Former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown appeared on The Colbert Report last week in her role as head of the new Partnership for Educational Justice, an advocacy organization that is supporting seven parents in a lawsuit against New York State’s teacher tenure laws. (Supporting may be underestimating what the group is doing, given that she called the parents “our plaintiffs.”) Colbert asked her some good questions but her answers were, well, questionable. In the following post, Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a former high school English teacher who is now an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, fact-checks Brown’s answers. Dunn researches urban schools, educational policy, and social justice.
By Alyssa Hadley Dunn
Fact check time: On Thursday night, Campbell Brown, a former journalist and CNN correspondent, appeared on The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert’s questions seemed difficult for Ms. Brown to answer. She was there to talk about her Partnership for Educational Justice, whose first initiative is supporting plaintiffs in a lawsuit against New York State’s teacher tenure laws. Others have written about the ongoing debate between Ms. Brown and teachers’ unions leaders and about the connections between Ms. Brown and Michelle Rhee. Here, however, I am more interested in checking the “facts” that Ms. Brown uses to make her case. 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.
Let’s look at what she said versus what research actually shows.
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, I 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 for education “reform.” These connections include Teach For America, StudentsFirst and Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, and Chris Christie, to name a few.
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. None of this has anything to do with teacher tenure laws. None. If we keep blaming teachers, we are missing the bigger picture.
Supported by shadowy money and shaky science, these wealthy folks have created a “blame teachers first” campaign that seeks to address education problems rooted in inequality and low investment by attacking teachers’ job protections and professional status. Their efforts are, of course, “for the children.”
The campaign’s latest victory was the court case Vergara v California, which threw out key job protections for teachers in that state. Now, Vergara-type lawsuits are expected to roll out across the country.
But recent developments in the career trajectory of (Michelle) Rhee may have prompted the Blame Teachers First crowd to pick a new front person to lead their campaign: former CNN anchor Campbell Brown.
However you feel about Rhee and her campaign to label “ineffective” teachers as the cause of just about everything wrong with public education, her luster certainly seems to be waning.
Her book “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” recounting her personal accomplishments as an education policy leader, has been a complete bomb.
Rhee’s StudentsFirst campaigns have done little to animate parents. In Connecticut, an investment of about $700,000 produced a rally at the State Capitol, with Rhee as the featured speaker, which drew only about 75 people. In Alabama, where StudentsFirst claimed 17,000 members, only about 20 showed up at a meeting she called at that state’s capitol.
Revelations about Rhee’s accomplishments while she was chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools have also sullied her self-avowed reputation for “raising achievement.” PBS’s education reporter John Merrow likely knows more about that subject than anyone.
Merrow posted on his personal blog an op-ed he wrote about Rhee’s tenure in D.C. that he was unable to get accepted at other media outlets despite – or maybe because of – the devastating evidence he revealed about Rhee’s troubled track record. Wrote Merrow, “Because Ms. Rhee is trying to persuade the rest of the country to do as she did in Washington, it’s worth asking what her ‘common sense reforms’ accomplished when she had free rein to do as she wished.”
In the piece, Merrow proceeded to recount in detail how Rhee turned teaching positions into revolving-door jobs while bloating the central office staff and accomplishing very little in terms of improving academic achievement.
While student scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress – aka. ‘The Nation’s Report Card’ – did go up, “they rose in roughly the same amount as they had under her two immediate predecessors, and D.C. remains at or near the bottom of that national measure.”
Further, Rhee’s reform effort seems to have contributed to “a widening gap in academic performance between low-income and upper-income students, a meaningful statistic in Washington, where race and income are highly correlated.”
Darkening the pall cast over Rhee’s reputation is an unresolved cheating scandal on Rhee’s watch in D.C. The alleged scandals – and what, if anything, Rhee might have known about them – have never been adequately investigated.
A damning USA Today series cast serious doubt on gains at the Noyes Education Campus in D.C., touted as one of the shining stars of her turnaround when test scores soared.
Brown started her campaign against teachers some time ago, claiming that the New York City teachers’ union was obstructing efforts to fire teachers for sexual misconduct. Unfortunately for Brown, the ad campaign conducted by her organization Parents Transparency Project failed to note that, as The Post article recalled, at least 33 teachers had indeed been fired. “The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints.” Oops.
Further, as my colleague Dave Johnson recalled at the time, Brown penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal accusing the teachers’ union of “trying to block a bill to keep sexual predators out of schools.” It turned out, the union wanted to strengthen the bill, not stop it. Double oops.
Nevertheless – or as The Post reporter put it, “undaunted” – Brown has now decided to take on teacher personnel policies on behalf of, she claims, “millions of schoolchildren being denied a decent education.”
Rhee has long been able to keep her funders mostly secret, although an article in Slate reported her StudentsFirst organization is likely backed by “a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.” Rupert Murdoch is also a likely contributor.
Likewise, “Brown’s effort,” as Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote, “is funded by … well, that’s not clear. An advocate of transparency and full disclosure as a journalist, Brown won’t say who is backing her nonprofit organization.”
At Mother Jones, Andy Kroll wrote last year, when Brown and her Parents Transparency Project were accusing public schools of being safe harbors for sexual predators, her operations and financing were closely linked with political consultants who worked with the Republican Party. She hired a consulting firm that had worked for numerous Republican candidates including Mitt Romney. There were also strong financial ties to organizations that work with StudentsFirst, including a firm that “helped launch Rhee’s StudentsFirst” and a PR firm that served both organizations.
Brown in fact is married to Dan Senor, an investment banker who is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, which is part of the StudentsFirst national organization.
Brown’s ventures also appear to be closely tied to another organization founded by Rhee and strongly associated with attacks on teachers’ unions: TNTP, the group formerly known as The New Teacher Project.
TNTP has lauded the teacher management policies practiced in D.C. public schools, which Rhee formerly led, despite those policies being soundly discredited by education bloggers who delved deeply into the data. Now it appears that TNTP is aiding Brown to help advance these flawed ideas.
An analysis of the website associated with Brown’s effort to revamp teacher contracts has revealed that much of the site’s content appears to be written by TNTP without any attribution to the group. The site CommonSenseContract.com is listed as an “initiative of Parents Transparency Project,” yet metadata from various documents included in the site list the author as Elizabeth Vidyarthi. Vidyarthi works for the TNTP communications department.
Regardless of how you feel about the machinations behind the Rhee-Brown campaign, what’s clear is that it is hell-bent on imposing new policies that have little to no prospect of addressing the problem they are purported to resolve, which is to ensure students who need the best teachers are more apt to get them.
Research generally has found that experienced teachers – the targets for these new lawsuits – make a positive difference in students’ academic trajectory. A review of that research on the website for the grassroots group Parents Across America concluded, “Every single study shows teaching experience matters. In fact, the only two observable factors that have been found consistently to lead to higher student achievement are class size and teacher experience.”
The California judicial decision propelling these new lawsuits is fraught with bad thinking. A UCLA law professor who recently reflected on that decision noted, “My prediction is that [the decision] will not stand up on appeal because [the judge] never adequately shows that it is teacher job security that is responsible for the poor quality of some schools in California … It is easy to scapegoat teachers for the problems in schools. But it misdirects attention. California is one of the worst states in the country in student-faculty ratios. Estimates vary, but it is in the bottom half of all states in per pupil spending. Directing attention here would be far more important to improving education than eliminating job protections for teachers.”
Turning to Rutgers professor Bruce Baker again, he wrote on his own blog that the aims Campbell Brown has in mind for her new campaign are “an absurd smokescreen, failing to pass muster at even the most basic level of logical evaluation of causation.”
In the case of New York in particular, Baker concluded that finding enough good teachers to staff its schools – especially those serving high-needs kids – is not obstructed by tenure or seniority policies but more so due to the fact it “is abundantly clear that New York State school districts – especially those serving the state’s neediest children – lack the ability to pay the necessary wages to recruit and retain the workforce they need.”
Brown recently struck back against her detractors in an op-ed for the New York Daily News, repeating the unproven claim that rewriting teachers’ job protections will result in “progress” for “children.”
Based on the California judge’s conclusion that teacher tenure laws amounted to “uber due process” (yes, a judge really wrote that), she claimed that what teachers are defending is “added due-process protections,” a new term to add to the lexicon of the Blame Teachers First campaign.
Brown ultimately rested her case on a meaningless trope – “tenure laws do not assure quality teaching,” an empty phrase for sure since her entire campaign and the lawsuits she favors never provide an adequate evidence base for what “quality teaching” is and how rewriting teachers’ job protections will ensure its spread.
Brown may be “the new face” of a “reform” campaign Michelle Rhee has become too discredited to lead.
If that’s the case – and it certainly appears to be so – with Brown as the new figurehead of the Blame Teachers First campaign, proponents may feel that a fresh face on a stale product is all they need to win over acceptance of their unfounded ideas. Don’t buy it.
In summary, Charter Schools are the latest corporate “greed grab”, milking the largest remaining portion of the public purse. They achieve their “profits” by busting Unions and offering sub-standard wages to un-accredited “teachers”, and stealing the Public Infrastructure (School Buildings and Classrooms) at little or no cost for construction and maintainance.
Their much vaunted “gains” in educational performance are achieved by selectively excluding the neediest students (which Public Schools are obligated by law to serve) and flat out test cheating.