by Colleen Flaherty
Social media lit up and protesters gathered outside The Colbert Report studio in New York City when the comedian interviewed Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor and a new face of the so-called education “reform” movement aimed at disenfranchising public education.
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Brown, who heads an education reform group with unknown donors called the Partnership for Educational Justice, is going after teacher tenure in New York state. A few days before her appearance on the parody news program, Brown brought forth a lawsuit—similar to the Vergara v California case—citing that teacher quality is compromised by teacher tenure and damaging to students.
“This is a politically motivated attack against every dedicated teacher in New York state. We are highly confident the courts will reject this attack as entirely without merit. We welcome the opportunity to expose the many lies and misrepresentations about tenure laws and establish, once and for all, the plain truth: Tenure is an absolutely necessary safeguard for teachers, for students and for quality public schools,” said New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee in a statement.
Under the hashtag #questions4campbell, many public education activists took to Twitter to urge Colbert to ask Brown about her intentions:
Colbert responded and asked many of the questions thanks to the outpouring online, but Brown evaded questions and presented dubious “facts,” including the idea that teacher tenure makes schools worse for students (hint: it doesn’t).
The biggest question of the night was met with stonewalling—who are her donors? Despite her organization’s claim that they want to “bring transparency” to public education, Brown refused to disclose where her organization’s money comes from.
As reported by Politico, Department of Labor rules require unions to “disclose more than many political groups about their internal operations,” funding and expenditures, unlike the political groups going after public education who are allowed to keep their benefactors a secret. However, occasional leaks have shed light on who is behind these groups, usually billionaires investing in the privatization of education.
In 2012, the Huffington Post reported that “New Jersey hedge funder and Romney backer David Tepper and the Texas-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation [are] among the largest donors” to Students First, an anti-public education group. Additionally, the board of Students First includes hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, News Corp. education-technology executive Joel Klein, and Brown’s husband, Dan Senor.
As for her arguments that teacher tenure harms students, Alyssa Hadley Dunn, a professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, went through Campbell Brown’s claims one by one in the Washington Post.
“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,” wrote Hadley.
Here are a few of Brown’s claims from her Colbert Report appearance:
All the research shows the least effective teachers are being centered in the most disadvantaged schools, so the poorest… So what the tenure laws do combined with these dismissal protections is make it almost impossible to fire a teacher who’s been found to be incompetent.
Except that high poverty schools have higher turnover, and a majority of teachers in these schools leave before the three to five years required to get tenure. Also, while less qualified teachers tend to be centered in high-poverty schools, it’s mainly due to first-year teachers working outside their certified fields and many untrained teachers coming from agencies like Teach for America after only six weeks of preparation.
Attrition is more likely due to low pay, lack of resources and an increase in bureaucracy.
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? How can you argue that the status quo is okay with stats like that?
Unfortunately, educators are not the most important factor in determining student success. Some reports say that teachers only impact up to 20 percent of student achievement at most, and other factors such as parents’ level of education and income, poverty, segregation and school resources have a larger impact.
As for the status quo, reformers like Brown are making it more difficult for actual reform and creativity by pushing for policies like increased high-stakes testing.
It takes on average 830 days to fire a teacher who’s been found to be incompetent.
That statistic was based on a research brief based on the results of a self-report survey to which only 59 percent of districts responded, and New York City was not even included. Since the data was collected, tenure laws have been reformed and in 2013, disciplinary cases took only 177 days on average statewide to reach a decision.
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,” wrote Hadley.
See the Colbert Report interview with Campbell Brown here – http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/2mpwlv/campbell-brown