Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dear Campbell Brown:

Today you made an appearance in Valerie Strauss's blog to respond to your many critics. I want to take a moment to respond to some of your questions.

First, let me applaud you for taking the dialogue directly to your critics, rather than simply trashing or dismissing them elsewhere. Direct dialogue between the various sides of the ed debates (there are more than two)  is rare and needed. I'm going to treat your post as written in good faith and respond in kind.

We want a system that supports, protects and properly pays good teachers and makes it possible, in a responsible, fair and timely way, to remove teachers judged to be incompetent.

I don't think anybody disagrees with that goal. Certainly not anybody in the teaching profession. The devil, as I'm sure you realize, is in the details.

So was that ruling an attack on all teachers? Of course not. Was it a new way to help ensure that substandard teaching is never sanctioned in California schools? Yes.

I disagree on both questions. The ruling did not remove tenure laws for bad teachers. It removed them for all teachers. And the irony is that it won't insure that a bad teacher never darkens the door of a California classroom. Enforcement of teacher standards will still be up to administrators-- the same people who don't take the necessary steps to remove the worst teachers under tenure rules (and of course those policies existed, because tenure was never, ever, a "job for life") will continue to not take those steps under the new set of rules.

But awarding added tenure protection to someone with no record of improving student achievement “doesn’t respect the craft of teaching, and it doesn’t serve children well.” The idea of connecting quality on the job to whether teachers essentially get to keep their jobs indefinitely is hardly radical. 

Here is another crux of the problem. Connecting quality on the job to teacher employment might be great-- if we knew how to measure quality on the job. We don't.

Secretary Duncan glibly defines it as "improving student achievement"-- in other words, test scores. Do we really agree, as a nation, that student test scores are the ultimate measure of teacher quality? When we adults think back on our favorite teachers, our best teachers, the teachers who shaped us as people-- do we think about how we did better on standardized tests because of them?

Do we really want to set the bar so incredibly low? Do we want to say, "I don't care what else you do in that classroom as long as the standardized test scores are good."

If not (and how could it be otherwise) how will we measure all the rest? Teachers are not opposed to evaluations or feedback, but every evaluative measure on the table right now is, to be blunt, crap. VAM and all of its variations have been debunked repeatedly. We welcome meaningful, helpful evaluation, but we do not welcome having our careers linked to instruments no more precise and valid than tea leaves or a roll of the dice.

The parents who put their names and reputations on this suit know their schools have caring, dependable, inspiring teachers – and that is not their worry. 

It should be. Because without tenure, those caring, dependable, inspiring teachers (all qualities, incidentally, that are not measured by looking at "improving student achievement) can be fired. More importantly, they can be threatened with firing. When their caring leads them to say things like "You are treating this student unfairly" or "that policy will hurt my kids" or "I will not implement a program that is so damaging to my the students in my care," they may have to deal with the reply, "Shut up, or lose your job."

I've written plenty about this. Firing is not nearly as damaging to a school as the threat of firing. And tenure helps teachers avoid the problems of having a hundred different bosses with different ideas of success. I'm not going to go into those at length here.

So here is the question for critics: What would you do if your child had those teachers [the ones who don't do their jobs] in class? Nothing? Attack the motives of people trying to do something? Cast the effort as anti-teacher when in fact it is designed to get more good teachers?

None of the above. I would contact the teacher, the principal, the superintendent, in that order. I would talk to other parents (because I may or may not be the only person who thinks the teacher isn't doing her job). I would raise a stink if I thought I needed to. Because here's the thing-- under a tenure system like the system in New York, that teacher can absolutely be fired. I would not walk through the halls of that building, knock on each teacher's door and say, "Excuse me, but I need to be able to take away your job so that I can get rid of Mrs. McSuxalot."

One of the things that is maddening from my side of this issue is the repeated assurance that the Vergara lawsuit, and now yours, will help get more good teachers in the classroom. How? How will that work? I understand the "We'll fire Mrs. Suxalot quickly and easily" part. But how will you replace her? Who will you entice with a come-on of "We'd like you to do this job for now, but we reserve the right to fire you any time we feel like it for whatever reason occurs to us, including finding someone younger and prettier." That recruiting technique doesn't get any better if you switch to "Your employment will be based strictly on student test scores."

How will your law result in more good teachers in classrooms? This question has not yet been answered. Not even a little. If you want to build some credibility, come up with a credible answer for it.

Actually, no one is playing a card. No one is playing a game. This is for real. And if you are going to take a stand, perhaps the best one possible is the one good for the child.

I agree. You can probably assume that those of us who have decided to devote our entire adult lives to teaching as a career are also not playing games. It will help the dialogue if you understand that we are, in fact, taking a stand based on the good of the children (there's not just one, but many, with many needs and strengths and weaknesses).

Removing employment protection removes our ability to advocate for children, to speak up against the system when we see it doing the wrong thing, to make decisions based on the best interests of the students-- and nothing else. Removing these protections makes it harder still to recruit the best people to the classroom. Teachers want to remove people from the classroom who should not be there (and quickly), as well as helping those who could improve to do so.

But nothing in your lawsuit suggests a way that your legal case would help that. And while these issues are far bigger than the individuals who are involved, the fact that your suit is backed by people who have a huge stake in dismantling public education in order to replace it with a more profitable charter system does not makes us feel better about it.

You've disseminated your talking points pretty clearly at this point, and those of us out in the cheap seats have pointed out repeatedly where the gaps in your argument lie. Simple repetition will not move the conversation forward. You need to fill in those gaps if your claims to concern about students and education are to be taken seriously.


  1. Teachers don't hire themselves, the unions don't hire the teachers. That's all the job of administrators and principals. Teachers and their unions don't do the observations and evaluations of teachers, that's the job of the principals. If there are supposedly ineffective teachers in the schools, shouldn't we be asking the principals and administrators some probing questions rather than going directly after tenure, seniority and LIFO? Oh, of course not, because the point of all this reform crap is to privatize the schools and destroy the unions and any bargaining rights that teachers may have. Are the states that don't have teacher tenure doing that much better than states like NJ, CT and Mass with strong teacher tenure laws?

  2. Teachers are akin to waiters in a restaurant. We serve what we are given. We don't choose the menu, the chefs, or the owner.

    We have the stupid curriculum to push, we have to deal with the lack of funds and supplies. We have to deal with the inert school boards. Why then do we get the blame?

    One more thing. This Vergara case is quite weak. Why, is it being hailed as a victory when the case is on appeal?

    1. Because the people hailing it can use every win they can claim