The cover of this week’s TIME Magazine issue features a photo of an apple that’s about to be smashed by a gavel. An interrogation room-like light ominously glows from one side of the page as the red fruit casts its shadow on the white surface.

The cover story‘s headline? “Rotton Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found the Way to Change That.”

The cover has lots of public school educators and their advocates up in arms, including the American Federation of Teachers — the second-largest education labor union in the country with 1.6 million members.

rotten apples

Teachers say the Oct. 23, 2014 issue of TIME Magazine compares them to rotten apples.

alison e dunn via Flickr

The TIME issue, which was released last Thursday, has even spurred the AFT to start a petition today asking the magazine’s editors to “apologize for the misleading cover.” By the middle of the day, the petition had garnered more than 90,000 signatures, according to a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten:

The cover, according to the AFT, “cast teachers as ‘rotten apples’ needing to be smashed by Silicon Valley millionaires with no experience in education.”

The context of the article is a recent court ruling in California — Vergara v. California — that concluded that its teacher tenure is unconstitutional. Both the state’s teachers’ unions and California Gov. Jerry Brown have appealed the ruling.

Tenure for public school educators is common throughout the country and was designed to protect teachers from unfair dismissal. Supporters of tenure say it’s critical to ensuring job security for a career that’s already unstable and undervalued. Opponents say it leads to unfair hierarchies and misguided employment practices that can ultimately compromise the quality of children’s education.

The California complaint, launched and funded by a Silicon Valley tycoon, argued that kids who are put in classrooms with bad teachers receive an inferior education compared to their peers in classrooms with good teachers. It theorized that tenure, by helping retain bad teachers, is unconstitutional because every child is entitled to equal access to quality public education.

But AFT’s Weingarten says the magazine sensationalized the topic with the cover’s art and the headline’s wording.

“Rather than use the cover to put the spotlight on the people using their wealth to change education policy, Time’s editors decided to sensationalize the topic and blame the educators who dedicate their lives to serving students,” stated Weingarten, who plans on delivering the petition’s signatures to TIME’s editors Thursday.

The response to the TIME issue reflects growing friction in American public education — a world that’s increasingly struggled to reconcile student learning and teachers’ job satisfaction with efforts to hold educators accountable and implement high-stakes reform.

The article focuses on the growing influence that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are endeavoring to wield in that world. The article’s author, Haley Sweetland Edwards, writes:

“While this newer class of tech philanthropists are in some ways similar to the older generation, they also come to school reform having been steeped in the uniquely modern, libertarian, free-market Wild West of tech entrepreneurship – a world where data and innovation are king, disruption is a way of life, and the gridlock and rules of modern politics are regarded as a kind of kryptonite to how society ought to be.”

David Welch, the tech titan who underwrote the California case, told TIME that tackling tenure is a key way to improving school quality, saying, “But here you have the most important aspect of society, in my mind at least – the ability to educate our children – and it’s incapable of change. It’s failing, and it doesn’t want to acknowledge that it’s failing, much less do anything about it.”

Teacher caliber is increasingly being used in the contemporary school reform movement as a litmus test for educational quality.

A recent study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also bankrolled the development of the Common Core math and reading standards, found that a bad teacher can set a kid’s academic progress back by 38 weeks — or roughly an entire school year. Another study found that a good teacher can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by $250,000 versus what that student would make had that teacher been bad.

Both studies have been cited to advocate for a controversial way of measuring student achievement known as value-added measures. The approach is comparable to the tools used in Hawaii’s new contentious teacher evaluation system, which ties pay to student performance.

Hawaii for its part has aimed to refine its teacher tenure policies as part of a larger effort to overhaul accountability structures, including through the new evaluation system that starts affecting educators’ pay this year. Hawaii teachers get tenure after three years on the job, as long as they get a rating of “effective” or better on their evaluations. (Teachers are rated on a four-point scale, with “effective” being the second-highest score.)

In California, teachers receive tenure after less than two years.

The California lawsuit has prompted copycat cases in other states, including two in New York. The ruling only goes in effect if an appeals court upholds it.

“The debate over Vergara and its copycats highlights the broader landscape of education reform in a time of highly polarized politics, gridlocked legislatures and soaring inequality,” Sweetland Edwards writes. “When traditional avenues of reform seem increasingly impassable, those with vast amounts of money or simply an ingenious legal theory – or both – can seem like the only forces capable of effecting change.”

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