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Why We're Still Talking About Campbell Brown

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Over the past two weeks, news about Campbell Brown's Partnership for Educational Justice and the secretive organization's lawsuit against New York State's teacher tenure laws reached a peak. Capitalizing on her reputation as a former journalist and CNN correspondent, Brown appeared on The Colbert Report and other shows as part of her press tour and garnered the support of media personalities. Critical perspectives also flooded the media, including when one of us (Alyssa Hadley Dunn) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post and appeared on CounterSpin radio. Teachers and scholars wrote many blogs, all amidst a Twitter storm of the hashtags #withouttenure and #questionsforcampbell. And most recently, Ms. Brown even wrote back to her critics in her own op-ed, though she addressed few of our points and instead supplied more rhetoric.

As things have started to quiet down, some may wonder why people, including us, are still talking about Campbell Brown and her assault on teachers' rights. There is no doubt that Brown's argument resonates easily with the American public. Almost everyone can claim, sometimes bitterly, that they've had a "bad" teacher, however the definition of "bad" can vary from person to person, or however this can occur in tenure and non-tenure environments alike. Remembering one's own schooling experiences may accentuate people's willingness to latch onto Ms. Brown's narrative, despite our society's pride in "due process," where individuals are deemed innocent until proven guilty (read: teachers deemed "competent" until proven incompetent"). Yet Ms. Brown's narrative relies on misinformation, hyperbole, and exception fallacy.

It is in these moments that we must ask ourselves, given that we rationally know that those self or externally deemed "bad apples" are in no way representative of the "bunch," if we should engage in a policy that robs professionals of the very workplace rights needed to advocate for the children they serve. These are the very rights that ensure a decent standard of living that would attract high quality teachers in the first place; to challenge without retribution unequal working conditions, cronyism, or nepotism that may be happening in their schools; or to speak up against racist, outdated, inadequate, culturally-irrelevant curricula. Thus, as a teacher educator and ethnic/policy studies professor respectively, we believe it is our responsibility to contextualize and fact-check the narrative that Ms. Brown carries to the masses, given that the stakes of her campaign are so high for public schools not just in New York and California, but also across the nation.

When Ms. Brown first appeared on The Colbert Report, she seemed to have a hard time answering Colbert's questions. The interview should have been running with a real-time fact-checker at the bottom of the screen, much like during a presidential debate. Quite simply: there is no research demonstrating causation between teacher tenure laws and lower rates of student achievement, which is the entire argument behind the lawsuit.

Ms. Brown insists that she is engaging in this battle for the "millions of schoolchildren being denied a decent education." If so, then clearly someone has been giving her erroneous information about teacher tenure and educational equity. As Albert Camus wrote, "Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." Whatever Ms. Brown's intentions are, they lack an understanding of both the current landscape of teaching in high-needs schools and of educational research. It's time to get some facts straight.

"All the research shows the least effective teachers are being centered in the most disadvantaged schools."

What does Ms. Brown mean by "effective"? Presently, many states around the country determine teacher effectiveness using complex and controversial measures called "value-added models," or VAMs. This means that, in addition to principal observations, teachers are evaluated based on students' growth on test scores over time. Many states agreed to use VAMs to secure federal Race to the Top funds, the Obama-era competition that awards states points, hence monies, based on weighted "reforms" they may undertake. Yet research continually questions the use of VAMs. Organizations like the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistics Association cite years of research demonstrating that VAMs are inaccurate and unstable in determining the effects of individual teachers on student achievement. Even the Department of Education found a high rate of error with VAMs! (Just to be clear, teachers, union leaders, and teacher educators are not against evaluating teachers. We simply differ--often very strongly--with Ms. Brown and others on the way that teachers should be evaluated.) Perhaps moreover, standardized tests, as research demonstrates, are also biased against students whom society has stigmatized as "cognitively inferior," primarily Black and Latino students. Thus, the very rights Ms. Brown and her organization are attempting to eradicate may further perpetuate a stereotype threat-based environment that already disproportionately penalizes the students that she claims to protect, with the ultimate effect of widening the racial educational debt.

"If you look at student outcomes in New York, 91 percent of teachers around the state are rated effective or highly effective, and yet 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute?"

In this statement and the lawsuit as a whole, Ms. Brown advances the idea that teachers are the most important factor in determining student success. The reality is that parents' levels of education and income, wealth inequality, poverty, segregation, school resources, and other structural, out-of-school factors also contribute to student achievement, with some reports saying that teachers only impact up to 20% of student achievement and others demonstrating that teachers only account for between 1% to 14% of variability in test scores. Ms. Brown's campaign is spending valuable resources (though she refuses to reveal how much or from whom) on arguing about a single factor (the teacher) that accounts for, at most, 20% of student achievement. Let us think of the ways this money could be better spent if she committed to addressing all, or even some, of the other contextual factors, like systemic poverty and structural racism, that have an even greater impact on student success than individual teachers.

"It takes on average 830 days to fire a teacher who's been found to be incompetent."

This statistic, which Ms. Brown peppers in all of her speeches, appears to be from a research brief of the New York State School Boards Association. Even though others have questioned the use of this report (here and here), and even though the laws have changed, Ms. Brown's claims rest on these questionable statistics. This research examined the context in only one state and left out the most populous city in the state, yet Ms. Brown argues it is generalizable enough to be used as evidence for taking her campaign across the country. To make the argument that these results are true for the whole nation is misinformed at best and dangerous at worst. As scholars, such a methodological attempt on our part would never pass "peer review" in our fields. These same standards of methodological scrutiny should be expected, if not more so, when they are used to shape the contours of American educational policy, especially when advocated by a person and wealthy organization(s) who have overwhelmingly never taught in (nor send their children) to our public schools.

"This is not about blaming teachers... I am blaming the teachers unions because they're fighting attempts to change laws that are anachronistic, that everybody thinks need to change. "

Those teachers unions she's blaming? Guess who makes up the membership of those unions? That's right: teachers. There is no way around it. Whether she wants to admit or not, because she knows the bad press that would result, Ms. Brown is clearly blaming teachers. In other interviews, Ms. Brown has said "tenure is permanent lifetime employment." This is an incorrect definition of teacher tenure, and both anecdotal and research evidence demonstrates that teachers with tenure are still terminated. Tenure has little to do with protecting "bad" teachers. As educational historian Diane D'Amico writes about the history of teacher tenure, "teacher tenure never really protected teachers and nor was it supposed to." Should a teacher who has been found to be incompetent work with children? Of course not. That is not what Ms. Brown's opponents are arguing. It would be further ironic if Ms. Brown's own New York lawsuit, or even the California Vergara case, made its way to the Supreme Court, the ultimate "tenured" institution in all of the land.

"It comes down to what your priorities are, and if public education is about kids, then every decision we make should be focused on the question of 'is this good for a child?' And that should be the driving focus and the priority when we decide what our policies should be and what our laws should be."

We wholeheartedly concur that educational policies should be determined by what is best for children. What we remain unconvinced about, however, is how eliminating teachers' rights is what's best for children. We know that teacher working conditions are also student learning conditions. We also know that the definition of a "bad" teacher is increasingly constructed by the very corporate reform models Ms. Brown and her undisclosed supporters tout, irrespective of the exogenous factors research has proven to affect student achievement. Ironically, as Valerie Strauss recently pointed out, the lead parent plaintiff in Ms. Brown's lawsuit defined a bad teacher as one who didn't send home homework with one of his daughters, a result of lack of supplies his other daughter's teacher, who did have homework, paid for out of her pocket. This is almost as strange as the complete media oversight, as Diane Ravitch explained, that two of the plaintiffs in the California Vergara trial attended not public schools but charter schools where teachers don't have due process nor seniority (which is exactly what Ms. Brown and her likely corporate-underwritten organization desires). If Ms. Brown and her supporters are sincere in their narrative, then where is their outrage over these apparently "grossly ineffective" teachers in the very market-based, fire-at-will setting they seem to desire? Is an environment of demoralized and unsupported teachers who are fearful to speak up the environment in which we want our students learning?

We would also ask Ms. Brown her own question: Is it good for a child if those making the policies have no understanding of what is happening in the classroom and have never been teachers or administrators? This would be hard for Ms. Brown to answer, we imagine, because on the team and Boards at the Partnership for Educational Justice, there appears to be only one person with any in-school teaching or administrative experience. Instead, their biographies read like a Who's Who of protégés of philanthropists and organizations that are well-known amongst the corporate education "reform" movement. These connections include Teach For America, StudentsFirst and Michelle Rhee (Johnson), Eli Broad, and Chris Christie, to name a few, all who by their advocacy and policy, have a history of seeking to dismantle the very institutions, unions, that ensure a strong middle class. Thanks to the civil rights movement and subsequent workplace laws and protections, unions have ensured due process and job security to a sizable portion of minority civil servants/government workers, including teachers.

Is it good for a child if organizations committed to "reclaiming the promise of public education" demonize teachers in the process? On the contrary, what research actually shows is best for children is teachers with long-term and sustained preparation in content and pedagogy; an equitable education that is not segregated by race and socioeconomic status; and student-centered, hands-on pedagogy that sustains students' cultures and challenges them to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. If we keep blaming teachers, we are missing the bigger picture: a picture supported by evidence, not by a cherry-picked, deceptive narrative designed to stir emotions and result in draconian outcome.

Note: This is a modified version of a blog originally published in the Washington Post by Alyssa Hadley Dunn.