Time After Time: Why Teachers Are So Frustrated With <i>Time</i>'s 'Rotten Apples' Cover Story

The trope of the "bad teacher" continues to dominate the media and effectively obscures the systemic realities that teachers and students struggle with every day.
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Released online a few days ahead of print, the newest edition of Time magazine will fill newsstands and mailboxes on November 3. This issue features a cover of a gavel about to smash an apple, with the headline "Rotten Apples." A sub-heading previews the story inside: "It's nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that."

Within days of its online release (only the cover was public, while the story was behind a paywall), teachers, union leaders, and other education advocates had taken to social media to protest Time's cover and story. A petition started by the American Federation of Teachers, the country's largest teachers union, garnered over 50,000 signatures in one day. President of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, wrote a public letter to the editor, co-signed by thousands of NEA members, in which she stated, "If Ms. Edwards had asked a teacher, she would've learned that due process policies like tenure are still needed and have nothing to do with rotten apples!" The hashtag #TIMEfail was trending several hours after being taken up by the Badass Teachers Association, and a boycott of Time and its subsidiaries had also taken flight.

So why are teachers so frustrated with Time's portrayal of teachers and corporate reformers? Because, to quote the brilliant Cindi Lauper, this is not just one incident, it is "time after time." Time after time, teachers are faced with defending their profession to those who seek to destroy it -- either directly, as in the case of reformers who wish to corporatize and privatize public education, or indirectly, as when the national media perpetuates myths and stereotypes that "school failure" is due to teacher tenure and a lack of effective teacher evaluations. The trope of the "bad teacher" continues to dominate the media and effectively obscures the systemic realities that teachers and students struggle with every day.

As I wrote here and here, with Alan Aja, when Campbell Brown launched her crusade against teacher tenure in New York City, the Time magazine article propagates the same faulty assumptions as Brown's rhetoric. Other scholars have argued that, beyond the faulty logic and research used in anti-tenure lawsuits, "the attack on bad teacher tenure laws is actually an attack on black professionals." Clearly, the issue is bigger than a stereotypical "rotten apple."

And not only is this not the first time that teachers have been faced with a media assault of their profession, it's not even the first time that Time magazine has been the messenger! As Valerie Strauss writes, "The first time Time was hit with such a backlash from teachers was in 2008, when its cover showed then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee standing in a classroom holding a broom, with the headline, "How To Fix America's Schools." Granted, unlike the Rhee article, this newest incantation does mention the significant opposition to what the "tech millionaires" mentioned on the cover believe is best for public education: evaluating teachers based on student test scores, or value-added measures (VAM).

Yet, Peter Hart argues that the biggest problem with the Time article is that it "waits until the very end to tell readers that the teacher evaluation scheme central to argument is advancing is highly dubious." Only in the second-to-last paragraph do readers learn more about the major scholarly organizations that have taken a stand against VAMs. Hart continues: "Why doesn't the cover advertise the fact that the millionaires 'saving' public education could very well be relying on a highly flawed method of sorting out the 'bad apples'?" Teacher-blogger Peter Greene argues that the Time article "has presented a reasonably fair and accurate part of the picture -- but it's only part of the picture."

It is exhausting to have those outside your profession constantly dictating what should be done and how it should be done. Teacher-blogger Steven Singer writes: "They claim it's almost impossible to fire bad teachers because of worker's rights. You know who actually is impossible to fire!? Self-appointed policy experts! No one hired them to govern our public schools. In fact, they have zero background in education. But they have oodles of cash and insufferable ennui. Somehow that makes them experts!" This does not mean that teachers are not open to critique or afraid of evaluations. On the contrary, teachers welcome the involvement of families and communities in supporting students. But the support that comes from corporate reformers is not the type of support that is needed.

Time has welcomed responses on its website, but whether they issue an official apology as requested by the AFT petition remains to be seen. A public apology would only be the first time in addressing the issue, however. As an kindergarten teacher can tell you (that is, if they're asked for their opinion and not told what their opinion should be), we know that actions speaker louder than words. What actions will Time take to demonstrate its commitment to education?

Will Time allow teachers, scholars, and -- dare I say -- students to have their own cover story? Will Time commit to reporting on actions and ideas that challenge the neoliberal, corporate reform agenda, highlighting the ways that teachers are pushing back and advocating for themselves and their students' rights? Will they tell the story of Seattle teachers fighting against high-stakes tests, of Philadelphia students marching on behalf of their teachers after contracts were cancelled, or of Colorado students walking out in protest over a racist and ethnocentric history curriculum? What better time than now? To quote another musical inspiration: "Now the time has come, Time! There are things to realize, Time! Time has come today, Time!"

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