principal of an integrated school in 1985 that he telephoned his family to announce he was moving to Montclair to live Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. He added that like most communities, Montclair remains fairly segregated in our afterschool activities, family gatherings, and religious services. But this is precisely what makes integrated schools so crucial to our children’s education, according to Mr. Chiles, because that’s how our children will have the chance to grow up together and become truly comfortable working with people from a wide variety of different backgrounds. According to Mr. Chiles, integrated schools therefore not only serve the desperately important function of equalizing educational opportunities for all kids, they also provide invaluable training for democratic citizenship in a multicultural society.8

I sincerely hope policymakers continue to attract the best and brightest students to teaching and reward current teachers for taking the initiative to educate themselves further, such as pursuing graduate degrees while teaching. I am not sure, however, that threatening all teachers or chastising them for being “rotten” will help.

If Americans are interested in using the long arm of the law to dramatically improve the quality of public education in our most troubled schools, instead of smashing the very people who teach our children, I suggest we consider smashing down the walls that divide them.


1. Time 184, no. 17. Cover image by Kenji Aoki. Nov. 3, 2014.
2. Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch, “Rhetoric Versus Reality: Is the Academic Caliber of the Teacher Workforce Changing?” Center for Education Data and Research, University of Washington, Bothell. 2013. http://www.cedr.us/papers/working/CEDR%20WP%202013-4.pdf
3. Interestingly, Greenwich is currently struggling to integrate the small but growing percentage of poor and working-class Latino students into its schools, see Al Baker, “Law on Racial Diversity Stirs Greenwich Schools,” New York Times Jul. 19, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/20/nyregion/law-on-racial-diversity-stirs-greenwich-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
4. Gary Orfield, Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, and John Kuscera, “Brown at Sixty: Great Progress, a Long Retreat, and an Uncertain Future,” Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, 2014; Angela Ciolfi and James E. Ryan, “Socioeconomic Integration: It’s Legal, and It Makes Sense,” Education Week June 18, 2008. 28.
5. James E. Ryan, Five Miles Away and a World Apart: One City, Two Schools, and the Story of Educational Opportunity in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011: 304.
6. Montclair Public Schools, Report of District Enrollment 2013-2014. http://www.montclair.k12.nj.us/ArticleFiles/1011/enrollment-full-2013-2014.pdf  
7. Eric Kieffer, “Concerns Raised about Racial Bias in Schools,” Montclair Times 138, vol. 44 October 30, 2014: 1.

8. Author’s personal conversation with Principal Michael Chiles, Hillside School, September 12, 2014.


  1. Anonymous5:01 PM

    Do we fire prison guards if a high percentage of their inmates recommit crimes? Do we fire soldiers if they do not win a war? Do we fire doctors if their patients do not get healthy?

  2. Anonymous5:29 PM

    Newark is in fact tossing to the side veteran highly qualified teachers in favor of TFA and uncertified others.

    Abigail Shure