I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Exactly Does Campbell Brown Want?

It appears that Campbell Brown, in the wake of Michelle Rhee's continuing descent into irrelevance, is going to be the new face of reforminess for the foreseeable future. Say what you will about Rhee, at least she taught for a couple of years; Brown forms her opinions about teachers, however, unencumbered by even that little bit of experience:
Under New York law, schools must decide after just three years whether teachers are granted tenure — a supreme level of job protection that can amount to permanent employment. State law makes it nearly impossible to dismiss teachers who have been identified as ineffective. And in times of layoffs, the teachers who get priority to keep their jobs are those with seniority, regardless of how well they teach. 
Put together, those three provisions hurt our ability to ensure that every child in the state has an effective teacher. Yes, there are other important steps to improve strong teacher quality and equity, including better starting salaries and higher pay for teachers in the most in-demand fields. But what has driven parents into action is a system of laws that knowingly undermines success. 
So let us dispense with the absurd: Seeking good teachers for all does not mean you are somehow going after teachers. It means you are working to end laws that are not in the interests of children. In fact, some of those who feel strongest about removing incompetent teachers are other teachers themselves.
As I've written before: the phony juxtaposition of the interests of teachers and students is probably the most specious part of the anti-tenure/anti-seniority argument. Yes, tenure is good for teachers -- but it doesn't follow that, a priori, tenure is bad for students. I'd argue, in fact, that tenure helps children and taxpayers at least as much as it helps teachers, because it puts the brakes on corrupt and unethical behaviors from school boards and administrators.

The truth is that there are far too many cases of teachers being subject to arbitrary or malicious treatment by their superiors for anyone to conclude that the only effect of tenure is to "protect bad teachers." Contrast that to the evidence presented in the Vergara case, which, contrary to Rolf Treu's ruling, never showed that any of the plaintiffs were harmed by "bad" teachers, let alone "bad" teachers who had been protected by tenure.

In addition, as Bruce Baker points out (sadly, in a way that apparently hurt our dear Campbell's delicate feelings), there's no evidence that tenure can in any way be found to be a significant contributor to the distribution of teacher quality either across or within districts. As a matter of logic, why would it? Tenure exists in the 'burbs as well as the cities: you can't attribute any effects to tenure if it isn't the independent variable.

Now, I wouldn't expect an educational tourist like Brown to have developed any sophisticated opinions about the massive difficulties in determining who would and would not be found effective in a high-stakes decision like granting tenure or determining who gets let go in a layoff. I would, however, expect her to be able to articulate a vision for how she thinks schools would function in a tenureless world -- especially since she has decided to take on the role of an anti-tenure crusader. So here's my question:

What, exactly, does Campbell Brown want? 

Because she sure ain't saying here:
For starters, all teachers, with or without tenure, have a baseline of due process rights. And for those who have the added due-process protections of tenure, the goal here is only to make sure that system actually makes sense, without undercutting our kids’ constitutional rights. 
Consider what happened last month in the groundbreaking case of Vergara vs. California, in which a state court threw out similar state laws on tenure and seniority. The judge agreed that due process was entirely legitimate, but not the “uber due process” that had led to a tortuous process of trying to remove bad teachers. The same could be said in New York, where dismissal attempts can take years.
If Brown is saying that the system moves too slowly and costs too much, she won't find much disagreement -- especially from the teachers unions! I've had my doubts about UFT in the past, but even they weren't happy with the "rubber rooms." On my side of the Hudson, the NJEA actually pretty much wrote the fairly successful proposals for the revision of New Jersey's tenure laws that cut down the time and expense of tenure cases.

Why wouldn't they? Lengthy tenure cases cost the unions money! It's in everybody's interest, but especially the unions', to make these cases short and inexpensive. Is this what Brown wants? If so, why a lawsuit? New Jersey did it through the legislative process; why can't New York?
The nation’s top school official, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has summed it up well: Tenure itself is not the issue. Job protections for effective teachers are vital to keep teachers from being fired for random or political reasons. But “awarding tenure to someone without a track record of improving student achievement doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well.”
OK -- well if even our incoherent SecEd agrees that "tenure is not the issue," and that teachers need job protections, what do he and Brown suggest we do? What's the system they propose for granting tenure? Clog up the courts with lawsuits?
What’s more, many state tenure laws have become obsolete because civil rights legislation passed over the last 50 years already protects teachers from unfair dismissal, according to a review by the Center for American Progress. And tenure laws do not assure quality teaching.
Yeah, I guess so: lots of lawsuits in place of a system of protections for teachers. Golly, sounds great...

Brown, of course, thinks it's impolite of teachers like me to bring any of this up:
The parents behind the New York case are fighting for effective teachers. No one should undermine them by misrepresenting their motivations.
Campbell, I'd be a lot less inclined to question your motivations if you would just do us all a favor and tell us what it is you want. I went to your website and tried to find a proposal for a system of teacher workplace protections -- it wasn't there.

There were, of course, plenty of reformy talking points gussied up with research that show illustrations of the importance of teacher quality. But there wasn't anything that resembled evidence that shows tenure suppresses overall teacher quality, and there wasn't anything even remotely resembling a concrete proposal to "fix" a tenure and seniority system that still hasn't been shown to be a drag in student achievement.

If you want to have a serious debate about tenure and seniority, Campbell, the very least you should do is present some sort of alternative system of teacher, student, and taxpayer protections. If you think you can come up with something that will work better than tenure and seniority, by all means let's hear it.

But unless and until you do, your complaints are little better than whining. And no teacher worth his or her chalk puts up with that.

Whining is not a solution.

ADDING: As it's quite likely there are anti-tenure folks who will not "closely read" this post:

My preferred system is the one we have in New Jersey: tenure, with a cap on the length of hearings and the time arbitrators have to reach decisions. And four years to earn tenure seems about right, although I will be the first to say that length of time is quite arbitrary.


jcg said...

You are far too kind to Brown. She's more likely an ex-media hack turned education mercenary than an educational tourist.

Seth Kahn said...

You say at the end that you don't expect many if any deformers to read this post. Why not? Maybe it's time to send it directly to her. Or better yet her producers to see if you can swing some face-time with her!

Melissa Westbrook said...

Absolutely agree with jcg - and I love that "educational tourist."

Who are her funders? She's all coy and won't say.

If she believes in what she's doing, then don't hide out.

TK said...


Cut to Chase said...

Just tweeted this to CB and Colbert. Love the phrase "educational tourist", which I will definitely steal, er....borrow.

CitizensArrest said...

It is extremely dangerous to think that Rhee-volting is descending into irrelevance. This is not the case. She is transitioning to operating almost exclusively behind the scenes in the proverbial smoke filled room. This transition is most accurately understood as a promotion, not failure as Rhee-volting is now a "seasoned professional", a designation she only gives lip service to when referring to teachers. Campbell Brown is just a new addition to the team, the new gibbering head for the media to fawn over. She is not replacing Rhee-volting per se, she is just the next placeholder for that position.

The Breakthrough Crew said...

Unlike many of the new self branded 'reformers' I was a teacher, assitant principal, principal and assistant superintendent.
1. There are clear procedures outlined in teacher contracts regarding job expectations and the manner in which teachers are evaluated...
2. If you negotiate a poor contract, you have to live with it and it harms the process for both sides...
3. We always tried hard to provide support for all teachers to give them a chance to improve...some could not..many would admit that it just wasn't working...Due process was due process...learn the rules and be prepared...too many administrators do not follow their own evaluation process thereby leaving holes that a less than satisfactory teacher can jump through. Do your job, and and you prevail the vast majority of the time. Frankly, I had many instances of poor teachers who have finally come to grips with their situation and have thanked me for all of the efforts made on their behalf. I've helped a lot of these folks get started in another field...some were not great classroom teachers, but they were brilliant curriculum people or geniuses with technology...
4. Blaming teachers for everything is great sport and it is a sport that anyone, regardless of knowledge or experience, can play.
5. In my experience, good teachers despise bad teachers...union or not.
6. The gotcha mentality of the new reformers is an insult to education and frankly flies in the face of enlightened organizational thinking (mostly coming from the business sector).
7. But, education is pubic and so everyone can have at it...but, I challenge Ms. Brown to go after her medical professionals with the same level of ignorance and hubris.
8. Oh, well...I'll continue to work in public schools with the vast majority of well adjusted, talented, committed teachers I see every day...