CRF Blog

Brown vs. …

by Bill Hayes

In Brown vs. …, New York magazine looks at “how ex–news anchor Campbell Brown became the most controversial woman in school reform.”

Head-spinning data sets are the fluttering fans of both sides in the school-reform debate, concealing ideological motivation of the game’s players and the overwhelming complexity of measuring student performance, but plenty of experts disagree about how important teacher tenure really is. “Most people agree that Campbell Brown has identified an important problem: Poor kids are stuck with the worst teachers. But her approach of attacking tenure is barking up the wrong tree,” says Richard Kahlenberg, an author and senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, adding that polling shows tenure is so important to teachers you’d have to increase their salaries by half to make up for taking it away. (Weingarten, sworn enemy of Brown, points out that the states that have the best protections for teachers also have the best academic performance.) Low-income minority students have the weakest teachers because of economic segregation, Kahlenberg says, which suggests the solution is mixing and matching low- and -middle-income kids in individual schools (something, one imagines, that would cause an uproar in nice neighborhoods already endowed with good schools). “On the tactics, I have to give Campbell enormous credit,” Kahlenberg continues. “She’s taken what most educators believe is a peripheral issue and elevated it to the cover of Time magazine. So even if she loses her lawsuits, she’s changed the public conversation — in my view, in a negative way. But I think she’s highly effective.”

Brown becomes exercised at the suggestion that tenure is a peripheral issue. “I don’t think a single parent at P.S. 101 in Queens, a middle-class school where there was a physical and verbally abusive teacher, thinks this is a peripheral issue,” she says. She relishes the details that she knows are good for news, like the story of a teacher who suggested to a student she could be his “little sex slave” and could give him a “striptease” and still wasn’t fired (though he was suspended and retired shortly thereafter). There are, of course, outrageous cases. But at its core Brown’s crusade is less about disciplinary procedure (which she wants to take out of the hands of arbitrators whom the unions help choose) and more about those teachers whose students underperform on tests. As to what should be done about them, Brown insists she wants only incremental changes: Instead of being granted tenure in three years, as is the case in New York State now, she’d like it to happen after five years, and only if a teacher performs well, as well as an agreement that a teacher can lose tenure if he or she has two “ineffective” ratings (which does sound a bit like the meaningful end of tenure). [more]