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Failing Up

By promoting our least effective teachers to leadership positions — as Harvard has done with Michael Ignatieff — we can ensure all students have access to a world-class education.

(David Nicholson / Flickr)

In a resounding win for meritocracy, Michael Ignatieff has a plush new academic appointment.

Ignatieff, of course, is the Canadian journalist and historian who in 2011, as party leader, presided over the Canadian Liberal party’s most humiliating political defeat ever. Under Ignatieff’s guiding hand, the Liberal party was decimated, losing more than half its parliamentary seats and relinquishing its official status as opposition party. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat to a rookie Conservative candidate.

If ever there was a floundering politico, Ignatieff surely fits the bill.

Before his titanic failure as a liberal politician, Ignatieff made a name for himself as a liberal academic who aggressively argued for the US invasion of Iraq. His bizarre justifications for US aggression in the Middle East included such chestnuts as, “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest, and the white man’s burden.”

These days, like many of those the late Tony Judt called “liberal idiots” who gave the Iraq invasion intellectual support, Ignatieff has yet to apologize for his lethal hawkishness. And so, if the role of a political thinker is to provide useful analysis that helps readers understand the reality they live in, it’s safe to say that Ignatieff is a failure as a thinker, too.

But now, he’s got a new job. Who would hire this perennial loser? Well, none other than Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he’ll be the Edward R. Murrow Chair of Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

When I first heard this news, I got a bit upset. I’m a teacher. When we screw up, we don’t get promotions. We get harassed by supervisors, vilified by the press, and attacked by political leaders from city hall to the White House.

In fact, this stuff happens even when we don’t screw up. The amount of anti-teacher rhetoric floating around the news media is astonishing. Since the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s recent decision to strike down teacher tenure, I’ve heard people I like and respect regurgitate the line that the key to fixing our schools is getting bad teachers out of the classroom.

This stuff used to get me really annoyed, but the Ignatieff situation has me thinking these folks might be right.

Harvard doesn’t leave incompetent workers in the workplace — it places them in leadership positions. Shouldn’t the public schools follow Harvard’s lead and reward bad teachers with positions of power?

The evidence shows that there are only a tiny handful of ineffective teachers, so there should be more than enough leadership positions in city hall, the state house, and the department of education to house these failures.

By promoting our least effective educators to positions ranging from superintendent to chancellor, we can ensure that all students, regardless of their background, have access to a world-class, Harvard-style education.