thinking between the lines

Dear TIME Magazine, What Does “Bad” Mean?

According to the imagery featured on TIME Magazine’s latest cover, bad teachers are rotten apples and almost impossible to fire. Not to worry, though, Silicon Valley has figured out a way to get rid of these bad teachers, and it’s as simple as the cover’s graphics suggest. The answer is black and white, no grays here. Who could argue with the idea of getting rid of bad teachers, right? After all, it is the just thing to do.

Unless, bad is not what you think it is.

What constitutes a bad teacher? Is it someone students dislike? Someone who assigns too much homework? A teacher who moves a student or isolates him or her during lunch? Is a bad teacher someone who does not recommend a particular student for an elite group or club? Maybe bad teachers are those who refuse to change grades for highly regarded students, or might they be the ones who only award an A for work that is truly exceptional. Some schools or communities may believe bad teachers are those who do not reflect their own belief systems.

Bad is a highly subjective and broad term, and we should be very careful in assigning it to any person or profession. In fact, the word has very little value in its ability to identify specifics needing attention. The word carries an emotional punch, though, and that is what TIME accomplished with its cover pitting good guys (Silicon Valley/corporate reformers) against bad guys (teachers). Never forget that in order to have a hero, there must be a villain, and no one knows this better than the corporate world. Just consider the billions they’ve made employing sophisticated marketing campaigns based on the power of story, and in this story, the villains are bad teachers.

Before you buy into this marketing push, however, ask yourself what these corporate reformers mean by bad. Why do they use such an elusive, subjective term? Do they mean teachers who don’t care about students? Teachers who verbally or otherwise abuse children? What do they mean by bad, and why won’t they be more specific? Could it be that too much is at risk to be more specific?

You see, the truth is that corporate reformers intend to label teachers as good or bad – or effective or ineffective as they sometimes prefer – based on high stakes testing results. They know, however, that parents have had their fill of high stakes testing and are ready to throw it out on its ear. If they specifically link bad to high stakes testing, they know that public disdain will be redirected toward them, and if that were to happen, where would the multibillion dollar testing industry be?

Make no mistake; the billions of dollars that go into state testing programs is the gigantic pot of money that is at stake, not the relatively small number of dollars spent on tenure disputes as corporate reformers would have you think. In order to keep the testing industry alive, they must feed the narrative that public schools are drowning in failure because of bad teachers, and in order to identify bad teachers, education and the public must rely on the products produced by Pearson and Silicon Valley.

The multibillion testing industry requires big data, big publishing, and big politics to clear the path for big money. It is the perfect partnership. Pearson, the huge publishing company of educational materials that hails itself as “the world’s leading learning company,” walks hand in hand with Silicon Valley’s data companies and enjoys the open doors of our politicians. Here’s how the gig works:

  • Step One: After states contract with Pearson, Pearson provides the testing materials that schools must use.
  • Step Two: Silicon Valley and corporate partners provide the necessary data gathering and analysis.
  • Step Three: Pearson then works with politically driven state education agencies to assess results and determine whether students and schools pass or fail (note that passing and failing requirements are set after the tests are taken, not before).
  • Step Four: If schools fail, Pearson will sell supplemental materials to schools to help them succeed next time.
  • Step Five: Return to Step One.

As you can see from the cyclical nature of the testing business, it is in the best interest of the above parties for a healthy percentage of students and schools to fail. They will gladly allow schools, i.e. taxpayers, to continue depositing billions of dollars into Pearson and Silicon Valley while they systematically turn state education agencies into Pearson subsidiaries devoted to identifying, exposing, and annihilating bad teachers.

As long as these corporate entities are in control of what is good and what is bad in education, bad will rule the day, and good will be a moving target. Why? Because identifying bad produces public panic, and public panic paves the road for corporate profit.

Maybe it’s time we reconsider who the real heroes and villains are in this story.

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2 Responses »

  1. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Great job!

  2. You have said it perfectly.
    Education is no longer about educating the child; it’s about lining corporate pockets – as if those pockets need any additional lining!

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