Who does Campbell Brown think she is? / by Christopher Stewart

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  CB HeadshotCampbell Brown is white. She has money. She's married to a man. By any objective standard, she is pretty.

I know these truths about her because I read Twitter, and that medium is ablaze with traffic from a bazillion teacher unionists who are appalled that Ms. Brown would dare touch the third rail of teacher tenure.

"Who does she think she is?" they ask breathlessly.

"Where is her money coming from?" they insist.

To earn this level hostility Ms. Brown only needed to take up the cause of poor black and brown mothers who want the same level of quality in their children's classrooms as you'll find in neighborhoods with the most demanding, affluent families.

But, that's none of my business.

I'm struck by how little focus there is on the actual plaintiffs in the case filed by Brown's group, Partnership for Educational Justice. Indeed, the suit is about real people with a claim, and a grievance about their government. It seems we aren't paying enough attention to their voices, as if they are invisible and mute.

The truth is Brown isn't suing. The suit isn't about her. So why all the smoke and ad hominem directed at the messenger? Maybe the case itself is too dangerous to address, so a scapegoat will do?

The case filed in New York, like the one recently concluded in California, is not about a pretty white woman with money (or a handsome Silicon millionaire out west). It's about the claim that teacher tenure decisions, seniority, dismissals, and layoffs happen in a way that systemically leaves poor students in poor schools with the poorest performing teachers.

That's a problem, and I couldn't really care less who has the temerity to say it.

My goal in life is abundantly simple: more literate, numerate black people thriving in America's economic mainstream. That goal is going to take a number of factors, and we all have a part in making it happen, but we can't sidestep the obvious role of damn good teaching in public schools. For the record, damn good teaching requires damn good teachers.

The research is clear: teachers are the single biggest investment we make into student learning. And, we know there is variability in the quality of teachers from class to class, school to school. Teachers aren't all performing at the same high level, and they aren't generic interchangeable units. Some are great, some are not, get over it.

The thing that is most troubling is that the teachers least capable of producing a desired effect, or those teaching out of their field, or those teaching beyond their grasp of the content, or those who are lowly rated by peers or overseers, end up before the beautiful black and brown faces of America's future, the children who need great teachers the most. Many of my teacher friends closed down the thought that "least capable" teachers might even exist. They are under a spectacularly bad illusion that business unionism has been selling for years; that there is no such thing as a "bad" teacher.

They are all equally great.

It's interesting that in a country where commentators talk themselves silly about how uninvolved black mothers are; how absent black fathers are; how little people of color value education; how our students suffer from so many ailments as to render public systems incapable of succeeding; why is it we are not hearing more about these parents - the plaintiffs - and their motivations, their hopes, their experiences, and their dreams for their children.

One parent/plaintiff, Keoni Wright, says he's motivated by seeing the impact, for better or worse, of different teachers on his twin daughters. And, the realization that teachers are not evaluated for their impact, but for their time on the job, doesn't make sense to him.

One has a teacher who always seems to go the extra mile. She works hard to understand my daughter as a person and pushes her to learn and grow. My other daughter has a teacher who appears to do the bare minimum...Yet under the system we have for evaluating teachers, the two get treated the same. They’re paid the same, based only on the number of years they’ve worked and the number of advanced degrees they have. The quality of the work they do every day is irrelevant.

Like many parents, I've shared Mr. Wright's impression. I've seen first year and veteran teachers knock it out of the park with kids. Conversely, I've also seen first year and veteran teachers suck. The years when your child has a poor performing teacher are agonizing. It sets off a lot of worry, and tough decisions that often lead to personal sacrifice (e.g. switching schools). At those times you wish to be heard, but often feel no one will listen. As a parent of color you learn the system's ear is geared toward hearing those in gilded or gated communities, not necessarily those in Brownsville.

If Brown's celebrity makes her a spokesperson of sorts, fine. But why aren't we hearing more about the specifics of her arguments rather than her looks, her money, her marriage, or the various other gutter polemics intended to distract us from the issue?

In a nutshell, here is what she is arguing...

The New York lawsuit seeks to overturn several local rules, such as a requirement that teacher layoffs be carried out in order of seniority, and a mandate that schools have to decide whether or not to grant teachers tenure within their first three years on the job. It's also aimed at simplifying the process of firing a teacher, which can take up to 18 months and cost taxpayers $250,000, according to the group

Let's take these in order.

Seniority, the idea that a job is "property" rather than something you do (hopefully well). With this relic of factory education policy in hand, district leaders rank teachers by their date of hire rather than their competence, execution of duties, results with students, or the proverbial content of their character. Given the enormity of talent required to successfully land lesson plans with a room full - admittedly, sometimes, too full - of energetic young minds, I can't think of a more arbitrary way to value teachers than to simply reduce them to their date of hire.

We say students are more than a test score, so shouldn't teachers be more than a hire date?

Then, there is tenure. This is the idea that within a few years your employer should know unequivocally whether or not you deserve to be hired for life. Teachers like to call this job protection, and they say the benefit is that it frees them to advocate for children without fear of being fired for their advocacy.

Yes, I believe educators exist who will get the mama grizzly instinct when district brass or petty principles threaten the education of our kids. God bless those who do. At the same time, people of color have to be realistic and pragmatic. This isn't Disney and tenure isn't protecting good teachers as much as those who are fighting for their rights to suspend our kids, label them, and push them onto the school to prison on-ramp more out of convenience than necessity.

That's real talk.

Finally, the process of letting a teacher go when it is obvious that is best for kids needs to be more efficient. We can't defend a system where principals must become documentarians for 2 years, robbing their schools of leadership; and where districts need to spend a quarter million dollars to fire a bad teacher. Further, we definitely cannot tolerate a system that squeezes the worst performing teachers out of the tony schools in precious neighborhoods and then allows them to congregate where children already have too many disadvantages in life.

As people of color we have organized our communities for better schools, and it fell on deaf ears. We've voted with our feet and sat on waiting lists to alternative schools, and you didn't hear us. We took over a city with a demand for more school options, including private schools, and you failed to see us.

About the only thing that has ever worked for us has been suing. So, here we are again, and still, you're not focusing on our issue, our cause, our experience, or the merits of our claim.

Thank God for telegenic white women who have married well and decide to take up noble causes; if it were for that you might be too blind, deaf, and dumb to see, hear, or know us at all.

I don't know who Campbell Brown thinks she is. I just know there is nothing like a telegenic ally to bring the lights and cameras to people whose concerns have languished in the cold shadows of mainstream indifference for too long.

Finally some screen time.

To read the actual suit and make your own determination, click here.