I can only hope that Campbell Brown's appearance last night on The Colbert Report is typical of what she is going to bring to the debate over school workplace protections. Because if this is the best the anti-tenure side can muster, we teachers will easily win the debate -- provided we ever get a chance to participate.
Dear lord, that's a heaping helping of word salad; it's almost worthy of Sarah Palin. And the illogic and ignorance found in Brown's arguments is everything we've come to expect from the reformy side:
- Let's start with her detractors: apparently, some folks showed up to protest outside the show, which Campbell says they have the right to do. Except she also says what they're really doing is silencing debate, which I guess is what happens when someone opposes Campbell's point of view. So yes, let's have a debate, except let's not...
Ooo, is that scary! I mean, look at these thugs, what with their magic-markered poster boards and their peaceful milling around on the sidewalk! No wonder Campbell won't say who is financing her operation -- clearly, these parents who are "trying to silence debate" are "going to go after people who are funding this"! And by "go after," I guess Brown means "hold up hand-made signs"!
Clearly, we must protect Brown's plutocratic backers from this danger at all costs -- including any normal standards of transparency.
This also explains why Brown must raise funds to pay off a high-priced PR firm with ties to the Obama administration. I mean, when 20 people can show up at one of your many media appearances and do this:
The only course of action available to a celebrity like Campbell Brown is to launch an expensive media blitz that will put oodles of money into the pockets of well-connected political consultants.
After all, it's for the kids...
- All that said, who funds Campbell is ultimately not as important as the coherence of her arguments. Give Colbert credit for starting this interview by pointing out the sheer absurdity of going after the job protections of middle-class workers who even Brown admits are underpaid. Like so many reformy pundits, she really, really wants to pay teachers more... she just won't say how much, where we'll get the money, or how to distribute it fairly. Pesky details...
- "91 percent of teachers around the state of New York are rated either effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing or doing math at grade level." What Brown neglects to mention, of course, is that New York's test scores plummeted this past year when the state changed to Common Core-aligned tests. Everyone who knows anything about testing knows that New York has been monkeying with the passing rates for years, as cut scores shift for reasons having nothing to do with actual changes in student achievement.
The only test that comes close to giving us a consistent year-to-year comparison of how New York students are faring is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2013, 76 percent of New York's 8th grade students were at basic or above in reading; 70 percent were basic or above in math. As Diane Ravitch has explained, "basic" is like getting a B or a C: students can do better, but are certainly not in crisis.
"Grade-level" work is, of course, a social construct: the meaning can change depending on the point of view of society at any given moment. Campbell Brown wants to paint a picture of crisis so she can take away teacher workplace protections, but there is little reason to think New York's students are in a schooling crisis when accounting for the effects of historic economic inequality.
- What's amazing is that right after Campbell makes this ill-informed argument, she then claims: "This is not about blaming teachers." But it is about blaming teachers, Campbell: you yourself just said the number of teachers rated effective doesn't line up with student achievement! Why else would you put those two statistics together? What is the argument if it's not about blaming teachers?!
You can't have it both ways: if you're going to go on national TV and make the case that teacher tenure is impeding student learning, you are, indeed, "blaming teachers." At least have the courage of your convictions on this, Campbell -- at least have the guts to stand by your argument.
- "It's all about the kids." As I've said before, that is a ridiculous argument against tenure on two levels:
1) Tenure isn't just good for teachers; it's good for parents, taxpayers, and students. Tenure allows teachers to be whistleblowers and advocates for children when doing the right thing may be unpopular with school boards and parents. As Colbert pointed out, it allows teachers academic freedom in a time when powerful interests want to teach our children junk science, revisionist history, and prejudiced attitudes.
2) Just because something is good for teachers doesn't mean it is automatically bad for students. Yes, tenure makes it harder to fire teachers; that's the point. But no one has ever shown granting tenure impedes a teacher's effectiveness or makes the teaching corps as a whole less effective.
As I've pointed out time and again, tenure has a real economic value for teachers, yet costs taxpayers very little. If you can't show tenure harms children -- and no, the Vergara decision did not show this, which is why it will almost certainly be overturned on appeal -- why wouldn't taxpayers grant it to both protect their interests and minimize the budgetary impact of teacher compensation? Getting rid of tenure is a terrible economic decision for taxpayers.
The idea that anything good for teachers must be bad for students is one of the most pernicious arguments to come from the reformy camp. It's nothing more than an illogical appeal to emotion, and it tacitly casts teachers as villains when they dare to stand up for themselves. It needs to stop.
- Colbert very wisely makes the connection to school funding (he doesn't understand how school funding weighting works, but give the man some slack), arguing that a civil rights stance on tenure must logically also support making sure all students have adequate resources. As Bruce Baker has pointed out many times, New York is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to school funding fairness; states like New Jersey which (until lately) have equity as a goal do much better overall in student achievement.
Brown responds that she's sympathetic to that argument (after she seems to first claim she's not -- Colbert interrupts her so it's hard to say), but then goes on to argue that the problem with tenure is that it subjects poor children to bad teaching more than affluent children. I'll leave aside the empirical evidence that contradicts this claim and simply pose this in a way I think even Brown, with her limited knowledge of education policy, can understand:
Campbell, a few miles away from New York City are some of the wealthiest and highest-performing school districts in the United States, if not the world. All of these districts have unionized teachers, step-guide contracts, tenure protections, and seniority. If tenure is the cause of bad teaching in poor districts, why do wealthy districts with tenure do so well?
And if you really believe that the teachers in poor areas are not as good as those in wealthy areas, how will getting rid of job protections help bring in better teacher candidates? Why would anyone want to teach in a city district, subject to far more political interference, when they can decamp for the leafy 'burbs and avoid that nonsense?
Trying to gussy up tenure as a civil rights issue is a distraction, especially when there is a very good case to be made that teachers of color are being unfairly targeted in this jihad against their unions. If we really care about improving teacher quality in schools that serve poor children, we ought to do everything we can to improve the work conditions in urban schools so the job is more attractive.
But that would require money, largely from the wealthy. I wonder how Brown's backers would feel about that...
- The argument that it takes too long to fire a teacher is not an argument for the courts; it should be addressed in the legislative process. We did it here in NJ, and now tenure cases have capped costs and take less than five months.
I'm always amused when folks try to make the argument that teachers unions like lengthy tenure cases. Were I a labor leader, I'd hate them: it's more money I have to spend on lawyers and less on member services.
Brown's complaint that tenure cases take too long is predicated on the idea that we can't shorten the process. We can and we should -- but we don't have to get rid of due process.
- Of course, Brown isn't against "due process": she thinks everyone "is entitled to a hearing." Except she doesn't follow through on what that would look like. Does she want every teacher firing to go to court? Does she think layoffs based on teacher effectiveness ought to be litigated in every circumstance?
Campbell Brown refuses to articulate how a post-tenure world would actually work. The reason for that, I believe, is that any vision of system where teachers don't have tenure but do have due process is one where the courts are overloaded with dismissal lawsuits. This is an obvious recipe for disaster, and there hasn't been any proof offered that it would be a system where student achievement improves.
- Perhaps the most amazing part of this interview is at 6:00:
BROWN: When you have the teacher of the year in California being laid off and a teacher who's been found to be incompetent keeping their job, what does that do for the kids?First of all, the Vergara plaintiffs never demonstrated any of the teachers in question were "found to be incompetent." As has been reported in many outlets, the students offered anecdotal evidence, but no one offered any prima facie evidence these teachers were bad. In fact...
The "teacher of the year" who Campbell Brown complains lost her job due to seniority is the same teacher the Vergara plaintiffs alleged was incompetent!
Does Campbell Brown have any idea how foolish she looks when she echoes the absurd arguments made by the Vergara plaintiffs? Does she see how easy it is to demolish her poor-reasoned boilerplate?
At the end of the interview, Brown defended her decision not to reveal the names of her donors; she was met by the audience with awkward silence. Colbert, who is usually one of the fastest wits on the planet, obviously had a hard time wrapping up the interview:
COLBERT: "Well, I respect... [awkward pause] you. I was trying to figure out who I would respect at this table, and there was no one left but you."And that is precisely the problem: the debate about tenure is now dominated by telegenic partisans who have no knowledge of education policy and won't reveal their funders -- all while the voices of teachers are excluded.
Campbell Brown can be as illogical as she pleases, because no one, as of yet, has been allowed an opportunity to debate her on equal terms. She can make as many rambling, self-contradictory, and ignorant statements as she likes, because she is the only one at the table. She doesn't have to make a lick of sense, because no one is there to call her out on her nonsense.
My guess is she's going to take the path of Michelle Rhee: refusing to publicly defend her positions against well-informed, well-reasoned critique.
But you really do not want miss Mother Crusader's take:
It tells me that all of these people need to be watched very, very closely.Senor and Singer are some seriously scary dudes.There is simply no way they are going to be intimidated by a small clutch of protesters milling around outside Colbert's studio, but that was one hell of an act Brown put on! Singer, and presumably Brown's husband, take on entire countries for heaven's sake!
And what does it tell us that Paul Singer, the guy who "popularized" the practice of exploiting entire distressed countries, is a well known backer of Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy? And oh yeah, Campbell Brown just happens to be on their Board of Directors.
Ani's also on this:
Goodness, how shrill. Of course, Ani's just a teacher, like me. What do we know that a celebrity news reader doesn't?