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.
WHAT BROWN SAID:
“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.”
WHAT RESEARCH SHOWS:
What does Ms. Brown mean by “effective”? Presently, many states around the country determine teacher effectiveness using complex and controversial measures called “value-added models,” or VAMs. This means that, in addition to principal observations, teachers are evaluated based on students’ growth on test scores over time. Many states agreed to use VAMs to secure federal Race to the Top funds, yet research continually questions the use of VAMs. Organizations like the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association cite years of research demonstrating that VAMs are inaccurate and unstable in determining the effects of individual teachers on student achievement. Even the Department of Education found a high rate of error with VAMs! Just to be clear: teachers, union leaders, and teacher educators are not against evaluating teachers. We simply differ—often very strongly—with Ms. Brown and others on the way that teachers should be evaluated.
Now, if she meant to say “underqualified” or “least prepared” teachers are centered in high-poverty schools, then she would be partially correct, but not for the reasons she identifies. True, there are more first-year teachers, more teachers working outside of their certified fields in high-poverty schools, and more teachers from agencies like Teach For America, who place their “corps” members in schools after only six weeks of preparation. But teacher tenure laws are not to blame. In fact, teachers in these schools have higher turnover, and a majority leave before the three to five years required to get job security in many states. More…