Education Reform: A National Debate Reaches Kitchen Tables

Sep 9, 2010
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.
Daisy, one of the students whose future hangs in the balance in &39;Waiting for "Superman,"&39; studies at her kitchen table.

The education reform conversation is generally manifested as a debate between the steely resolve of Michelle Rhee and the steadfast defense line of the American Federation of Teachers.

As of late, however, the schools discussion is making its way into the realm of public discourse.

The cover of this week's Time Magazine, for its annual national service issue, features a school bus and poses a deceptively simple goal, defining "What Makes a School Great."

Among the issue's education-related stories are a piece that explores what it takes to build strong teachers, and a profile on the upcoming documentary Waiting for "Superman," which chronicles the experiences of five children whose futures depend on a charter school lottery.

Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time Magazine, appeared on MSNBC this week to discuss what brought the topic of education to the cover of Time. Speaking to the hosts of Morning Joe, he addressed key reform points that are perplexing parents and administrators alike.

On good teachers:

“Great teachers are priceless, but bad teachers are also. And one of the things that we’ve learned about all education policy in this new innovative time that we’re living in—with Arne Duncan embracing new policies and Race to the Top—is that teachers really matter. And that it isn’t so easy to make great teachers.”

On merit based pay:

“It’s a complex idea, because yes we want to praise teachers because they have a very hard job. But a lot of them are not doing very well. Across the nation, you find that teachers get tenure after two or three years. That is mostly the case. Then they cannot be fired. They’re not accountable. They’re not really measured for performance. One of the things that No Child Left Behind did do, which I think was a virtue, is that it started measuring students. But they didn’t start measuring teachers. And now, Arne Duncan believes we should do that, Michelle Rhee—who we also put on the cover months ago—wants to measure teachers, so teachers can be accountable, so that you can pay them more when they perform better, and you can get rid of bad teachers. That’s been really hard.”

Stengel's dialogue with journalist and magazine editor Tina Brown was close to the sentiments that define the current national divide in the education debate:

Tina Brown: “The thing that bothers me though, a little bit right now, is that….teachers have to be allowed a certain flexibility over the way they teach. I get a little nervous about the obsession with testing and statistics, which is very much kind of all the rage at the moment. There are so many people who, if they had lived their lives based on their grades, would’ve actually never got anywhere, you  know?....And teachers want to be creative! They want to be able to teach in a way that’s maybe unconventional. And then they sort of find themselves falling afoul.”

Richard Stengel: “I don’t disagree with that about teachers, but America has gone way too far in the opposite direction. You know, every different school district has a different curriculum; they have their different staff. I mean, there is no common curriculum in America, and that is something that Arne Duncan wants to remedy. In European countries, it is by the book. Everything is rote. In America, you can be in one school district next to another and learning two different, opposite things.”

For the full conversation, check out the video below.

Waiting for "Superman" was produced by Participant Media, the parent company of

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